CULTURE

MARCELLAS REYNOLDS ON SUPREME MODELS: ICONIC BLACK WOMEN WHO REVOLUTIONIZED FASHION

SEPTEMBER 24, 2019

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WORDS

by KRISTOPHER FRASER

PHOTOS

COURTESY of VARIOUS

Former model and stylist Marcellas Reynolds has spent his entire life being a modelphyle. He has loved models as far back as he could remember, and he could pick up a magazine and recognize the original black supermodels including Iman, Beverly Johnson, and Pat Cleveland. When he was young his grandmother received both Ebony and Jet, two of the premiere black lifestyle publications of the day, and as he put it, “You weren’t black if you didn’t get those in your house.” His mother subscribed to Essence, which was where he saw some of these acclaimed black models for the first time. 

Essence had all the wonderful shades of black women, and articles about what was important to black women, and most importantly, it was where you saw all of the black models,” Reynolds said. “It was where you saw Naomi Campbell for the first time before she was in the pages of Vogue. My girlfriends in high school had Seventeen, and that was where we saw Whitney Houston when she was a model, oh and Kersti Bowser, who became the obsession of every girl at my high school. If Kersti Bowser wore a sailor dress, the next week everyone at my high school had a sailor dress, if she wore colored tights, the next week every girl showed up in denim skirts with colored tights. These were the inspirations I grew up with.”

It was this inspiration that led Reynolds to produce his new book Supreme Models: Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion. He had been collecting art books and fashion books his entire life, and part of his collection includes Vogue Model: The Faces of Fashion, which features top models who had been in the pages of Vogue and their most iconic photoshoots. While Reynolds was over the moon to get the book at first, but after reading the book cover to cover in one sitting, he realized there were only one or two pages of black models, leaving him very disappointed. 

In his outrage he went to Amazon.com and did a review of the book and listed all of these black models who should have been included. “They had all these models in this book and some of them weren’t even supermodels,” Reynolds said. “There are million dollar a year plus models who weren’t even in there. I was insulted, and quite frankly, thought it was a little bit racist. I came up with a list that night off the top of my head without doing any research. The closest thing they’d ever been to a book like this before was a book written by Duane Thomas called Body & Soul: The Black Male Book, but that was all men. I was in that book and it was a bunch of really good-looking black guys. There was nothing out there for female models. From all of my years working as a model I knew these girls had crazy stories to tell, so I said let me give these girls a chance to tell their stories.”

Grace Bol, photographed by Kuba Ryniewicz, Vogue Poland, April 2018

Kuba Ryniewicz for Vogue Polska

Leomie Anderson, photographed by Jenny Brough, Hello Magazine, October 2016

© Jenny Brough

So rather than doing a book that was just a collection of 100 gorgeous pictures, he also gave the models a chance to speak. The book includes dozens of interviews with models including Leomie Anderson, Ysaunny Brito, and Dilone. The final product was very different from what he originally imagined. “When I set out to do this book in 2011 it was a very different book than it is now,” Reynolds said. “I wanted it to be sweet and pretty, and I didn’t want any depth or bad stories. I wanted it to be a glamorization of modelling. Fast forward eight years and we live in the age of hashtag me too, we live in an era of hashtag black lives matter, we live in a time of LGBTQI and who knows what letter could be added next. It is a time of inclusion. All that is in the pages of this book.” 

Reynolds added that now was the perfect time to do this book because, “It wouldn’t be this book if I did it any time before now. We have Trump in office, and it feels like we are going backwards as a country, but it’s also an amazing time because people want to hear stories about women, about race, and about transgender people. This book has all of that in it. This book even explores colorism among black people, and the tensions that sometimes exist between darker skinned black girls and lighter skinned black girls. We even touch on the plus-size fashion debate and ask if there can ever be a plus-size supermodel. The natural hair debate is in this book. Back in the day black models had to straighten their hair or have a weave, now you see girls rocking their real hair. These conversations are happening now, and they weren’t happening before.”

His greatest challenge in writing this book was getting the models to talk. He already knew a considerable number of models from being a stylist and working as a model back in the day himself, but he knew he couldn’t just pick up the phone and call some of these models. Luckily for him he was working on the catalog for Bon-Ton with Lana Ogilvie, who was the first black model to have a Covergirl contract, who wanted to be in the book from the minute Reynolds mentioned it. 

Talk show host Meredith Vieira had taken quite a liking to Reynolds as well, so she began regularly inviting him onto her show to talk fashion and style. It was at a taping one day that Reynolds met legendary supermodel Veronica Webb, who agreed to do an essay for the book that would eventually become its preface. The models who were involved and interviewed continued to roll in at a slow and steady pace much to Reynolds delight. 

After eight years of doing interviews with these models, Reynolds other challenge was trying to figure out what was going to make it into the book. These women never got the chance to truly tell their stories, and they went in no holds bar. In the end, the stuff that made it into the book were very specific things about the models, like Beverly Johnson booking her first Vogue cover, and Bethann Hardison’s time working as a booker trying to get black models equal pay for jobs. 

Rose Cordero, photographed by John-Paul Pietrus, Arise, Spring 2011

© John-Paul Pietrus