Iman Talks Black Excellence in Fashion — and What the Industry Still Needs to Do Better



Iman wants to celebrate the "joy" of the Black model and all the creatives in the fashion industry.

The new docuseries, Supreme Models — based on the book by journalist Marcellas Reynolds of the same name — does exactly that while showing the full evolution of Black beauty in the industry and how trailblazers like Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and Iman herself impacted change along the way.

"We didn't want it to be a way to just name the grievances and what has been the dark side of our industry," Iman tells PEOPLE of the documentary, which she also co-executive produced.

When she was asked to take part in the creation of the docuseries, produced by YouTube Originals and the Black Voices Fund, Iman, 67, who has been instrumental in equity for Black people in the fashion industry, said she would only do it if the documentary was bringing something new to the table.

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"I was under the impression that surely there had been something on Black models before," she tells PEOPLE, adding that to her knowledge, there's never really been a documentary on Black models that tells the whole story. "It's timely, and I wanted us to tell our story. So, as much as it is historical and as much as it is based on the culture from the civil rights era, that is beautiful. We are that tribe who are still carrying that torch from one generation to the other."

The documentary chronicles the fashion industry with a lens on Black fashion over the past several decades, but it's not just Black models, as Iman points out. The six-part series is "based on Black beauty and the impact on our culture," she says, because the story hasn't been told and properly celebrated until now.

When Iman, who was born in Somalia, was discovered in the 1970s and moved to the United States to pursue modeling, she didn't expect to find that she would be paid less than her white counterparts, simply because of the color of her skin.

Iman tells PEOPLE that at the time, when she was "barely 19," she told Wilhelmina, her modeling agency, that the pay disparity wasn't going to work for her, flat out saying that it was "completely racist."

"I said, 'Just let me highlight it to you and say it to you in a way that you can understand: I want to be paid for services rendered. So if I'm doing the same job as a Caucasian model, I want to be paid exactly what she's being paid,'" she says. Iman, who went on to walk every top runway in the world, shares that at that time, it was "unheard of" to challenge casting agents and designers.

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"I said to her, 'call me when they're ready to pay me,'" she adds. "It took three months for them, but they started paying the same amount."

Because of this pay gap and general lack of Black faces in the fashion industry, Iman teamed up with fellow model Bethann Hardison to launch the Black Girls Coalition in 1988.

The organization — which is still in existence today — was created to highlight all Black creatives in the fashion and beauty industries and help them get the credit and pay they deserved. Iman says that upon its initial launch, they were "immediately joined by all Black models."

"That was the formation of the tribe from the beginning of it," she says. "We were able to highlight the discrepancies in the fashion industry, especially when it came to Black creatives, and then we saw incremental changes."

She points to a total absence of Black models on runways at one point in the 2000s, noting that it wasn't a "lack of" but complete absence of them as a whole. But while Iman is confident in calling out the racist behavior in the industry, she makes it clear that the designers weren't the problem, but the casting agencies.

"What soon became very clear was that we never thought that designers were inherently racist, but what lots of the designers were doing was hiring casting agents, and the casting agent on behalf of the designers were saying to the modeling agencies, 'We are not seeing or hiring any Black models this season'," Iman says.

"So if they're not racist, but their remarks and their actions are racist, it's racist," she shares.

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Iman (R) and fashion designer Harris Reed
Iman (R) and fashion designer Harris Reed


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Part of her work with the coalition and with the industry as a whole has been to make designers aware of the rest of the industry. She tells PEOPLE that once they started to make more noise about casting agencies refusing Black models, the designers went around them and hired them anyway to make sure their runways were inclusive.

Iman points to fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy as being allies for Black creatives for many years, noting that each of them prominently featured Black models on runways and in campaigns, which helped push the coalition's cause forward.

The years of work Iman has put into the industry to fight for equity have had plenty of historical moments, but she doesn't see it that way. She credits the tribe she's had around her fighting the same fight, acknowledging that you "can't exist in a vacuum on your own" as a Black person in the industry. "You can't be the token person," she says, adding that it's "degrading" and makes each person "separate from each other."

As someone who has challenged this industry from the moment she stepped into it, Iman is content to keep doing just that. "I'm constantly challenging the status quo," she tells PEOPLE, adding that social media has had a large role in the continuation of fighting for equality, not just in fashion, but in the world as a whole.

"Social media became powerful because it started to highlight all the injustices in every industry, and the fashion people, models and designers also started talking about the things that were wrong in our industry," she says. "So all those dark corners now have a spotlight on them."

Model Iman attends Harper's BAZAAR 150th Anniversary Event presented with Tiffany & Co at The Rainbow Room on April 19, 2017 in New York City.
Model Iman attends Harper's BAZAAR 150th Anniversary Event presented with Tiffany & Co at The Rainbow Room on April 19, 2017 in New York City.


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But while social media has highlighted the problems that still remain in fashion, Iman says it's also "opened doors."

"We see more young Black designers highlighted — and they're not just 'Black designers,' they're designers," she says, calling out the fact that the industry is getting to a place where the color of someone's skin doesn't need to be a qualifier.

"What I personally see is that now we really need to focus on those decision-making positions," she says of where the industry can improve. "Because those are the people who can really make long-lasting changes. It's an ever-evolving industry, and we're seeing a new group of people who are coming into place that are more enlightened, is the best way I can put it. It may be forced enlightenment, but it is enlightenment."

The first two episodes of Supreme Models are now available to watch on YouTube with future episodes dropping in the coming weeks. Alongside Iman and Hardison, Black creatives like Edward Enninful, Indya Moore, Joan Smalls, Law Roach, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Olivier Rousteing, Pat Cleveland, Precious Lee and Sergio Hudson are featured.