The Fickle Business of Fashion: According to Tyra, Iman, Kimora and Alek

Article excerpt

It was 32 years ago when, two days after setting foot on American soil, Iman first tasted how salty a dish the fashion industry could serve Black women. At her premier shoot for style bible Vogue, the native Somali beauty was literally fresh-faced, with skin a virgin to makeup and feet virgin to stilettos. In an exchange that to this day she recounts as perplexing, a White photographer asked if she'd brought her own foundation. On the set for arguably the world's most prestigious fashion glossy, there wasn't a shade of makeup to complement her Sepia hue.

"I saw the results as disastrous, photos appeared with my skin looking gray," she says. "I learned fight then and there that photography and my image is my currency. The seed to create my own makeup line was planted right at that shoot."

It took 19 years for that seed to bear fruit as Iman Cosmetics, Skincare and Fragrances, a company known for formulating products specifically for women of color. In that time, Iman evolved from the London-educated daughter of a Somali ambassador to one of the most powerful executives in her industry with interests in cosmetics, books and television. Though her company is privately held and thus doesn't release sales figures, Iman Cosmetics is a global operation, selling in the United States, Great Britain, France, Norway, Ireland, Africa and the Caribbean. Iman, wife of rock star David Bowie and mother of two, helms the firm while shooting episodes of Project Runway Canada, which she hosts.

Her ascent coincided with a cultural shift that turned the fashion industry into the canvas upon which women like Tyra Banks, Kimora Lee Simmons and Alek Wek have painted themselves as sirens, entrepreneurs, authors and philanthropists.

Now there's another shift afoot.


Modeling--that lofty perch from which the before-mentioned women and predecessors such as Beverly Johnson and B. Smith leaped to moguldom--is being redefined by a culture in which average Janes feel entitled to access what used to be considered excess. In exclusive interviews with EBONY, Iman, Banks, Wek and Simmons broke down the new rules for the game they have mastered. Gone, they say, are the days when modeling for the world's top designers was enough to guarantee stardom and career longevity. Today's fashion landscape is dotted with reality TV competitions and cheap-chic lines by famous designers, which have turned everyday people into informal style gurus. Simultaneously, the pop culture spotlight has been aimed away from models--particularly women of color--and is beaming on entertainers, who are designing their own fines and gracing the covers of magazines.

"Times have changed. The masses necessarily do not just take information from just only those elite fashion places. Everybody has become an expert in fashion, and they have an opinion on it," says Iman, 52.

The reality show she's hosting illustrates one of the biggest changes in the industry--the ability to gain visibility by competing on what amounts to a televised talent competition. The show invites unknown designers to battle for a coveted prize: $100,000 to start their own labels and be featured in a magazine. But the real prize is the exposure of being on the show, before an audience of millions, win or lose.

Only a decade ago, the most recognized designers jockeyed for coverage in magazines and on television. Now, the designers' former muses dictate who and what is fashionable on the small screen. Arguably no model has had a bigger impact on that trend than Tyra Banks, whose America's Next Top Model is entering its eighth cycle in prime time on the CW network. The show's premise is the syllabus for Reality TV 101 : beautiful girl-next-door types with out-sized dreams thrown into living quarters too small to accommodate their egos. Along the way, catfights, lovers' quarrels and other drama ensue. …