Remembering Donyale Luna, The African-American Model Who Transformed The Face Of Fashion

A few years ago, my father found the diaries that my mother kept leading up to my birth, containing the delighted entry when she first realised she was pregnant. Nine months later, in the autumn of 1977, she started labour in the wild and enchanting Tuscan countryside. At that point, it was still rare to see a woman of colour have a child with a “native” Italian like my father – but on that day, my mother no longer cared about racial stigmas. Her sole thought was of giving life. It had been 13 years since she said goodbye to her emotionally tumultuous childhood in Detroit and become Donyale Luna, beginning a journey that would see her change the nature of the fashion industry – and our understanding of beauty. Yet, just 18 months after I was born, my mother passed away from drug-related complications, leaving me to be raised by my father and his family in Europe.

I now live in Paris with a young family of my own, and even though I have only a few blurred memories of my mother, I feel her presence with me – and within me – more strongly every day. As a girl in rural Italy, I never fully appreciated the cultural legacy that she had bequeathed to me. It was only in my early twenties that I started to look deeper and ask more questions about her life – and the stories were even more remarkable than I could have imagined. Over the next two decades, I studied her face in photographs of 1960s icons and read about her in newspaper clippings, many of which came with sensational headlines. It has been a difficult process, trying to separate my mother from the myths around her. The people who were actually close to her, including my father, Luigi Cazzaniga, struggled to describe her; nobody could quite keep the fantasy and the reality of her in their heads at the same time. Yet, as her daughter, I couldn’t accept that her pioneering work remained forgotten: how could I help her be remembered in the way that she deserved?

To set the record straight, it helps to start at the beginning. My mother was born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit in 1945, giving herself the name Donyale Luna as a teenager. She was the middle daughter of three: very bright, her life revolved around school, church and local theatre productions. Her father worked in manufacturing while her mother acted as a secretary for the Young Women’s Christian Association. In 1963, the fashion photographer David McCabe was visiting Detroit on assignment when, outside the city’s famous Fisher Building, he spotted my mother – already nearly 6ft tall and with her trademark willowy frame – in her plaid Catholic-school uniform on her way to a rehearsal. As he tells it, he felt compelled to let her know that if she was ever interested in modelling, she should come to Manhattan and he would help her.

By her 19th birthday, a year later, she had decided to move to New York. This was the autumn of 1964, just months after the Civil Rights Act was passed – legally prohibiting racial discrimination for the first time in American history – and the coming years would see the assassination of Martin Luther King, the race riots that devastated her home city and the founding of the Black Panthers. There were virtually no modelling opportunities for non-white faces anywhere other than dedicated African-American publications such as Ebony. I’m still amazed at how brave my mother was to leave home for Manhattan at that point in history, with no clear plans or steady income – just a telephone number hastily written down by a stranger. As a girl of colour at that time, simply believing in her own worth and following her true calling were great revolutionary acts.

Luckily, as soon as she called him, McCabe made good on his promise, taking her to meet a host of fashion editors. I read a letter she wrote to Mary Ann, her childhood friend, just after she moved, it said: “New York is a dream… a man danced me down Fifth Avenue, and all up and down Broadway men were eyeing and whistling at me… As soon as possible I’ll send you a picture of the new me. I’ll be on top of the world if it takes every breath I have, every muscle of my skinny body. I feel it, I know it. I’ll be some kind of star real soon. Real soon.” She was right. Within a few months, my mother had been contracted to work with Richard Avedon, and he photographed her for editorials alongside the likes of musician Bob Dylan and a young and wide-eyed Jean Shrimpton. Overnight, she became the girl du jour – with newspapers across the country declaring her the first black star model. Outside Avedon’s studio, she fell in with the beautiful crowd. When I look at photos of her from back then – an era in which she joined the late-night Motown parties hosted by Sammy Davis Jr, dancing with German model Veruschka, and attending dinners given by Miles Davis at his brownstone – I can simultaneously feel how clearly she belonged there but also how ahead of her time she was.

As the civil rights movement gathered pace, so too did society’s fascination with the “exotic” and “alien”. The world was in the middle of a cultural revolution, and my mother was on the front lines of the Swinging ’60s. Almost against her own will, she became a symbol. Some people declared her a Masai warrior, Gauguinesque, Nefertiti reborn. Others claimed she was another species entirely – or from outer space! In fact, she was irreducible – and entirely herself. By the spring, she was firmly within the galaxy of stars who orbited Andy Warhol’s Factory – one of the only African-American girls to be part of that world. He captured her electric beauty in his Polaroids and 16mm Screen Test, but he was also inspired by her vision. She contributed to many of his projects, including the film Camp, Warhol’s 1965 satire of his own world, in which she dances in a backless dress and fur stole to The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s hit The ‘In’ Crowd.

It seems glamorous, except that my mother could never quite escape prejudice. On the one hand, people longed for her to become a symbol of the African-American resistance; a role she struggled with as someone who identified as mixed race. On the other, Southern advertisers pulled funding and readers cancelled their subscriptions when she graced a magazine’s pages – with Avedon eventually told to stop photographing her because of the backlash. There’s no doubt, however, that she shared the highest message in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, where she also found inspiration for my name. But in the end, no matter what she did, in America she was always going to be limited by the colour of her skin. So she made another leap – this time to Europe, where discrimination was less prevalent. Years later, in an interview with my father, she said of her decision: “I wouldn’t have to be bothered with political situations when I woke up in the morning – I could live and be treated as I felt, without having to worry about the police coming along.”

In December 1965 she arrived in the London of the “youth-quake” – a world of Beatlemania, Vidal Sassoon bobs and Mary Quant miniskirts. Again, she immediately became part of the scene. She was always drawn to radical creatives and vice versa, appearing in films such as Blow-Up, Antonioni’s 1966 satire of the enfants terribles of fashion photography, which opens with her being shot on a rooftop in east London. By 1968 she was playing an assistant to a fire-eater in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, the period when she was rumoured to be involved with Brian Jones. It is surreal to watch her move in these motion pictures; it’s as if she’s vibrating at a different frequency from those around her, with an otherworldly quality to her beauty.

On a professional level, her first real break came just after she arrived in the UK. In March of 1966 she became the first model of colour to grace the cover of Vogue in a shoot with David Bailey, wearing a Chloé dress and dramatic gold Mimi de N earrings. Inspired by Picasso’s ocular-centric portraits, only a single heavily lined eye is visible through her fingers, which form a V for Vogue. Inside the magazine, she is on display in all her glory, posing in the spring fashions from Paris alongside fellow models Moyra Swan and Peggy Moffitt: printed silk tunics from Christian Dior; mod shifts by Pierre Cardin; a glittering silver dress from Yves Saint Laurent. I appreciated the comment of editor Beatrix Miller, later on, saying of her decision to put my mother in the magazine: “She happens to be a marvellous shape – angular and immensely tall and strange. She has a kind of bite and personality.”

Overnight, she became an international celebrity – not to mention one of the most in-demand models in the world. Time dubbed 1966 the Luna Year. “She is a creature of contrasts,” the magazine wrote. “One minute sophisticated, the next fawnlike, now exotic and faraway, now a gamine from around the corner.” That spring, Paris Match had 11 different photographers shoot their vision of my mother. It’s telling that there are no two portraits in which she looks alike. Meanwhile, her chameleonic tendencies and fearless disposition extended to her work on the catwalk. In Paris, where her success was compared to Josephine Baker’s in the 1920s, she modelled for André Courrèges, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and, perhaps most notably, Paco Rabanne, when he presented his 12 robes importables, made from Rhodoid discs, at the George V hotel. She brought her own hypnotic energy to the runway, crawling like a lion, grooving to the music or suddenly freezing and making direct eye contact with journalists.

It was a landmark moment for the fashion industry. Reflecting on the spectacle in 1979, Bill Cunningham wrote: “Her body moves like a panther, her arms, the wings of an exotic bird… The audience responds with shattering applause – for the model’s performance rather than the designer’s clothes. It is the birth of a new fashion era – that of the spectacular show that rivals any on Broadway.” As ever, my mother was propelled forward by her creativity, even in the midst of her success. She travelled to Salvador Dalí’s home in the Catalonian village of Cadaqués, where he promptly declared her one of his muses. Look at the photos of that trip and you will find my mother cradling the baby ocelot that Dalí kept as a pet, or standing on a grand piano in the middle of a lake near his house. (The artist had rolled it in there himself.) Most beautiful of all are the portraits of her in a cream gown, with Dalí sketching directly on to the fabric.

In the end, it was those sorts of partnerships that fulfilled her. “I never planned to be a model when I was in Detroit,” she told a reporter in 1966. “I wanted to be a starving actress in New York.” And so, at the close of the 1960s, she moved to Rome for a part in Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) and, later, Carmelo Bene’s Salomè (1972). It was during this period that she met my father, an up-and-coming photographer and the twin soul who shared her vision. The two of them fell in love, indulged their creativity and travelled the world. In one of their many shoots together, my father photographed her for Playboy as characters of her own devising – as an angel soaring over the Los Angeles skyline or as a mermaid perched on a rock by the Pacific Ocean. Some of their best work, however, has not been published yet: a hand-illustrated fairy tale, avant-garde film scripts and beautiful coloured prints – painstakingly made in their own darkroom. Even now, when I look at those objects, their creativity strikes me, and I can hear her heartbeat reverberating down through the decades.

My mother’s death in 1979 was a tragic accident. Despite stories in the press about the last years of her life, my father has told me that she was dynamic and creative until the end. I see how true that is when I look at photographs of her stretched out theatrically on top of a pile of notebooks and diaries on a Long Island beach. You can feel how vibrant, present and totally connected to life she is.

She leaves behind a great story, one that I am proud to tell my daughters. On 17 May, it will be 40 years since my mother left us. On that day I will honour her legacy and reflect on her memory with my family. Most of all, though, I will be hoping that the world is finally ready to celebrate a young African-American girl from Detroit who didn’t let others define her. In the end, these pages contain many of the real facts about her extraordinary life – and this is how she deserves to be remembered. At last.


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