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Jean Fleming – Coming Full Circle

With decades of experience in the fashion industry, Jean Fleming continues to give back to the community that helped build her.

With decades of experience in the industry, she continues to give back to the community that helped her

NameJean Elizabeth FlemingBirthApril 20thBirthplaceKingston, JamaicaEthnic OriginJamaican, ScottishOccupationsModel, Personal StylistShare

Early Life and Career

As a shy, young Black girl growing up in the Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood of  Toronto, Jean Fleming never imagined that she’d soon be getting calls to walk the catwalk for Valentino and Oscar de la Renta after her very first runway show.

Fleming, who is Jamaican and Scottish, was one of only a few people of colour in her childhood Annex neighbourhood. Attending Palmerston Public School and, later, Harbord Collegiate, the soon-to-be model was surrounded by Italian influences. This often left her feeling different from her white classmates who were fascinated by her textured hair and Jamaican features.

“If you did see a Black person go by you just kind of felt, ‘Do I know you, and are we related?’” laughs Fleming. “There weren’t a lot of us, so we embraced when we did see each other.”

Often being recognized for her “exotic” look, Fleming became familiar with many members of her local Black community. She soon caught the attention of several Black designers in Toronto.

Bronze Magic

Describing herself as a “private person,” Fleming never thought she’d find herself modelling. But, when the tall, beautiful, 20-something Fleming got scouted for her first runway show, her life changed forever.

The show, titled Bronze Magic and produced by Len Henry, was an immediate hit as it celebrated beautiful Black women of all shades and heights. But Fleming was the night’s definite star. After gracing the runway the night before, Fleming was shocked to see a full-page photo of herself on the front page of a local newspaper the following morning.

“Phone calls were coming in all over [asking] who I was and where did I come from and can they meet with me,” Fleming remembers. “It wasn’t something that I was even planning to do! But I went, I did the fitting, I did the show and my picture ended up all over the newspapers. And I never looked back.”

A fellow member of that tight-knit Black fashion community was Donna Holgate, a longtime admirer of Fleming’s. Holgate remembers brushing shoulders with Fleming at countless events. But it was Fleming’s unique runway walk that she’ll truly never forget.  “I think of those little steps and her graceful walk down the runway,” Holgate shares. “I’ve never seen a model walk like that. It was her signature.”

Jean Fleming / Photo by: unknown
“Bronze Magic a Hit”, The Globe and Mail, October 27, 1981

Breaking Barriers

As Fleming’s career continued to grow, she eventually had the opportunity to work on a major campaign for a Black cosmetics line. Yet, she now remembers her time working on that set for all the wrong reasons.

“So, I get dressed up, I get all made up by the product, and when they see me, they go, ‘She’s not Black enough,’” recalls Fleming. Shocked and horrified, she listened to the producers saying, “Can you make her lips fuller?” and “Can you make her nose wider?”

“This is how they would talk to you, and you would just be standing there going, ‘What? I’m not Black enough? Like, what are you saying?’”

This wasn’t the only time Fleming experienced racism on the job. She remembers always being excited to have stylists working on her, despite most of them not knowing how to work with Black hair properly, or at all. 

She’d also run into issues with receiving the right shade of hosiery. To avoid having her legs look grey, Fleming would take her stockings home and dye them with tea bags so they would actually match the colour of her skin. 

She’s not Black enough. Can you make her lips fuller, her nose wider?

Having endured these microaggressions so frequently in her career, Fleming is happy to see that some progress has been made to combat racism in the fashion industry.

“When I look and see what’s happening and how we have different shades of beige when it comes to hosiery. A simple thing like that, right? It was a big thing, you know, because you didn’t have it back then,” she says.

But Fleming believes that many racial issues in the industry are “still only halfway” in terms of improvement.“There’s no reason why we can’t have it all the way,” she states. “You can see that they’re trying, but it’s still not where it needs to be.”

Influence and Legacy

Today, Fleming continues to give back to the industry that she loves so dearly by working as a personal stylist for Hudson’s Bay Company. The job couldn’t be a more perfect fit for supermodel Fleming. As a child, she would spend her holidays in awe of the store’s iconic window displays that exploded with red and green shades of the Christmas spirit.

Fleming would soon find her way back to the store as a young adult. Back when The Bay was known as Simpsons department store, she would attend fittings for designers’ high fashion creations at the very place she used to stand outside admiring.

Today, her career has come full circle as she spends her time dressing others in the same building that first ignited her passion for style.

Jean Fleming in Zoomer Magazine, Aug 5, 2014 / Photo by Gabor Jurina

Fashion has been my life. I didn’t have any other career and so it comes easy. It’s second nature.

What does Fleming love most about her job? Helping others, something she always envisioned herself doing, even before modelling became her reality.

“You’re dressing and chatting with them and you get to know so much about a person. They feel so very warm and close to you, that they open up about themselves,” says Fleming. “You get an opportunity to help brighten someone’s day through fashion.”

After over four decades in the fashion industry, Fleming remains a well known model in the Toronto fashion scene. With all of her achievements, it is no surprise that, the model turned personal shopper, hasn’t left the industry she adores and that adores her so deeply.

“Fashion has been my life. I didn’t have any other career and so it comes easy. It’s second nature,” says Fleming.

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