Black Beauty Pioneers

The Women Who Broke Beauty Barriers

Black History Month is well upon us and here at Beautycon, we love to celebrate the brave ones who challenge the status quo and embrace their individuality in the face of mass conformity.  What better time to acknowledge a special class of such individuals who have struggled and fought and forged a path for so many along the way. For decades the beauty industry directly mirrored the social and political challenges faced by the African American population: exclusion, under representation and ignorance.  These issues may not be completely eradicated today, however thanks to the following list of pioneers, gigantic strides have been made to create space in the industry for women of color around the world.

Iman – Model/Makeup Mogul

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“It was more than foundations and powders; it was appealing to a deep psychological need that I think all black women needed at that time: to be told that they were beautiful, invited to sit at the cool table and courted in high style”

Before she was a makeup mogul, Iman was a supermodel with a major beef: for the life of her she couldn’t find makeup to match her dark complexion. She was often forced to buy multiple products, and mix them together, only to come up with a sub par solution. After years of bringing her own cosmetic concoction to photo shoots (makeup artists never had the right color), she decided to take matters into her own hands. Fast forward 20+ years and Iman Cosmetics has become the go-to brand for all women of color around the globe.

Beverly Johnson – Model/Actress

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“For generations in this country, beauty was traditionally represented by three very distinct ideals in virtually all media: blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin. My (Vogue) cover shattered that notion forever….Women of color could boldly say to the world, ‘Hey, look at me! I’m here and I have value and I am beautiful.’”

Decades before Kanye and Kim broke the internet with their Vogue cover, Beverly Johnson was out there shattering fashion’s glass ceiling and making history. She was the first African American model to be featured on the cover of Vogue (1974), paving the way for the likes of Iman and Naomi Campbell.

 

Naomi Campbell – Supermodel

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“There is still an issue of ignorance in our fashion world… I don’t even like to use the word racism — [they’re] ignorant. They just don’t want to budge. They just don’t want to change their idea or be more open-minded, to just [book] a beautiful girl regardless of creed or color.”

Beverly Johnson may have been the first black model on the cover of Vogue, but Naomi Campbell reigns as the queen. She has more Vogue covers worldwide than anyone else- 66- and is arguably one of the most famous supermodels of all time. Naomi’s made history more times than we can count appearing on the cover of almost every major fashion magazine ever and walking on the runways of the biggest designers in the world.  Considering all of her success, it would be easy for her to sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labor- but Naomi doesn’t see it that way. She’s been a vocal advocate of diversity in the fashion industry and as far as she’s concerned, she won’t stop until racial diversity is no longer an issue in fashion.

 

Pat McGrath – Makeup Artist/Entrepreneur

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Pat McGrath, the woman Vogue has called ‘the most influential make-up artist in the world’, credits her mother for her enormous success in  the beauty industry. Pat’s mother was obsessed with fashion and makeup.  Pat would spend days with her searching high and low for products that would allow them to replicate the looks they saw in fashion magazines: “she’d take us every Friday to buy make-up, looking for colours that would work on black skin. In those days you’d be lucky if you could find one eyeshadow with heavy pigment.”  These days, not only is Pat the worlds most sought after makeup artist, but she’s also produced a line of cosmetics with a focus on intense pigments and metallics.  She’s a firm believer that everyone has the right to enjoy fashion and she’s doing her part to make that belief a reality.

 

Alek Wek – Model

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“When I first started, some people in fashion thought I would never get jobs, let alone go a long way. I always no matter what field you work in, you must be comfortable in your own shoes. Let YOU be the only thing that defines you.”

In a world where beauty has traditionally been defined in such narrow terms, Alek Wek stands out tall and proud.  With a deep dark complexion and natural cropped hair, she’s redefining the industry’s perception of beauty and we LOVE it.  Although the industry had already begun to embrace “diversity”, it still mirrored a very Western-defined image of beauty: long flowing hair, light(er) skin and more delicate facial features. Alek is proving to the world that the only defining quality that matters is confidence and a strong sense of self; individuality is the most striking feature.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

Madame C.J. Walker – Cosmetic Pioneer

“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”

Madam Walker became the first self made African American female millionaire after creating her own line of hair products. Her line was the first of it’s kind, made especially for women of color to address their specific hair needs.  She was a savvy marketer and sold the the idea that black women deserved to pamper themselves.  With her wealth, she paved the way for profound social change and used her power and influence to protest racial injustices.  She was also and early advocate of women’s economic independence, providing jobs for thousands of black women who were otherwise deemed “unworthy” of such work. We owe a great deal to this woman for creating a space in the world for women to feel empowered and worthy.

—Shanly Brennan


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