As couture week takes off in Paris this weekend, Fashion Reverie looks back at one of the most recognizable models that defined French couture style in the 1980s and early 90s, Katoucha Niane. Remembered as Yves Saint Laurent’s muse in the 1980’s and as the African model who set the stage for such models as Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Jourdan Dunn, and Naomi Smalls, Katoucha’s—the single moniker she became known for in the 80s—auspicious fashion career didn’t start out the traditional route of runway models.
Born into an influential Guinean family—her father was the playwright/author/poet Djibril Tamsir Niane—Katoucha’s family was forced into exile after her father came into conflict with Guinean president Sekou Toure. After marrying at the early age of 17 and giving birth to her first child, Katouche with her family moved to France and began modeling for Lanvin, Thierry Mugler, Paco Rabanne, Christian Lacroix and later Yves Saint Laurent with whom she formed a special, lasting relationship.
Katoucha rise to fame in the fashion industry, particularly the world of haute couture came on the heels of French couturiers being mesmerized by African American models witnessed en masse in the now famous “Divertissement de Versailles” in 1973. Some years later Hubert de Givenchy hired a contingent of African American models to showcase in collection in Paris and Martinique-born Mounia became a special muse to Yves Saint Laurent.
Katoucha reign as the “ebony princess” for Yves Saint Laurent came after paying her dues first working as a fit model at Lanvin and later gaining attention with her wide shoulders that narrowed down to a slender waist in Mugler’s early 80s power suits. Katoucha also became a particular favorite in the couture shows of Gian Franco Ferre, Chloe, Chanel, Givenchy, and Dior. And Japanese audiences declared the queen of their catwalks in the 80s and early 90s.
After retiring from modeling full time in 1994, Katoucha dedicated her time to setting up a charity, Katoucha Pour la Lutte Contre l’Excision that campaigned against female genital circumcision. Later, in 1995 she launched her own fashion label, Katoucha. Of her failed fashion label, Katoucha said, “I’ve got long fingers to grab money and big gaps between them to let it fall through.”
After many years struggling with drugs and alcohol abuse, in 2007 Katoucha released her tall-all autobiography, and that same year Katoucha starred in Senegalese writer Abbas Ndione film adapted “Ramata.” The director, Leandre-Alain Baker, said: “She could go right from laughter to anger. But she always came back, and I attribute that to her past, what she … lived through.”