Stylebook Snapshot: A tribute to Naomi Sims

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Many know that Naomi Sims is regarded as fashion's first African-American supermodel.

She broke ground in the '60s and '70s with photos that ran on covers and within some of the industry's leading publications, including Life, Ladies' Home Journal and The New York Times, and paved the way for other black models such as Naomi Campbell and Beverly Johnson.

But that's often the extent of what people know about her -- including that she grew up in Homewood and graduated from Westinghouse High School, says Kilolo Luckett, an independent arts and fashion consultant and writer based in Pittsburgh.

"Most people that I talk to, besides folks who went to school with her, didn't even know that she was from Pittsburgh," she says. "I've done some research, and there hasn't been anything written about this woman."

In the past few years, Ms. Luckett has taken on the task of reigniting remembrances of Sims. From 6-8 p.m. Thursday, the third annual Tribute to Legendary Supermodel Naomi Sims will be held at 720 Music, Clothing & Cafe, 4405 Butler St., Lawrenceville. It is held each March to commemorate Sims' birthday at the end of the month, when she would have turned 66. She died in 2009 from breast cancer.

At the event, people can network, treat themselves to wine and hors d'oeuvres and listen to a brief presentation about Sims' contributions to fashion. In previous years, some of her childhood friends have attended and shared stories and photos of her from school, Ms. Luckett says.

In addition to coordinating the yearly gathering, Ms. Luckett is penning the authorized biography of Sims and hopes to have something published in about three years. Her research has taken her from the libraries of Pittsburgh to the estates of artist Ray Johnson, fashion editor Diana Vreeland and Sims. She's documented her interviews with fashion insiders and Sims' friends with plans to turn the footage into a documentary.

Ms. Luckett's interest in Sims stems back to childhood; both women were born in Mississippi.

"My parents kept magazines of her, and as a child I looked through them," she says. "This woman is not only stunning but a very interesting, smart woman."

After moving to Pittsburgh, she spotted Sims' photo on the Westinghouse High School "wall of fame" and learned she also had ties to the city before moving to the Big Apple to study at New York University and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Her trailblazing went beyond fashion, Ms. Luckett says. For instance, she was an entrepreneur and worked with a chemist to create a synthetic fiber for wigs that more closely mimicked the look and texture of African-American hair. She also authored four books, including one focused on health, wellness and beauty for black women based on extensive research and interviews with doctors.

She was well known across multiple industries, Ms. Luckett says, and knew Andy Warhol, jewelry designer Elsa Peretti and artist Betye Saar. When she got married, Kenneth Clark, a doctor who testified in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education civil rights case, gave her away at the ceremony.

Yet her name often isn't mentioned among these noteworthy figures -- but it deserves to be, Ms. Luckett says.

"I want to write her into history. I want her to be up there with Marissa Berenson and the Twiggys. She's that important of a person."

To RSVP for the tribute event, email For more from PG style editor Sara Bauknecht, check out the PG's Stylebook blog at Follow her on Twitter @SaraB_PG.

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