Naomi Sims, pioneering black model and businesswoman, dies at 61

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Striking a pose for Ladies' Home Journal in November 1968 catapulted Naomi Sims, a pioneering African American model, to stardom and helped lay the groundwork for a fashion empire that lives on today. Sims, who will forever hold a spot in fashion history, died Saturday from cancer. She was 61 years old.

Often referred to as the first black supermodel, Sims' breakthrough in the white-dominated fashion industry came during the Civil Rights era. Sims overcame great odds, spending her early years growing up in the segregated South and then in a series of foster homes after her mother became ill.

During her career, Sims modeled for top designers including Halston and Giorgio di Sant'Angelo, but because of her skin color had to fight hard to land a spot in top fashion magazines. Designer Halston, in a 1974 interview, said "Naomi was the first. She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers."

Supermodel Beverly Johnson told Black Voices that "Naomi Sims was an incredible role model -- a trailblazer who helped to define black beauty and open the doors for all of the African American models we see today -- and a savvy businesswoman."

But Sims was not just another pretty face that graced the catwalk and magazine covers. She later used her fashion sense and training at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology to launch a multimillion dollar wig line, the Naomi Sims Collection, in 1973. By 1978, her designs raked in annual sales of $5 million. Later, the business expanded to include cosmetics, fragrance and beauty salons. Sims also authored advice books, including "How To Be a Top Model" and "All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman."

Sims is survived by her son Robert, her daughter, Betty, and a granddaughter.

How fashion insiders are remembering Sims around the Web:
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art's curators Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan, who are currently displaying a couple of Sims' photos say "The beautifully contoured symmetry of Sims' face and the lithe suppleness of her body presented on the once-exclusionary pages of high-fashion journals were evidence of the wider societal movement of Black Pride and the full expression of "Black is Beautiful."

  • "Thanks to her proven personal initiatives as a true pioneer, she succeeded in creating a real place for black women in the modeling industry," said Marcellous Jones, chief editor at TheFashionInsider.com.
  • "You may not know the name Naomi Sims, but if not for her, you'd never know the names Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, Naomi Campbell, or Tyra Banks, either."Glamour.com

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Recent Deaths in Business
On Aug. 1 Naomi Sims, often called the first black supermodel, died of cancer. She was 61. Sims made history when she struck a pose for the cover of Ladies' Home Journal in November 1968 and became an icon of the "Black is Beautiful" movement. After her days on the catwalk, Sims went on to create a multimillion empire, The Naomi Sims Collection, that sold wigs, cosmetics and fragrances. She also penned a couple of beauty advice books.
Yale Joel, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
Yale Joel, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

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