Naomi Sims, Pioneer Model, Dies

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[Pioneering Fashion Model]

The fashion world has lost a great icon and entrepreneur. Naomi Sims, often considered the first Black supermodel, passed away on August 1st after a battle with breast cancer, in Newark , New Jersey. She was 61.

Born in Oxford , Mississippi to John and Elizabeth Sims and raised as a Catholic, Sims was taunted by her peers due to her height, in her youth. After her move to a poor neighborhood in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and living in various foster homes, Sims was inspired to succeed.

Graduating from Westinghouse High School , Sims came to New York City on a scholarship to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. It was 1966 and the fashion industry was still closed to Black models. Despite setbacks, which involved Sims being criticized for her dark skin complexion and being turned down by numerous modeling agencies, her drive to succeed and stunning looks pushed her forward.

She managed to get photographer Gosta Peterson to photograph her for the August 1967 New York Times fashion supplement. That turned out to be the break that put Naomi Sims on the forefront of the modeling industry and the very next year she graced the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal—the first Black woman to do so.

Sims was eventually earning about $1,000 a week. She became involved with a prominent AT&T campaign that included a White and Asian model. Throughout her modeling career, Sims was featured in Life Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and modeled for designers such as Halston, Giorgio di Sant'Angelo, Fernando Sánchez and Teal Traina.

This visionary paved the way for Black top models such as Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek.

“Naomi Sims was an icon,” says Nikki Taylor, Beauty and Cover Director, Essence Magazine. “A legendary beauty who broke barriers and informed us within and without of all that is rich and outstanding about us. Nothing like her ever was, nor shall be, ever again. Her star will truly be missed.”

“She was a pioneer for Black women and models. She was outspoken and opinionated,” adds Morlena Robinson, an international fashion and runway model for 15 years. “We have definitely come a long way but I still feel that there is a lot to be accomplished,” she adds. “In the Fall shows, you will see mainly White models.”

"Naomi Simms was truly a remarkable figure in the fashion industry for all Models,” says Uduak Oduok, a model and Editor-in-Chief for Ladybrille Magazine, a magazine bringing African fashion and entertainment to the West.

“She was the pioneer of what we at Ladybrille Magazine refer to as ‘Model-preneur’-successful, brilliant models who model but also sowed the seed for business enterprises that would sustain them long after they stopped modeling.”

Oduok, like others in the industry, recalls the role Sims played in moving the fashion industry forward.

"Naomi Simms opened the door for Black models and models of color. In the 60s when the very blunt fashion industry said her ‘skin was too dark’ to be a model, she persevered. She thought outside the box and her elegance, beauty and determined spirit ultimately helped her break racial barriers in the fashion industry. She was the first Black model to feature on the cover of the prestigious Life Magazine. By not giving up, she made America say, ‘Black is Beautiful.’ Her legacy is now seen with the likes of Beverly Johnson, Iman, Tyra Banks, Liya Kebede, Alek Wek who, because of Naomi had a template for their journey towards model-prenuer businesses."

Despite her success, Naomi Sims made it is clear that she did receive unacceptable treatment from executives based on the assumption that she wasn’t intelligent. Sims was also upset when she was offered the role of “Cleopatra Jones” in 1972 when she read the movie’s script and found its portrayal of Black people “racist.” She turned down the role, which was then given to model Tamara Dobson.

Eventually Sims felt it was necessary to break out of the modeling business and pursue her own endeavors.

After giving up modeling, Naomi Sims decided to launch her very own line of wigs, specifically made to suit Black women, in 1973. Having experienced a lack of hair products and make-up contrived for Black women while modeling, this was a business in which Sims had knowledge and expertise.

She used her very own oven to bake synthetic hair to create the perfect formula that would match a Black woman’s hair. These products that were born in her kitchen turned into a multimillion dollar business.

Alongside her wigs, Sims wrote books aimed for the advancement of Black women. These books included titles such as “All About Success for the Black Woman” and “All about Health and Beauty for the Black Woman.”

She enjoyed tremendous success into the 1980s. Soon, the Naomi Sims collection featured beauty salons, cosmetics and even a fragrance. Sims did an advice column for young girls in Right On! Magazine.

While the nation has travelled some ways since the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the fashion industry –as with other professions— still leaves much to desire when it comes to equitable opportunities for African Americans, as Morlena Robinson observed.

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