‘Supreme Models’ Is An Ode To The Unsung Sheroes Of Fashion

by Emmanuelle Maréchal - Published on 05/10/2020
Jeneil Williams, photographed by Txema Yeste, Numéro France, February 2014 Photograph by Txema Yeste / Trunk Archive - Courtesy | All the images - Courtesy Marcellas Reynolds

Marcellas Reynolds has been working in fashion since forever. Starting as a shop assistant, he walked the runways of London, Paris and Milan in the mid-nineties. Of his modeling years, Reynolds recalls heartbreaking moments, like being told by modeling agents that they ‘had enough Black guys’, while representing many white male models. Or being in markets like Milan and even Miami, yet barely working. “I loved the money, the people, the work, and the camaraderie male models share. And working with some of the world’s most handsome men like Tyson Beckford, Colin Egglesfield, Boris Kodjoe, and Jason Shaw didn’t hurt either!” This passion for fashion not only nurtured a prolific career as an entertainment reporter, TV host, and wardrobe stylist but also as a writer. It is in this last role that he wrote the 2019 Book Supreme Models: Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion.

Lois Samuels, photographed by James Hicks, unpublished, 1998 – © James Hicks

After purchasing Vogue Model: The Faces Of Fashion in 2011a book dedicated to models who appeared on British VogueReynolds said the ‘lack of recognition of the triumphs of Black models inspired [him] to write Supreme Models.’ Indeed, out of hundreds of women featured in Vogue Model, only Iman and Naomi Campbell are Black. But publishing a book isn’t easy, aside from perfecting his idea, interviewing models and writing, finding a publisher was difficult.  Reynolds never wanted Supreme Models to be a ‘black book’, but that is what some publishers saw it as. Several of them told him ‘there was no market for a book about Black women.’ It wasn’t until 2019 that he finally found the right publisher. Eight years is what it took to get Supreme Modelsa photographic anthology of Black models, then and now–to get published.

The book is a trip down memory lane, inviting readers to discover figures such as Ophelia DeVore, Dorothea Towles and Helen Williams. Their names may not be instantly recognizable, but these women paved the way for the generations of Black models by posing for Ebony and Jet Magazine in the 40s and 50s. Throughout the 40 interviews and essays contained in this book—which is much more than your average coffee table book—readers not only learn about the inner workings of the modeling world historically but also about the struggles and victories of the models. “I wanted this book to celebrate the entire spectrum of Blackness. That’s why I included African, Afro-Latina, Caribbean, French, Jamaican, Swedish models… every nationality possible in the story of the Black model’s journey in fashion,” Reynolds says.

Aya Jones, photographed by Nico Bustos, Vogue España, March 2016 Nico Bustos / Artlist / Courtesy of Vogue España
Nykhor Paul, photographed by Kope Figgins, Elle South Africa, May 2015 Kope Figgins / Hearst Archive

The 78 Black models featured embody the idea that Blackness isn’t homogeneous. For instance, while Pat Cleveland wasn’t getting jobs because she was neither dark nor light enough, Imaan Hammam, one of the few models of African-Arabic descent had a different trajectory. These images and stories are essential because as Reynolds states, ‘”fashion is the precursor to social change—covers, editorials, and the runway document that change, which then spreads to popular culture. Every time a new model of color finds success, she changes the perceptions of beauty and expands the boundaries of how we define it.”

“There are several top Black models whose contributions to fashion deserve acknowledgment. Helen Williams, Donyale Luna, and Naomi Sims are trailblazers who broke barriers and opened doors for every model of color who came after them. Books like Supreme Models are necessary because the successes of Black models and models of color are not documented in the same ways as their white counterparts, and that is across the board in every industry,” argues Reynolds. For this reason, Supreme Models is an intriguing book: you won’t find an interview with Naomi Campbell. Instead, the author chose a more subtle approach, explaining that he “purposely didn’t interview several well-known models because everyone knows how Iman, Naomi, and Tyra were discovered. But what about top models like Karen Alexander, Kerstie Bowser, and ‘The Godmother’ Bethann Hardison? Those are the stories I wanted to explore.”

Naomi Sims, photographed by Yale Joel, Life, October 1969 – Yale Joel / The LIFE Premium Collection / Getty Images
Grace Bol, photographed by Kuba Ryniewicz, Vogue Poland, April 2018 Kuba Ryniewicz for Vogue Polska

The book still talks about Naomi through an essay by model Christy Turlington, whom Reynolds met in the summer of 2000 while modeling in New York. “I thought [Christy’s] perspective on Naomi was interesting for two reasons. First, Christy is Latinx, her mother is Salvadoran, and she writes about the importance of representation to Latinos and makes the correlation to Black people needing to see models of color. Christy has been friends with Naomi since they were teens and has a unique first-hand knowledge of her. Christy’s essay is powerful, and one of my favorites in Supreme Models.”

“Take a look at advertising, covers, editorials, and runways in 2020. You see the history and the manifestation of the dreams of all the models who came before. Leomie Anderson, Adut Akech, and Anok Yai, with their dark skin and natural hair, are a homage to Naomi Sims and Helen Williams from the fifties and sixties. Current stars like Dilone, Adwoa Aboah, and Imaan Hammam are the legacy of Iman, Pat Cleveland, and Beverly Johnson from the seventies and eighties, and even Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, and Veronica Webb from the nineties to the early 2000s,” continues Reynolds.

Tyra Banks, photographed by Russell James, Sports Illustrated, Winter 1997 Russell James / Sports Illustrated / Contour by Getty Images
Beverly Johnson, photographed by Francesco Scavullo, Vogue US, August 1974 Photograph by Francesco Scavullo © The Francesco Scavullo Foundation and © The Francesco Scavullo Trust
Veronica Webb, photographed by Albert Watson, Vogue Italia, May 1989 Albert Watson / Courtesy of Vogue Italia

These portraits of Black women make Supreme Models: Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion a testimony of the evolution of the fashion industry from the 1950s to 2020. A change that the author sees as positive: “Black models are becoming the norm on magazine covers. They are eschewing weaves and wearing their natural hair, rocking afros and braids, in ads and on the runway. Plus models like Paloma Elsesser, Precious Lee, and Marquita Pring now appear in major fashion magazines and on the runway. Fashion is changing. The door is open and isn’t closing.”

Discover ‘Supreme Models: Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion’ here. Marcellas Reynolds is currently working on his next book entitled ‘Supreme Actresses’.

Follow Marcellas on Instagram. Follow Supreme Models on Instagram

You might be interested: ‘The New Black Vanguard’ | Antwaun Sargent on the visual vocabulary redefining the fashion industry—and society

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Emmanuelle Maréchal
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I think in French, work in English and feel in Italian. I am fond of k-dramas but most importantly writing is my passion. In my spare time, you'll find me reading about fashion, going to photography exhibitions and practising yoga.