Last September in New York, Paris, Milan and London, the world's biggest fashion designers presented parades of their best offerings to the press and retailers in hopes that they would stock up on what they see.
And while hordes of black models will continuously flock the casting rooms for a chance to participate in selling illusion, reality or modeling how those outfits will translate to real people, only a handful will be chosen.
In the world of high fashion, it's been decades since an African mannequin reached the summit of international modeling success. The most famous, of course, has been Somalia's Iman, whose worldwide success began decades ago and has continued until this day. But it appears that there is only room for one or, at most, just a handful of top black models, let alone continental African-born beauties.
But last spring, another continental sister was anointed to tread the path of fame. This time, the acclaim will be a global launch. This past April, Ethiopian stunner Liya Kebede was officially named as the new face of cosmetics behemoth Estee Lauder for a reported price tag of $3 million annually.
Kebede, a married mother, is the first black woman in the company's 57-year history to represent the brand. This puts her in that very rare circle of minority women with a beauty contract, even though studies have shown that in America alone, blacks account for about 19 percent of all cosmetic sales.
The Estee Lauder Company has products for sale in about 120 countries. Executives decided the 24-year-old with jet-black hair and mocha colored skin would be the key to positioning themselves to reach a wider global audience. The other two faces of Lauder are Elizabeth Hurley and Carolyn Murphy.
Lauder executives were captivated by an Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche advertising campaign featuring Kebede shot by acclaimed fashion photographer Steven Meisel. As a struggling newcomer, Kebede was plucked by the designer Tom Ford from a Milan runway and was then cast in his 2000 Gucci runway presentations. Ford then decided to put her in the Saint Laurent campaign. In itself, that was a huge deal for an African model.
In one elegant photo spread, Kebede, with her back to the camera, is shown clad in jeans, fiddling with the thread in an exquisite purple blouse, her skin glowing. Even though you can barely see her face, her elegant bone structure is flaunted and the immediate reaction can only be Wow.
Lauder executives looked at the spread and asked "who is she?" then went and got her. "She's not American, she's not European," Aerin Lauder, the company's vice-president of global advertising told Vogue, America's fashion bible. "She's totally international."
Most of the new Lauder ads were rolled out over the fall and the beautiful Kebede has said that Addis Ababa is jubilant and prepared to reward Lauder. Ethiopia has heard the news. Theyre very excited and proud so Im sure theyll all be buying Estee Lauder.
Since 1997, Alek Wek has had the fashion world aflutter ever since Elle, the popular fashion magazine, used this towering Sudanese Dinka on its cover. The catwalk prowler was spotted in a street fair in London, and continues to be one of the few noticeably black faces to walk runways in New York and in Europe. She arrived in London after her family fled the civil war in Sudan.
"Some people at the agency said I would never sell. I was too dark," she has said. "People said I would never get make-up jobs," Wek told the New York Times. Still she has been photographed for ads by Steven Meisel and represented make-up artist Francois Nars for his cosmetics lines.
At 5-foot-11, with very dark skin, short natural corkscrew hair, and full African lips, she is beautiful, but not by conventional western standards of beauty. While she maintains her position as a top model, she will be the first to say that in Sudan her looks are nothing special.
Now living in New York City, Wek combats her homesickness by drinking lots of tea. And cooking her mothers foods - Sudanese pots of fufu and okra.
Looking for the next Iman, Kebede, or Wek a scout for Elite Model management was sent to a remote region in Kenya to seek the next African supermodel. The agency had heard that in Bura, a rural village near the Somali border, the girls were striking, tall and slim, in the western standard of beauty.
Such searches in Africa have produced some level of success before.
In 1998, M-Net, the South African network seen across the continent by satellite television, began its search for the Face of Africa and dangled an Elite Modeling contract as the grand prize. The winner was promised a three-year $150,000 gig.
M-Net picked 6-foot-2 Nigerian Oluchi Onweagba from Lagos and shes gone on to become quite a hit on designer runways.
She too has since been photographed by Meisel and Peter Lindberg and has appeared on the covers of i-D magazine and Italian Vogue and has participated in crme-de-la-crme designer presentations including Chanel, Gucci, and Christian Dior.
Another slim six feet tall Nigerian took the beauty world by storm in 2001 when she won the Miss World competition in Sun City, South Africa, thus becoming the first black African winner in the contests 51-year history.
Agbani Darego, with her penchant for very high heels, aspires to be a top model. Her reign afforded her the opportunity to score a contract with L'Oreal as a European spokesperson for a line of styling products.
I was always taller than my friends when I was growing up. People would always come up to me and say you should be a model or you should enter a beauty pageant. After her customs agent father relented and gave his permission, she entered Miss World and won.
Agbani's victory and subsequent success was borne out of an effort by Nigerian pageant operators to turn the tide of poor showings at international beauty contests. Instead of using an African standard, judges used one based on the western ideal of slenderness.
Ironically, Agbani is Calabari, an ethnic group that like most sub-Saharan Africans, place a premium on voluptuous figures for women. Calabari brides are traditionally sent to the fattening rooms where relatives feed and pamper brides weeks before the big day.
"America has always dictated taste. [America] is the one who decided tall is beautiful. Who's going to challenge [America]," pageant producer Ben Murray-Bruce has said.
This article originally ran in the Feb-March 2004 issue of The AFRican