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Vogue Italia’s July 2008 Black Issue

The issue was supposed to change an industry — but did it move the dial?

Vogue Italia’s July 2008 issue showcased and celebrated black models and black women in the worlds of art, politics and entertainment — in an entire issue of an internationally acclaimed international edition. There was immediate excitement about the “Black Issue” — the original run of the issue sold out in the United States and the United Kingdom within 72 hours. An extra 30,000 copies were printed for U.S. newsstands, and 30,000 more were made available for European newsstands. In our post-President Barack Obama world, it’s difficult to overstate what a visceral and cultural impact the Black Issue had on readers — African-American ones in particular.

“There were a few of us in the fashion industry at the time,” said fashion activist, agent and former model Bethann Hardison, “who were talking openly about the need for more inclusion of black models on the runways, on covers and in advertising.”

Hardison, who guest-edited an editorial feature in the issue, said that in 2008 it was a big deal to have the issue come out.

“And it was very well-regarded,” she said. “ It was revered, and people — black people and [black] people in the fashion world — were just so proud that it had happened.”

Four separate covers were shot for the Black Issue, each a classic and colorful portrait of the most popular black supermodels of the day: Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, Jourdan Dunn and Sessilee Lopez. The covers were shot by the celebrated fashion photographer Steven Meisel, and the models were styled by Edward Enninful, the Ghanaian-British stylist/tastemaker who is fashion and style director of W Magazine.

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The cover images remain fresh and compelling. The tasteful makeup and free-flowing hair gave each of the women a smoldering, movie star sex appeal. Vibrant jewelry, hats, turbans and peek-a-boo birdcage veils gave the portraits a classic Hollywood feel. “It was selling out immediately and then it had to go for a second reprint, which had never happened to a Conde Nast magazine before,” Hardison said. “It was a collector’s item, something everyone wanted to have.”

Hardison gives credit to the pioneering spirit and gutsy editorial judgement of the magazine’s longtime editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani, who “has always been unafraid of controversial topics. She uses her platform to discuss social and environmental issues very candidly,” Hardison said. And Meisel used the 100-plus interior pages of editorial space to feature models such as Campbell, Iman, Tyra Banks, Alek Wek, Pat Cleveland, Karen Alexander and Toccara Jones, among others.

“Franca and her team stood behind their decision to … challenge the fashion community’s notions of cultural and racial diversity,” said Hardison, though she doesn’t know how much it really changed things. “I don’t know that it was [influential] or that it has had any lasting impact. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen huge changes in the numbers of black models on the runways in Paris, Milan or New York. Black models still have trouble getting covers and big contracts. But that issue was a shining moment that saw us for what we truly are.”

Jill Hudson is the senior style writer for the Undefeated. She is an evolved nerd, a caffeinated shoe fanatic, and a maker of long lists and perfect martinis.