Five Black American women comprised Hubert de Givenchy’s house models in the late ‘70s — marking the first time a French couture house was sending such a clear message that glamour was for more than just the white elite.
The moment, despite its divergence from the exclusive norm of the time, wasn’t about promoting diversity for the sake of it.
“I love the way American mannequins move. Their gestures are marvelous. It makes a whole difference in showing a dress,” Givenchy told André Leon Talley, who covered the story of the so-called couture cabine for WWD in 1979.
Fashion, with its complicated history when it comes to diversity, has largely left this moment in time unmarked.
“As quiet as it was kept, this cabine was never really exposed as to the significance of what they were doing. But Mr. Givenchy made clothes of elegance, dressed Audrey Hepburn, he dressed the late Bunny Mellon, then suddenly he had an all-Black cabine,” Talley told WWD. “Mr. Givenchy was a pioneer in making this phenomenon extraordinary in the world of fashion in Paris. And, as I said, there was no focus about diversity. The reason these girls were chosen was because [of] their attitude, there was a different attitude and energy in those personalities.”
Continuing, he said, “Somehow the Black model attitude of energy evokes a kind of vitality. Not to say that their counterparts that were white did not. But the Black girl suddenly gave a burst of sun, a bolt of lightning down the runway when they walked. Just their gestures or their attitudes, the way their bones or their hands just sort of embraced the air, just the way they turned their beautiful, tapered fingernails in the middle of a turn or pivot at the end of the runway. It’s just the way they glance at the audience. It was all just so remarkable and tangible.”
Inspired by what WWD’s legendary publisher John B. Fairchild dubbed the Battle of Versailles in 1973, which had the dual effect of putting American fashion on the global map and more Black models on the runway, Givenchy, as former cabine model Sandi Bass put it, “was on a mission to find his Black beauties to create on.”
In “The Battle of Versailles,” a book about the pivotal competition between storied French designers (including Givenchy) and their then-upstart American counterparts, author Robin Givhan writes, “…it turned out that the Versailles runway would host one of the largest contingents of African American models ever to walk in a major, multiracial fashion show — a show that did not use them as a gimmick, an overt aesthetic statement, or a political flourish. Of the 36 American models hired for Versailles, 10 were Black.”
“What happened at that event was an eye opener to the spirit of American models on the runway. Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, Alva Chinn and more Black beauties showed their beautiful spirit and made the clothes come alive on the runway,” Bass told WWD. “From there, all designers wanted that spirit, which translated into press and sales.”
By early 1979, Givenchy had his six-strong cabine — Sandi Bass, Carol Miles, Dianne Washington, Lynn Watts, Michele Demby, and the single remaining white model, Sophie Malgat — all of whom he hand-selected. It was the first time a couturier had that many Black models in his inner circle. And they weren’t quietly standing static while garments were pinned and draped on them; they were weighing in.
“I remember he would call his models to the studio and ask our opinion as he was creating a garment,” Bass said. “He loved our truthful, fun spirit and would often use our ideas.” Bass, in particular, had a say in what wound up on one of fashion’s most beloved icons, Audrey Hepburn. “I had the pleasure of meeting Audrey Hepburn after months of monsieur fitting her garments on me as we were excitably the same size,” she recalled.
This meant Black women were influencing fashion at its highest levels.
Though it wasn’t the first time a Black woman modeled for a Paris maison — American model Dorothea Towles Church walked for Christian Dior in the late 1940s and later, for Pierre Balmain; and Martinican model Mounia was famously among Yves Saint Laurent’s muses, being the first to walk in a couture show in 1978 — it was a moment that made fashion more welcoming to Black women.
“It meant that Black women were elegant, beautiful and it opened the door to a whole new customer base, the Black customer base,” said Carol Collins-Miles, who now goes by the hyphenated surname. “We frequently were in [the public eye] thanks to Miss [Eunice] Johnson, [cofounder of] Ebony magazine who had always done Black fashion, but it wasn’t the couture. There were not that many Black women even working in Paris, even before, Beverly Johnson [the first Black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue] and some of the other photographic models were not doing runway. And so Givenchy started including us in the runway. Even the Black models on the covers of the magazines were not on the runway, were not in the, what we call, the stream of fashion. And so that all changed and brought the market even more toward the Black men and women.”
At the time, according to Valerie Steele, fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Givenchy’s move made “a major statement.”
“Even then, although the French…in some respects, were more cosmopolitan…apparently some of his clients pushed back and he just wouldn’t give in, like ‘this is the way it is,’” she said. “Most people were not doing that at all.…It was in line with what people had been tippy toeing toward, but by kicking the door open he’s making a really strong statement. And because he was known for being so elegant and so, sort of the height of the couture, I think that it gave an extra emphasis to that statement.”
It was, as Steele explained, someone from the upper echelons of the industry saying, “…of course these are beautiful women and of course they should be part of the high fashion world,” she said. “And, at that point, things were still very often trickling down from the height of the couture through the market, so I think that that should have caught on even more. And I think it’s an unfortunate testimony to a very long history of structural racism that something like that didn’t spread more extensively and more permanently.”
The Black cabine, according to members of it, set forth a sea change, however fleeting.
“It changed the whole outlook in fashion,” Collins-Miles said, noting though, that the time, while glamorous, wasn’t without its challenges. “We had to always fight against racism there or here in America. But there was one or two or three Black models. And then there were other shows where there were majority Black models…it was unheard of. We were breaking ground.…Everything that we did was pushing the cause of Black models.”
As Bass added, “After our debut season at Givenchy almost every designer wanted a beautiful Black beauty walking in their show. Black models would actually be approached on the street by hunters looking for a Black beauty to walk in a particular show that could be that same day or the next day! It was a frenzy, and we were in demand in Paris, Milan and Rome during show season.”
From the late ‘70s, there was a surge in Black American models working in Europe — “they came in droves” — until, as Bass noted, “the early ‘90s when the supermodels Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen and Black beauty Naomi Campbell stormed on the scene.” By that time, Campbell was often the token Black model on the runway.
Even Givenchy, once the cabine had splintered off for various reasons, regressed.
“During the ‘90s and the late 1980s, even he had a completely white cabine for a moment. He had gone from Black to completely white,” Collins-Miles said. In one of his collections, she noted, he had photographed everything with only white models. “After that it became — from the mid-’90s — a feel of austerity [on fashion runways]. It went from the…feel of a woman [and] it reversed and went to that boyish straight feel…it was kind of like just a complete reversal.”
And the reversal extended to the progress on inclusion, too.
“You’d had people tippy toeing in the later ‘60s and in the ‘70s toward greater diversity and inclusion in the fashion modeling world, and then that started to sort of move back,” Steele said. “It would move forward and backward — it was a pendulum effect — but I don’t think it ever really got as far again as it had in…the Givenchy example. You have isolated moments later, like when Franca Sozzani [former editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue] did the ‘Black Issue’ [in 2008, featuring all Black models on a series of covers and throughout the issue]. And for all the ambiguities of, ‘Well, why not just integrate and diversify all issues?’ it was a big statement, sold out multiple press runs of that issue.”
The problem, as Steele noted, is that while fashion can single out the moments when it has made a bold statement on diversity, true inclusion would mean there were too many to count. And while 2020 proved another one of those moments, fueled by a racial equality outcry in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, it wouldn’t be contrary to fashion’s historical patterns to see it slink back into its longstanding habits.
“The fashion world has gone in this kind of lemming-like way. They will go for a while, it’ll be a little more multicultural, then it’ll be sort of all Eastern European,” Steele said. “It’s really a mystery to me why there’s been this kind of white out of the runways.”
Over the years, Bass and Collins-Miles have worked to train and champion Black models and help them to carve out spaces like they enjoyed more than 40 years ago, to push more diversity on fashion’s runways. Hardison — who broke ground before the cabine, her career catalyzed in part by her role as Willi Smith’s muse in the late ‘60s and then her casting in the Battle of Versailles — cofounded the Black Girls Coalition with Iman in 1988 to support and advocate for Black models. Though she closed the agency in 1996, her efforts to call out key players in the industry for their lack of diversity played a large part in prompting Sozzani’s “Black Issue.”
It has been a long and fraught battle to bring diversity into fashion’s fore — and it’s still ongoing — but Talley believes, now, it’s about opportunity and insistence.
“We have not had the opportunities to evolve the way the counterparts have been able to evolve, in the world of whiteness, even though it’s more democratic than other industries. We were appreciated in the world of fashion, particularly in Europe,” he said. “Now, because of this awareness, this woke moment with George Floyd…you have to make people aware. And people have to put the pressure on [fashion players] or they will forget and then lapse back into their old habits.”
If you ask Collins-Miles and Bass, Givenchy (who they both considered family for the way he treated and looked after them — the cabines’ stories are the kind fashion documentaries are made of) was, in many ways, an inclusion influencer of sorts.
“Twenty, 30, 40 years later and he’s still a part of my life…that’s how profound the experience was. And everyone who knew him, no matter race or color or what—he influenced them because he was just a beautiful spirit,” Collins-Miles said. “I was madly in love with him. Simple.”
Over the years, as the house changed hands, Givenchy hasn’t gone without backlash for lack of inclusion — or for cultural missteps. In 2015, when the brand was designed by Riccardo Tisci, it was called out for cultural appropriation over its “Chola Victorian”-inspired lineup, and in 2019 the house had to apologize to Chinese consumers for a T-shirt identifying Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate from China. Last year, when Givenchy named Matthew Williams its new creative director in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, some charged that giving the open role to another white man felt like a missed opportunity for progress. As an entity within LMVH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the house is, however, part of the luxury conglomerate’s promises to do more where diversity is concerned. It’s a charge being led by Corey Smith, who LVMH appointed to the new role of vice president of diversity and inclusion at LVMH Inc., its North American operation, in September.
The hope would be for fashion to take a nod from its not-so-distant past as it faces the future.
“Times change and people have different passions,” Bass said. “Monsieur Givenchy made a point to have Black models in his shows. He was warned about the repercussions that would likely occur (and they did) but he moved forward with his feeling and passion about it, standing for something that he believed in.”