Black Excellence: The Legacy of Donyale Luna

Black Excellence: The Legacy of Donyale Luna

To mark the beginning of Black History Month, we delve into the legacy of the fashion icon you need to know.

To mark the beginning of Black History Month, we delve into the legacy of the fashion icon you need to know.

Text: Dominique Norman

To kick off Black History Month, we honor the heiress of avant-garde. She’s been referred to as “the reincarnation of Nefertiti”, was the muse of Salvador Dali, and was the first Black supermodel to ever grace the cover of a fashion magazine. We introduce to you, Donyale Luna.

Born Peggy Ann Freeman, she was described on one end of the spectrum as “a girl of staggering beauty and magnetism” and on the other end by her sister as “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream.” Regardless of where she fell on that spectrum, she was worth taking note of.

Before Luna made her grand entrance into fashion, the industry operated its own kind of racial segregation. This was prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark labor law in the United States that outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin.

When she was a teenager, Luna was discovered in her hometown of Detroit by the photographer David McCabe, notorious for photographing the likes of Twiggy and Andy Warhol. He states in an interview with New York Magazine of the day he met her: “I was struck by this almost 6-foot-tall beautiful girl – around 14-years-old at the time – wearing her Catholic uniform.” After the encounter with McCabe, she moved to New York to launch her career, and was signed with Richard Avedon, another noteworthy photographer. She landed her first illustrated cover with Harper’s Bazaar in 1965 and her first photographed cover in 1966 with British Vogue. Beatrix Miller, the then-editor for British Vogue noted that Luna caught her cover because of “her bite and personality”, not to mention her stunning looks.

However, Luna was not necessarily welcomed with warm embrace by all. Many outlets as well as customers pulled their subscriptions when they saw the first Black model on their previously all White magazines. Avedon attributed this to “racial prejudice and the economics of the fashion business”. McCabe also spoke of the issue, stating that “the magazine world really wasn’t ready for photographing beautiful black women”. However, Luna went on to star in numerous movies, several films produced by Andy Warhol, and be featured in other popular magazines of the time such as Paris Match, Twen, Britain’s Queen, Playboy, as well as the French edition of Vogue. TIME magazine even recognized her in 1966 in an article entitled “The Luna Year”. When Luna died in 1979, thirteen years after her history making Vogue cover she left behind an industry on the path to progression.

Bethann Hardison, another prominent figure in fashion history spoke of Luna saying “no one looked like her. She was like a really extraordinary species.” Beverly Johnson, the first Black model to grace the cover of American Vogue pays homage to Luna for paving the way for models of color, noting that she “made it possible for models like me and others”, including Naomi Campbell and Bethann Hardison. But Johnson also poses the question of why Luna’s name has gotten lost in fashion history: “Why don’t we know her name? Because we don’t have people writing her story”.

Scroll through the images below to see more of the iconic Donyale Luna. 

Credits: images courtesy of getty

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