The fashion industry’s history has been anything but easy for black models looking to make a name for themselves in one of the world’s most coveted career fields. Not long ago, in 2013 to be exact, Prada hired their first black model for a campaign in nineteen years; Kinee Diouf became the first black model on the cover of Vogue Netherlands, months after the magazine had painted a white model in “blackface”; and then Raf Simons cast black runway models – six of them – in his Dior couture show for the first time since he arrived at the house. All these developments made headlines and yet this shouldn’t have been so because it had been nearly 50 years since Donyale Luna became the first black supermodel.
Although there were already black models, such as Dorothy Towles, the first model to walk in Paris for Christian Dior, Donyale Luna was the first to have obtained the status of “Supermodel” and the nickname “Nefertiti’s reincarnation” as she became the first black model on the cover of a fashion magazine, Vogue Briton (1966). Years later, not many people within the circles of fashion and beyond know the name Donyale Luna. It seems her work and achievement have long been buried and forgotten. And yet, before Naomi Sims, Beverly Johnson, Grace Jones, Iman or Naomi Campbell became household names and represented most international brands, before the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna were cover girls, there was Donyale, the first woman who marked the history of black models in the fashion industry.
Born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit on 31 August 1945, she was discovered in her native city by photographer David McCabe, known for photographing figures like Twiggy and Andy Warhol. He Stated in an interview with New York Magazine the day he met her: “This beautiful girl of almost 6 feet tall, aged about 14 years at that time, dressed in her Catholic uniform caught my attention.” After meeting with McCabe, she moved to New York to launch her career. There Luna coiled with characters like the already noted Andy Warhol, Sammy David Jr, or miles Davis. She also met the then editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Nancy White, and starred in the first cover illustrated by a black model in 1965, signing an exclusive contract with the notable photographer, Richard Avedon.
However, Luna was not welcomed with a warm embrace by all. Many sales outlets and customers withdrew their subscriptions when they saw the first cover of the model. Avedon attributed it to “racial prejudice and the economics of the fashion business,” but never photographed it again since. She, later on, moved to Europe, specifically to London, where she achieved great success and was photographed by David Bailey, William Klein, Helmut Newton and William Claxton. Despite all her success, Luna’s revolutionary contribution to fashion history is largely forgotten. Keli Goff of The Cut writes that Luna’s name is still a rarity on many “black firsts” lists. And Beverly Johnson is routinely referred to as “the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue,” for her turn on the American edition eight years after Luna’s British cover. Part of this has to do with the fact that Luna died young at 33, from a drug overdose while living in Italy. “She didn’t have the time on Earth to have a legacy,” model Bethann Hardison says, while designer Stephen Burrows agrees that, “she wasn’t around too long.” Perhaps even more crucially, he says, “She was ahead of the black model thing. There weren’t too many around.”
In 1975 Luna married Luigi Cazzaniga, an Italian photographer and died very young, on May 17, 1979, thirteen years after her Vogue cover, leaving behind a baby daughter. She left a mark on the industry and black models who followed her path including Naomi Campbell who when receiving the CFDA Fashion Icon Award in 2019, being the first black model recipient, expressed her gratitude to all her predecessors, including Donyale Luna.