How Somali-American supermodel Iman defied beauty retailers to build a $25M beauty line

Abu Mubarik June 22, 2023
Today, Iman's cosmetic line has grown into a $25 million business. Photo credit: Jennifer Su via Wikimedia Commons

Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid is a Somalian-American retired fashion model, actress, and entrepreneur, who had her breakthrough as a model after encountering photographer, Peter Beard, at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. He took photographs of her with the assurance that he would provide her with a fee that would pay her tuition at the university. 

However, Beard subsequently persuaded Iman to join him in New York in 1976, where she signed up with Wilhelmina Models, as reported by Biography.

In New York, she caught the eye of top designers like French couturier – Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan, and Versace; and began starring on haute-couture runways, making it to the cover pages of fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. French designer, Yves Saint Laurent, devoted a collection to her, dubbed, “The African Queen.”

As her career began to flourish, Iman demanded to be paid the same as her white colleague models and was actively engaged in styling her shoots. This inspiration was from her mother, who told her to always know her worth. 

“A couple of months after I arrived in the United States, in 1975, I found out they were paying Black models less than our counterparts, and I said, ‘I’m not doing this.’ If I’m doing the same job as the white model, I have to be compensated,” she told W Magazine. The supermodel said she even “went on strike” for three months. “And then, of course, they raised my rate,” she said.

She drew curtains temporarily on her modeling career in the early 1980s after she was involved in a car accident, and was out of the modeling space for five months, where she is said to have reassessed her priorities.

In 1989, she retired from her modeling career and branched into another interest. In 1994, Iman launched her cosmetics line, Iman Cosmetics, selling all-inclusive cosmetics and hard-to-find shades for brown and black skin tones. 

She would eventually prove beauty retailers wrong with her successful make-up line after they told her that “black women don’t buy liquid foundation,” according to the MailOnline. Today, her cosmetic line has grown into a $25 million business.

Launched in 1995 at JCPenney, she took her cosmetic brand to the market after signing a deal with Procter & Gamble. However, when she reached out to distributors, brands like Walgreens and Target responded to her offer with caution.

According to her, retailers tried to place her products at the back of their stores, like the ‘ethnic section’. “It was a no-go. They wanted me to be placed at the back, which they considered, like it is, for the ethnic section, which I was totally against,” she told Mailonline.

While seeing record sales to date, Iman says the journey has not been easy. One of her major challenges was trying to secure distribution, which has been a major challenge for both brick-and-mortar and online stores.

“I approached the players – Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens – and everybody knew about the brand and how successful it was, so everybody said yes to it,” she said. “But then there was this, “Oh we’ll test it.” Like I had just started, like there was no customer base for it.”

Today, her brands can be found in more than 10 countries and on various e-commerce platforms.

Iman was born Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid in 1955 in Mogadishu, Somalia; but her name was changed at the behest of her grandfather, who suggested she should be renamed Iman. Her grandfather was of the view she would prosper with a masculine name. Iman in Arabic means “faith”.

Her grandfather was right. Iman turned out to become one of the world’s most famous Black supermodels and a millionaire with a chain of businesses. She spent her formative years in Egypt at a boarding school when her father, a diplomat, became an ambassador to Saudi Arabia; while her mother was a gynecologist.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: June 22, 2023


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