While Fern Mallis certainly hasn't had much trouble landing impressive guests for her 92Y "Fashion Icons" talk series, this season — which kicked off on Tuesday evening — has the potential to be her most explosive yet. How else might one describe last night's nearly two-hour conversation with Iman, the Somali-born supermodel whose lengthy résumé extends well beyond the realm of catwalks and campaigns?
In her 60 years on this planet, Iman — no surname needed — has served as a muse for a slew of famed designers, appeared in films, published an autobiography, launched a global beauty company, created an HSN line and devoted herself to both activism and charity work. As a mother of two, her personal life also remains unparalleled if only referencing her 23-year marriage to David Bowie, whose Ziggy Stardust era couldn't be farther behind her.
When Iman glided into the auditorium at the talk's start — all limbs and glossy, center-parted hair — an audible wheeze emerged from the auditorium. At that moment, it was clear her beauty and flamboyance had certainly surpassed the expectations of the audience. The gasps kept coming as she recounted her "very poor" childhood in which her parents — her father, a diplomat, her mother, a gynecologist — put an early emphasis on education. To wit, she was sent to a prestigious boarding school in Egypt at just seven years old; her mother, Marian, sold all her jewelry to afford the tuition.
Not long after, her family of seven became refugees, crossing the Somali border into Kenya on foot with only the clothes on their backs — much like, she pointed out, the nearly four million Syrian refugees currently fleeing their own country. "I am the face of a refugee," she said of the experience. "Refugees, 99 percent of the time, are people who have left their countries for fear for their lives."
By 1975, Iman, then 17, was working two jobs while studying political science at the University of Nairobi when a pedestrian stopped her on the street. It was famed photographer Peter Beard, who promptly paid her $8,000 — two years' worth of tuition — to appear in her very first fashion editorial. She had never seen a fashion magazine in her life. "He's still one of my favorite photographers, because what he saw in me, I have never seen in me and I still don't know how he saw that."
Soon after, agency pioneer Wilhelmina Cooper called Iman personally to persuade her to come to New York — which she did with trepidation (and a return ticket) in October. The press, she explained, was in a tizzy: Prior to her U.S. arrival, they were told she had been discovered "goat herding" and spoke no English, a perception she described as being "very 'My Fair Lady.'"
It was then that her career erupted, with one spread in Vogue in 1976 leading to lasting relationships with the most legendary couturiers of that time, ranging from Halston to Yves Saint Laurent and everyone in between. In 1985, the latter asked her to be the muse for his now-iconic "African Queen" collection, a commitment she said took more than a month. "Of course, I just said yes — I had no idea what it would entail," she recalled. "I would get up early in the morning and put on very, very silky black pantyhose, with the line at the back, you know, those sexy ones, [with] black pumps and a white robe — and you would just wait for Mr. Saint Laurent."
Despite her ceiling-shattering success, she continued to hit a number of race-related roadblocks that, had she been someone less strong-willed, could have limited her accomplishments. In 1976, Marcia Gillespie, then the editor in chief of Essence, famously said that Iman looked like "a white woman dipped in chocolate." She took great offense to this statement and scheduled a meeting with Gillespie. "I said to her, 'I'm probably more black than any person in America,'" she recalled. "I don't have any white in me. I'm pure Somali."
In the 26 years since Iman formally retired from modeling, she has remained devoted to expanding the traditional notions of fashion and beauty. Following New York Fashion Week's spring 2014 season, both Iman and Naomi Campbell joined Bethann Hardison's Diversity Coalition to call attention to the lack of diversity on the runways. "Nobody is calling anybody a racist, but the action itself, and the absence of black models, is an act of racism," she said. "The designers used to see the models themselves — so now, the designers have too many collections and they feel they're too busy, so they hire casting agents. [The designers] started doing acts of racism by telling the agencies, 'Oh, we're not seeing black models this season.' Now tell me that's not racism."
In the two years since Hardison's campaign began gaining traction, Iman has noticed a "palpable change" — but there is still much to be done. "For the life of me, I don't understand [when designers say], 'I love Beyoncé! I love Rihanna! But I don't use black models.' What the hell is that?"
As the fashion industry gradually becomes more inclusive, Iman is adamant that young models of all races to join her in this crusade. "You have to be a canvas. You have to be a blank canvas for designers to project things on you — but don't be so blank that you don't bring anything to the table." In fact, it's this resolution that she believes has attributed to her staying power. "You have to be unique. You have to have something that will make you stand out."