Beverly Johnson, the supermodel who made history by being Vogue’s first black cover model in 1974, said it best—and she did so with a dry laugh.
On the news that Rihanna was about to become the first black model to front a Christian Dior campaign, Johnson told The Daily Beast: “I’m elated. I guess it’s better late than never. Welcome to the 21st century.”
While the appointment is to be celebrated, that it has taken this long for Rihanna to make this particular slice of history is shocking, and it is a shaming comment on the racism still prevalent within the fashion world. Dior, after all, was founded on December 16, 1946.
Almost 70 years later, the design house announced the 27-year-old pop star would front the label’s “Secret Garden” campaign this spring.
With film and photography shot by Steven Klein at Versailles, according to WWD, the campaign will feature models apparently floating ethereally around the French palace in Dior’s gowns.
Johnson told The Daily Beast: “It’s fantastic. I love Dior, and Rihanna is very much one of my style icons. I’m happy they got there in the end.”
The International Business Times reported that Rihanna would also become the face of the “J’adore Dior” campaign, replacing Charlize Theron. Rihanna has apparently been filmed for the campaign in a sparkly silver sequin dress in Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors.
“I adore her style,” Johnson said of Rihanna. “She loves fashion, she’s unafraid. She uses her imagination, which is something we should all strive to do.”
The Dior appointment continues a successful March for the singer. Rihanna was last week named the most streamed female artist in the world.
But given it is 2015, what does Rihanna’s appointment say about fashion’s own evolution? There are still far fewer models of color than white on the runway during Fashion Weeks, and the presence of black models on the cover of fashion magazines—or lack of them—is still a cause for comment over 40 years after Johnson’s historic Vogue cover.
It was, sadly, “news” that Jourdan Dunn became—in February—the first solo black model to feature on the cover of British Vogue in 12 years.
When I interviewed Chanel Iman for the London Times two years ago, I asked if she had experienced racism. Iman, who at 16 was the youngest model to appear on the cover of American Vogue and only the third black model ever to have done so, told me: “Yeah, most definitely. A few times I got excused by designers who told me, ‘We already found one black girl. We don’t need you any more.’ I felt very discouraged. When someone tells you, ‘We don’t want you because we already have one of your kind,’ it’s really sad.”
For the same article, Bethann Hardison, a former model who has been lobbying the industry on race-related issues, told me: “Things are improving. We have gone from no ethnic minority models in shows to ‘one.’ We need to get past ‘one’ to more. There’s a greater consciousness of Asia and China, so we see more of those faces now. There needs to be a permanency [about] using black models. You still see all-white shows in Europe and New York…And don’t give us an all-black catwalk show. It doesn’t help us; it just puts us into a category.”
Real progress will be measured when the catwalks, covers, and clothing ambassador appointments, like Rihanna’s for Dior, cease being tokenistic, and when black models are featured on an equal footing and presence with their white counterparts—and, on magazine covers, without their skin being lightened.
“Unfortunately racism is still part of the conversation, and fashion is no different than any other industry,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “It has to change if you’re going to move forward. You don’t want to move backward. We live in a diverse world. If you’re not participating at that level, you’re not part of the world. People need to see people as people.”
As for the pace of change, Johnson said, “Change is hard. As one generation moves out, another moves in—new ideas, new blood. It’s the way the world works.”