Iman: Not Just Another Pretty Face
By TERI AGINS
Published: June 4, 2010
THE supermodel Iman hasn’t walked a runway in 21 years. Yet at almost 55 years old, with that famous Modigliani profile and copper-toned skin, she’s as gorgeous as ever.
Times Topic: Professional Models
Atsuko Tanaka for The New York Times
At a recent lunch at Barneys New York given in her honor by the store’s creative director, Simon Doonan, Iman glided among friends that included her contemporaries Stephen Burrows, the designer, and Pat Cleveland, the spirited model of the 1970s and ’80s. As guests like the designer Rachel Roy and the television anchorwoman Christiane Amanpour sipped Dom Pérignon, Iman strode in on the arm of David Bowie, her husband of 18 years. She wore a black sheath and black pumps and clutched the black alligator Kelly bag Mr. Bowie gave her years ago.
Outside, the store’s windows displayed legendary fashion photos of Iman along with quotes, like one from Diana Vreeland, who once uttered: “Now, that’s a neck.”
That neck, and all that went with it, first captivated top designers when the Somalian beauty, born Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, was plucked from her university studies in Nairobi by the photographer Peter Beard and brought to New York to model for the likes of Halston and Calvin Klein.
“She has this amazing skin — it sets off color and clothes in a way white women couldn’t do,” Mr. Klein recalled. “On the runway, she exuded style. She was an actress, a natural. She knew how to sell the clothes better than anybody.”
And she had a regal presence that designers worked to the max, as when Thierry Mugler put her on stage with a baby tiger on a leash. On Monday night at Lincoln Center, Iman will be on the biggest fashion stage of the year, the awards gala for the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She will be recognized as this year’s Fashion Icon, a special award that goes to “an individual whose signature style has had a profound influence on fashion,” according to the council. Iman chose her friend Isabella Rossellini to present the award.
The choice of Iman by the council’s board wasn’t obvious — it’s not as if she is known for her distinctive way of dressing, like the recent honorees Kate Moss (2005) and Sarah Jessica Parker (2004). But the decision seemed to have come almost spontaneously, according to Diane von Furstenberg, the group’s president: “Somebody, I don’t remember who it was, mentioned Iman’s name at the meeting, and everybody said ‘Wow.’ The vote was unanimous.”
The designer Michael Kors, who was at the meeting, said that Iman instantly clicked with the board because she is “an icon for our times.”
“It’s not just enough to say that she is beautiful or beautifully dressed, although that is a part of the equation,” Mr. Kors said. “Iman cuts across all ages and experiences. Today women are out there trying to juggle and to make sense of it all. You look at the way Iman looks, her success in business, her need to try new things and to have her own point of view and be a wife and mother — well, not many people have come full circle like that.”
DURING an interview at the Seventh Avenue office of her cosmetics company, where she works three days a week, Iman — 5 feet 9, 133 pounds and a fit size 6 — is soignée in flared denims, wedge peep-toes and a navy jacket over a white T-shirt. The walls are covered with images of herself by the likes of Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Helmut Newton, a testimony to her stellar career.
The fashion designers’ award, which came as a surprise to her, “does the ego good,” she admitted. Among the well-wishers was Alexander Wang, the hot young designer, who offered to dress Iman in something special. “I plan to take him up on that,” she said, chuckling.
She tells the well-documented story of how she arrived in New York in 1975, the daughter of a Somalian diplomat. She spoke five languages but had never worn makeup or high heels.
She credits the nurturing she got from designers, who gave her confidence in an era when model-muses were prized for their individuality — and their own ideas. “We were allowed to talk and to change things,” she said.
Designers like Yves Saint Laurent or Mr. Mugler expected her to speak up. “ ‘Do you like that? Would you wear it that way?’ ”she said. “You could be your own person. And nobody walked the same way on the runway.”
“Don’t get me wrong, there are great girls today,” she said, listing stars like Raquel Zimmermann, Coco Rocha and her namesake Chanel Iman. “But they have lost that role, of collaborating with the designers. There is not that relationship anymore.”
It’s an opinion shared by Mr. Kors, who recalled his first fashion show in 1984, when Iman restyled a shawl her way before she hit the catwalk and how much better it looked.
“No way would that happen today,” he said. “It’s hard for a 16-year-old model to have an opinion.”
After 14 years of modeling, Iman made what was a breakthrough move in 1994, starting her own cosmetics line, featuring impossible-to-find foundation shades for women of color. More than just the pretty face on the package, Iman was the brains behind what was inside those tubes and bottles. She knew what she was doing; for years, she’d been mixing her own formulations for makeup artists to use on her.
Today Iman Cosmetics is a $25-million-a-year business centered on $14.99 foundations in 4 formulations and 14 shades; the brand is among the top-selling foundations sold on Walgreens.com. “At the end of the day, my legacy will not be modeling, but my cosmetics line,” she said.
Between her cosmetics business and her involvement with a number of AIDS charities in Africa, Iman had made her mark with a respectable second act. But there was a third act yet to begin.
In 2007, Mindy Grossman, the chief executive of HSN, was convinced that any fashion merchandise with Iman’s name on it would be a home run for her television shopping network. She met with Iman, who initially resisted. “Clothing design should be left to the professionals,” Iman said.