Chanel Iman, born 30th November 1989, is fashion’s brightest trailblazer – turning barrier-breaking into an art form.
Named after her mother’s favourite designer, Chanel spent her childhood practising runway and studying fashion magazines. This early groundwork prepared Iman when she entered the 2006 Ford Supermodel of the Year contest. She came third, but signed to Ford Models immediately. In February that same year, she made her debut at New York Fashion Week, walking for Derek Lam, Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler.
In September, she walked in the S/S 2007 shows, including Alexander McQueen, Derek Lam, Dolce & Gabbana, Nicole Miller and Stella McCartney. But her appearance in the Valentino show sparked Chanel fever when she worked her now-signature move.
At the end of the runway, just before she was about to turn, she caught the eye of the audience and winked. The fun gesture won the crowd over, and Chanel was featured in http://www.style.com/ as the stand-out of the season – the studying had prepared her, but the impulse to stand out is what made her a star.
Chanel made it her business to exceed expectations early on in her career, receiving the Trailblazer Award from the Sankofa Group in April 2007, and in May became part of modelling history when she joined other top models to take part in the seminal US Vogue cover. A collective of new talent, Chanel joined the likes of Coco Rocha, Lily Donaldson, Hilary Rhoda and Jessica Stam to form a powerful declaration to the fashion industry. These girls were the future of modelling, and every model on that cover by Steven Meisel, went on to become part of the fashion landscape.
In September, Chanel’s career sky-rocketed with appearances for Alexander Wang, Dior, DKNY, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta among others.
2007 ended in triumph on the runways, but a question mark hovered over Iman’s rising fame. Landing catwalk and editorial work is one thing, but could Chanel take it to the next level and land big-name campaigns? This would then put her on a level playing field with her peers, and 2008 saw Chanel rise to the challenge with not just one, but four campaigns. Chanel did campaign shoots for high-prestige brands like Ralph Lauren and DKNY, plus budget-friendly names like Gap and Lord & Taylor.
In February 2008, Chanel’s status as fashion’s latest crush was established when Chanel, Karlie Kloss and Ali Michael appeared on the cover of Teen Vogue, photographed by legend Patrick Demarchelier. A magazine as influential as its grown-up counterpart, Teen Vogue tipped all three models for greatness.
Chanel’s year snowballed: in February, she landed an editorial with Russian Vogue, plus a stellar season walking for designers as varied as Bill Blass and Donna Karan, Jason Wu and Zac Posen. Her CV was maturing well with a mixture of old-school labels, cutting-edge talent and established names. Paired with Chanel’s appearance in the Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier couture shows on July, she had all four corners of the fashion industry covered.
July proved to be a busy month, as Chanel not only appeared in American Vogue with Jourdan Dunn, but also scored two additional editorials in Italian Vogue. However, this was to be a pivotal point in Chanel’s career. Italian Vogue took the decision to put together an edition that would only feature black models.
It was a powerful statement, but it was not without controversy. Many in the industry and press questioned Italian Vogue’s motive for doing this issue. Was it to be taken on face value, as a celebration of ethnicity, giving full-focus to new talent, or was it about something else entirely?
By shining the spotlight on black models to the exclusion of other talent (including models of other ethnic backgrounds), was this a step forward, or a giant leap back? Did such pointed inclusion do more harm than good?
Whatever the motivation, what is clear is that the Italian Vogue edition sparked debate. But debate without action is useless, and what is encouraging is that nearly two years on, a new raft of models including Tao Okamoto, Lyndsey Scott, Liu Wen and Hind Sahli are not only working but flourishing in an industry accused of having a less-than-stellar record when it comes to diversity.
Chanel’s career itself flourished after the Italian Vogue went to press, landing the September cover of Korean Vogue. She was also chosen to open the S/S 2009 Rock & Republic show. Appearing for Alberta Ferretti, D&G, Giambattista Valli and Sonia Rykiel, Chanel was becoming a hit in Europe as well as America.
2009 brought several accolades, rapidly establishing Iman as a go-to girl for not only runway work, but covers and editorials. She landed the cover of Italian Flair in February, the premiere cover of the Dubai edition of Harper’s Bazaar and the cover of i-D in May.
In September, Chanel appeared as a guest judge on hit TV show ‘America’s Next Top Model’. A spot usually reserved for designers or photographers, Chanel’s years of brushing up on fashion paid off, making her intelligent and insightful appearance a hit with fans. This was not just a model with personality and opinions – but someone who knew Pucci from Prada.
Chanel also landed a second cover of i-D, shooting a pre-autumn cover with Arlenis Sosa, Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez. The cover’s launch shows how quickly things can change in the fashion world. In 2008, Chanel’s appearance for Italian Vogue’s all-black issue was challenged as ‘agenda-pushing’. Just one year later, Chanel, Arlenis, Jourdan and Sessilee were presented, quite rightly, as cover girls at the top of their game.
Chanel’s trail-blazing continued when she surprised many by signing a 3-year contract with Victoria’s Secret. Chanel, while perfect for high-fashion, was not an expected choice for the uber-sexy lingerie brand. Some questioned whether her athletic frame could carry off the VS signature look, but Chanel’s personality-packed performance on the runway put all doubt to rest. In one fell swoop, she proved not only her versatility, but her ability to do the unexpected. This element of surprise is what gets Chanel re-hired time after time.
2010 is set to be another busy year for Chanel, with a full couture and RTW season under her belt. Walking for designers like Aquascutum, Dior, Givenchy, Thakoon and Gucci, Chanel’s list of credits defies the expectation that a black model would struggle finding work. Chanel’s career is an important lesson for models coming into the industry: place limitations on yourself at your peril.
Have a look through a recent fashion magazine: the percentages of ethnic to white faces could be better, but the numbers are not as dire as people seem to think. The argument that fashion only allows one black model to be the ‘top girl’ at any one time is clearly no longer the case: Chanel, Jourdan, Sessilee and Arlenis are all getting coveted editorial and runway spots, with Joan Smalls and Rose Cordero rising through the ranks. While it is clear that fashion has a long way to go before equality can be stated as the norm, the notion of a closed-off industry is also somewhat wide of the mark.
While Chanel’s career is still on the rise, what’s encouraging is her awareness that she is flying the flag for future models, whatever their ethnicity. The message that fashion recognises excellence is an important one for the next generation. Fashion’s consumer-base is becoming more cosmopolitan, and as a result, our expectation of seeing diversity better represented on the runways and in magazines is starting to be met.
The fact that one of Chanel’s first covers was for Teen Vogue says it all. She wasn’t being treated as the token ethnic model: Chanel made the cover because she (along with Ali and Karlie) were fashion’s brightest new models. When it came to the cover, Teen Vogue wasn’t indulging in a box-ticking exercise: it simply wanted the best.
The recession has been a huge wake-up call for the industry, and has resulted in fashion rethinking its entire approach. Fashion, as a whole, is becoming more democratic. Runway shows are being broadcast live on the internet, so you can see the latest collections at the same time as Anna Wintour, and bloggers such as Bryanboy (http://www.bryanboy.com/) and Tavi (http://www.thestylerookie.com/) are being taken seriously as fashion commentators at large.
Modelling is also becoming part of this radical rethink, and this new directive is just the beginning. Still not convinced? Watch Chanel’s progress over the next five years: the future is already here.