Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)

Sears copywriter, buyer elevated Black profession­als in fashion scene


In college, Andi Parsons dreamed of modeling, but her inner monologue kept repeating: “I’m too tall and too skinny.”

Along came fashionist­a Barbara Samuels. She took one look at her and enthused, “Cheekbones! Long legs!”

Ms. Samuels insisted that Parsons walk the runway for a fashion show she was organizing for the Chicago Urban League.

“She was just, like, ‘You got it, you got it, keep going!’ ’’ said Parsons, for whom that was the springboar­d to a modeling and acting career.

A Chicago makeup artist who goes by the single name Landis also credits Ms. Samuels with his success. He was a bank lending officer when she advised him to read “five fashion magazines a day,” to expand his African American cosmetic line to include shades for Caucasian skin and to bring on hairstylis­ts so he could offer clients a full-service beauty squad. Today, Hyde Park-based Landis Cosmetics products are sold in boutiques and salons, and Landis has done makeup for celebritie­s including Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, LisaRaye, Jill Scott, Mo’Nique and Bernie Mac.

Ms. Samuels “let me know I could be the next big cosmetic company and to live my dream,” Landis said.

Ms. Samuels died of natural causes July 2 at her North Side home. She was 82.

Once a pioneering Black female copywriter at Sears, where she wrote for its catalog, she went on to be a globetrott­ing buyer of shoes and handbags for the retail giant and helped select clothing for the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team, according to an oral history she gave to The HistoryMak­ers.

Ms. Samuels helped stage style events including Chicago Fashion Week and “Chicago Is . . . Red Hot!” She moved in the city’s most elegant circles, dressing clients and friends and teaching fashion classes at Columbia College Chicago.

Beyond that, “She held a mirror up” to the industry to push for greater diversity, according to Hermene Hartman, founder of N’DIGO, where Ms. Samuels was fashion editor. “She was always a part of the planning and very much insistent on Black designers and Black models, that they have a place at the table.”

At New York Fashion Week, “She would insist that she had a front-row seat,” Hartman said. “Wherever Vogue was, she was next to or immediatel­y behind” Anna Wintour, the fashion bible’s editor.

“In a world that was not so inclusive,” said hairstylis­t Leigh Jones, “Barbara was unapologet­ically Black. She knew her value, and she made sure others knew her value.”

“We all looked up to her,” said Chicago publicist Dori Wilson, a former model and fashion director for the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding. “There was nobody around who looked like her and did what she did.”

For galas, she’d wear a full-length, dark mink coast. Every day, “She wore these big pieces of jewelry,” said former Chicago SunTimes fashion editor Lisa D. Lenoir. “She always had great hats.”

She also was an adept networker who used that skill to promote others, especially other African American women, according to Lenoir. Ms. Samuels recommende­d Lenoir to lecture at Columbia College, which helped lead to her teaching fashion communicat­ion at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.

Ms. Samuels grew up in Washington Park. Her mother Blanche worked at the old Regal Theater on 47th Street, where young Barbara got to meet singer Nat King Cole, according to her HistoryMak­ers interview.

She graduated from Lucy Flower Vocational High School, where, she told The HistoryMak­ers, her counselor refused to find her work at a bank because she didn’t think she could be trusted handling money. She went on to study at the School of the Art Institute and Chicago State University.

After a stint as a copywriter at FormfitRog­ers lingerie, she joined Sears in 1963, becoming its first African American female copywriter, according to the oral history. She rose to be a national buyer for handbags and shoes and played a part in getting Sears to begin allowing women to wear pants, she said in the interview.

“I’m always looking forward to the next thing,” she told the Chicago Daily News in 1969, “and somehow my limitation­s keep stretching.”

She was partial to designers Chanel and Issey Miyake and also admired clothing creations by Sean “Diddy” Combs.

Later in life, she founded a consulting firm, The Lion’s Share, to promote fledgling fashion profession­als.

Ms. Samuels’ husband Alfred Jordan and son Michael died before her. She is survived by her son Gregory. Services have been held.

 ?? RICH HEIN/SUN-TIMES FILE ?? Barbara Samuels (left) helps Angelique Thomas shop at Sears for clothes for a new job in 2000.
RICH HEIN/SUN-TIMES FILE Barbara Samuels (left) helps Angelique Thomas shop at Sears for clothes for a new job in 2000.
 ?? PROVIDED ?? Barbara Samuels helped select clothing for the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team.
PROVIDED Barbara Samuels helped select clothing for the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team.

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