Naomi Sims’ legacy as one of the first Black supermodels continues to resonate more than a decade after her death.
A trailblazer in both fashion and beauty, Sims realized a multimillion-dollar beauty business that spanned wigs, cosmetics and fragrance. She is remembered as an elegant and gracious woman who championed fellow Black models of her time.
More from WWD
André Leon Talley, who spoke at Sims’ funeral, called her “the pioneer, superstar Black model.”
“She was, most importantly, an elegant woman,” he said in a recent phone call with WWD. “She always exuded contemporary, modern, minimalist elegance in her entire career.”
Talley admired Sims’ modeling so much, he would pin her magazine pictures to his walls throughout high school and college.
“She was my pin-up girl as opposed to Playboy centerfolds,” he said.
Sims became the first Black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1968, one year after she was featured wearing Bill Blass in an AT&T commercial. Her presence on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal, and that of Life Magazine in 1969, was an integral component of the Black Is Beautiful movement and opened the door for models such as Beverly Johnson.
Recalling the first time she met Sims, Johnson said she was backstage at her first Halston runway show when Sims, dressed in all white, walked into the room and approached her.
“She looks over at me, in the corner, and she comes over to me,” Johnson said. “I’m sitting down, she bends over and says, ‘Beverly, I know who you are. I just think it’s amazing what you’re doing. I see all of your pictures. I want you to know how much respect I have for you and how I’m rooting for you. Don’t let people pit us against each other.’
“That did something to me,” Johnson continued. “That really changed my whole outlook on everything — modeling, Black models, who I was, what I was doing. And I made a promise to myself that day. I said, ‘For all the models that are coming up behind me, I’m going to be as gracious to them as she was to me.’”
Bethann Hardison called Sims “a great example” of the early ’70s Black Is Beautiful movement, which by then had caught the interest of some advertising agencies who were keen on reflecting the movement in their work.
“I really liked Naomi a great deal,” Hardison told WWD. “She was a little ahead of me, especially in her experiences and what she was actually doing. I worked in the garment business and sure, I was working with designers, but our worlds were different then. It was much more interesting times back then.
“[Sims] started learning how to [do] her makeup and make the right foundation coloring,” Hardison continued. “She was someone who brought a lot of style to Halston, to other people. And she was an entrepreneur.”
Fashion historian Darnell Jamal said Sims’ modeling career opened the door for “models of color in general [and] Black women of the entire color scale.”
“Naomi Sims was a dark-skinned woman,” Jamal said. “To have her seen so fervently in the fashion industry on magazine covers and campaigns and associated with American luxury designers such as Halston, her presence itself was revolutionary. Even today, we’re still trying to figure out this colorism lane that we continue to fall under.
“[Sims] truly personified the Black Is Beautiful movement being that she was of a darker complexion,” Jamal continued. “There was always colorism in the United States as far back as, obviously, racism. And even further back, this idea that fair-skinned Black women typically had this conventional pass. Not to say that one struggle is greater than the other, but the darker woman was always in the neglect pile — and that stems from slavery.”
In 1973, after retiring from modeling, Sims launched an eponymous line of high-quality wigs for which she developed a fiber, called Kanekalon Presselle, which simulated straightened hair via a patented process. Produced by Metropa Wigs, The Naomi Sims Collection was carried in some 700 stores, including Macy’s, Gimbels and Alexander’s in New York, with prices ranging from $7 to $30.
Within five years, the collection had reached $5 million in annual sales, according to The New York Times. Sims would go on to author a number of books on modeling, beauty and health. She would also launch a cosmetics line and a collection of prestige fragrance products, financially backed by Wagman & Co. As part of the marketing for her fragrance launch, Sims tucked samples of the products into wigs from her collection before shipping them off to customers.
Johnson modeled for Sims’ wig line in the ’70s. “She would hire me to photograph her wigs,” Johnson said. “She invited me to her home, this amazing apartment on the Upper East Side. It was so chic and they were passing potatoes and caviar round. She just included me.”
Sims’ entrepreneurial instincts incited a similar spirit in Johnson, who eventually inked a licensing deal for a wig and hair extensions line.
“One of the struggles for Black entrepreneurs is access to capital,” Johnson said. “I can imagine what it must have been like for her, a Black woman, to start her own business. It’s like any other career. You need money just to survive until you start to make a profit.”
Sims was “ahead of her time” in launching her wig collection, Johnson said.
“Maybe there were wigs for Black women, but they weren’t the quality and the styles that [Sims] had,” she said.
Jamal noted Sims’ savvy in capitalizing on her own influence, something that now occurs frequently in the beauty industry, as celebrities and other people of influence cash in on their followings via cosmetics, skin care and wellness lines.
“[Sims] used her platform to jumpstart a career. Obviously, we see that happening so easily and excessively by those who start careers outside of the fashion industry and then enter the fashion realm,” Jamal said. “You couldn’t have a Rihanna without a Naomi Sims. And even before [Sims] you had Madam C.J. Walker. Naomi Sims is situated in a lineage of Black excellence [and entrepreneurs who used] the platforms they had in order to create a very profitable space.”
Deeply private, Sims remained largely out of the public eye once she retired from modeling. She was honored at Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball in 2005. Four years later, she died of cancer in Newark, N.J.
Sims’ funeral was held at The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the singer Aaliyah and Oscar de la Renta have all been funeralized. Talley said though he was not formally invited to the funeral, he showed up anyway and was asked by Sims’ ex-husband, Michael Findlay, to read from the Bible.
“I got to the funeral an hour early,” Talley said. “The funeral had not begun, [Sims’] coffin was in the back and her [ex-]husband, Mr. Findlay, saw me come in and he said, ‘Would you be willing to read a book of the Scriptures?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’d be very honored to do that.’ That was not on the program, no one knew I was coming. I got up and I read through a book from the Bible. I participated in a celebratory going-home service, a victory service.”
Johnson also attended Sims’ funeral and described it as a small event, as Sims was “a very private person.”
“I don’t know how many people showed up, but maybe about 20,” she said. “That affected me also in a way that it made me very sad that this woman operated on the top level and in the end, people forget. It’s just human nature. If you’re not around, people forget you and they move on to the next thing. She deserves to be remembered.”