There are few things as short-lived as the career of a fashion model. These exquisite creatures are elevated to fashion fame before they are old enough to vote and declared obsolete by the time they can take their first legal drink of alcohol. For models of color, their time in the spotlight—when their name is on every designer's lips and their face in all the glossies—is cut even shorter.
These days, only the most die-hard followers of fashion could probably put faces to names such Noemie, Beverly, Kiara, Alek and Oluchi. But they, and a handful of other black models, all had their time on fashion's biggest catwalks. Most of them had their greatest success in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
I had just started covering the fashion industry, and at the time, I thought they'd be around forever. They seemed poised to become the next generation of iconic black models. Surely, they would follow in the footsteps of women like Naomi Simms, Beverly Johnson and Iman—women who broke through color barriers and went on to become modern symbols of beauty and successful entrepreneurs. Or so it seemed.
Mostly, they just quietly faded away. Some found other passions to occupy their time. Oluchi, for instance, found love with designer Luca Orlandi and would occasionally walk in his Luca Luca runway show. But others simply fell out of favor. In the fashion industry, race and ethnicity are treated like fads. When Seventh Avenue gets bored, it means your "look" is over. Honestly, if you blinked, you would have missed the black-girl moment.
I'm thinking about that hiccup in recent fashion history, when black models were the rage, because of the sad news about Beverly and Noemie. That would be the models Beverly Peele and Noemie Lenoir. Peele was in a car accident recently and is reportedly in serious condition in a Los Angeles hospital. Lenoir, who is French, was found in a Paris forest following a failed suicide attempt. I wish them both well.
I'm reminded of how often I'd see Peele on the runway and that she'd been in the George Michael Too Funky video, the one with all the Thierry Mugler gear. But I was thinking that of all that Peele accomplished on the runway, she may be most remembered for her run-in with the law over identity theft. She was the one misusing credit cards, not the other way around.
Actresses who retire or decide to pursue other dreams leave behind a body of work that is identifiably their own. If they have a starring role in a film, they are credited for their work. Their name is up in lights. And even if time erases their name from most people's memory, the film credits are there to make sure that history doesn't forget.
With models, though, their names don't accompany even their most high-profile work. They could be the face of Gucci or Estee Lauder. They could be a Victoria's Secret angel. It's the brand that goes into the pop culture memory bank, not the model who helped bring the image to life.
Back in the days when models were still breaking barriers, back when a "first" was something that folks would rally around, we made a point of asking: Who is that? We've gotten to a point where we've moved on from "firsts." It doesn't seem to matter that you can still count on one hand the number of black models—not actresses—who have been signed to major cosmetics contracts or who have been on the cover of American Vogue. We don't see the success of black models as a measure of cultural progress.
Some of that is because fashion has become more complicated, more nuanced. The media world has become more fragmented and so even a magazine like American Vogue—fashion's Bible—has less influence on how we define beauty.
Still, every time one of these black models fades from memory, it means there's one less beautiful black face being photographed and celebrated simply because it is stunning. Some might call that shallow. But until black women are referred to as classic beauties or all-American beauties with ease and regularity, I call it necessary.
Robin Givhan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, is fashion editor of the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter.