NEW YORK — Naomi Sims, the legendary Sixties model who broke racial barriers, died in Newark on Saturday. She was 61.
The cause of death was cancer, according to Alexander Erwiah, the model’s brother-in-law.
This story first appeared in the August 4, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Sims was one of the first African-Americans to become a major name in modeling, making history as the first black model to grace the cover of Ladies Home Journal in 1968, and Life magazine in 1969.
Born in Oxford, Miss., Sims grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to New York in the mid-Sixties, when she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. According to her Web site, she was unable to fund her studies and started posing for fashion illustrators to support herself, a path that eventually led her to the Wilhemina modeling agency.
Former fashion model and model agency owner Bethann Hardison called Sims a “true inspiration.”
“Naomi Sims had an enormous amount of style,” said Hardison, who last saw Sims at Oprah Winfrey’s “Legends” ball in 2006. Hardison recalled how Sims’ elegant walk down the runway always resulted in loud applause from the audience. She remembered how Sims would always mix her own cosmetic foundations to get the right mix for her complexion.
“She was that elegant, beautiful, classic, dark-skinned beauty that we really needed at that time,” Hardison said. “She came off of the civil rights movement and the theme of ‘Black is beautiful.’ She really was the epitome of that and made it so true.”
Sims was often booked by designers such as Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Halston and Bill Blass, and became close to the likes of Elsa Peretti and Marina Schiano.
Stephen Burrows often worked with Sims. “When I first saw Naomi Sims, she was getting off a ferry boat at Fire Island/Pines in 1968 with Carrie Donavan, then an editor at Vogue, to do my first photo shoot with the magazine,” Burrows remembered. “She emerged from the boots with violet eyelashes and make-up looking like the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was one of the chicest women in the world and would inspire future icons such as Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn to become great muses of fashion history.”
By the mid-Seventies, Sims appeared to grow tired of the modeling business, and decided to launch the Naomi Sims Collection, which grew to include beauty products such as skin and hair care, primarily targeted at African-American women. She also wrote several books, including “All About Health & Beauty for the Black Woman” and “How to be a Top Model.”
Abel Rapp, a former model agent at Ford, recalled Sims’ early years in New York. “She was probably one of the most beautiful women I have seen in my life,” Rapp said. “One night, Harvey Boyd, the illustrator, and I were going to a restaurant on Second Avenue called Jack’s Nest,” Rapp recalled. They called Sims to invite her. “She said, ‘I can’t, I am not dressed.’ I told her to put on her f–k-me pumps, a tight pair of jeans, and a top and she would be fine. She showed up an hour late in a floor-length, purple jersey Halston gown. This was very much Naomi.”