Tyson Beckford is the greatest Black male model of our generation—and it’s not even close. Back in the ’90s, the lean, melanated baldie from the Bronx gave fashion houses access to minority cultures around the globe, often the only Black model in casting rooms full of blond, blue-eyed boys. “They would look at me like I was crazy,” remembers Beckford of his fair-skinned peers. “Like, ‘Didn’t you get the memo? Did your agent mess up and send you to the wrong casting?’”
After a year of awkward auditions for lily-white lines like Abercrombie & Fitch, Beckford linked with another icon, Ralph Lauren, in 1993, becoming the Polo poster child during his Jordan year. (“It was like signing an NBA contract right out of school,” says Beckford.) To this day, no Black male model has grossed more coin than the billboard god of the ’90s. His reign on the top was long like marathons. But unfortunately, after a couple decades of dominance—and an emotional falling out with Diddy—Tyson grew tired of the fashion world and retired. That is until Beyoncé came calling.
Today, the 51-year-old still looks as if his soul remains the devil’s property. He is also the new face of Beyonce’s unisex Ivy Park line, Ivy Heart. Queen Bey has returned that Beckford swagger, and even has the fashion emirates contemplating a comeback. Basically, Ivy Park’s got Tyson feeling like Mike Tyson again—when the chocolate boy wonder’s mere entrance would deflate a casting room. “Everyone there would be like, ‘Aww, man. Beckford is here,’” he recalls. “We ain’t getting it now.”
Tyson Beckford hopped on a video call with LEVEL to chat about his Ivy Park collaboration, braving through a racist fashion industry, the Polo legacy, and why you’ll never see him on a Yeezy runway.
LEVEL: So, how did Ivy Park pull you out of retirement?
Tyson Beckford: I’m good friends with Melissa Vargas, who is Beyonce’s right hand, and had numerous run-ins with Beyoncé. Melissa called me and was like, “B was wondering if you’d do Ivy Park?” I was like, if the king needs her knight, I will be there. I didn’t discuss money or where we’re shooting. It hit me like, This is going to be groundbreaking because she doesn’t do men. It was a no-brainer.
Did you feel any rust in front of the camera?
I’m thinking to myself, Have I lost a step? Can I do this? I can’t fail because this is for Beyoncé. The pressure was on, but once you get that first outfit on and do the first series of shots, the pressure is gone. It felt like I did at least 12 looks. We barely stopped for lunch. My call time was 11 and I was in front of the camera by 1. I think I left at about 8 o’clock. Doing this shoot made me miss fashion. If work was like this, I would easily make a comeback. If Beyoncé wanted to do an exclusive [deal], I would.
What specifically did you love about shooting with Ivy Park?
I met the stylists and they asked me for my input. Here I am, almost 30 years of fashion experience and a lot of the jobs I’ve been on, whatever they put on you is just it. They don’t ask you about the fit or how you would rock it. This experience was hands-on. I felt like I was part of this production. The way Beyoncé does things is amazing. Some nights I would get [unedited shots] and once I approved it, I would see it on Instagram by morning. If this is the evolution, I want in.
Are there any other new brands that have caught your eye?
I don’t see any. I have evolved and the only brand that’s evolved with me is Ralph Lauren. A lot of the stuff I see these designers wear, I know I’m not going to wear. I’m from the old school: Keep it simple, stupid. I see a lot of these big clunky shoes; the baggy style has come back again. It’s too couture for me. It’s for the skinny-skinny, almost anorexic.
After a long shoot, I was going straight to the Tunnel [nightclub] in that new Polo drip. I would always run into Biggie and Lil’ Cease. Biggie would be like, “Do they have that in big man sizes?”
Evolution aside, fashion houses still aren’t always inclusive of all body types and skin colors. Has an industry legend like yourself ever experienced professional racism?
I witnessed that in my first few years in fashion. Milan would say they didn’t want Black guys to [attend their shows]. They were cool with me coming. I’m like, “Are you saying I’m not Black? My skin isn’t brown like the rest of these guys?” In the beginning, there also weren’t any dark Africans; no one from Sudan or Ethiopia or Ghana. You just didn’t see that when I was coming up. Not until the end of my first decade. A lot of people credit me for that, but this is the evolution of the world. You guys just weren’t hip to understand that you should’ve been had different tribal men.
You seem to be in a very positive space. Think you and Puff will ever squash the negativity?
To be honest, there is no negativity. We speak cordially. Our sons went to school together and are friends. When I got with him, Naomi was in my ear like, “This is going to be amazing,” because we were all friends. We used to all go out and hang in New York City. Back then, I was a Ralph boy. So [no fashion brand] could touch me. But when Sean John approached me, I was excited. I wanted to crush it for [Puff]. But it was a lot that was promised that didn’t come through. The show we did was incredible. When I look at me and him on stage taking that picture, it’s so iconic. It breaks my heart that we didn’t go further.
Explain how your final balance for that Sean John shoot ended up a charity donation?
That didn’t make sense to me. I’m like, I worked for that money. I love the United Negro College Fund—at least that’s where they told me it was going. That’s when I was like, it’s time to [retire]. I’m going to starve the world of my talent because I’m seriously heartbroken. I didn’t speak to anybody for a while. I didn’t go anywhere. I was just going to court and [Diddy] was on the other side. It was just like, how did it come to this? Then I saw the whole thing with him and Shyne. I was at Shyne’s court cases, too. I just looked on Instagram and Shyne’s not following me anymore. Like, what did I do to you? So what do you do but hit the unfollow button?
Have you been aware of TV shows like Raising Kanan that pay homage to that Polo era you helped make G.O.A.T.?
Cannot forget the Wu-Tang [series] on Hulu. This was my era. I was the blueprint wearing all of those pieces. I would be out in the city wearing the latest drop and everybody would be like, “Yo! When is that coming out?” It would always be months ahead because I’d come straight from the photo shoot. If my plane landed [in New York City] on Sunday after a long shoot, I was going straight to the Tunnel [nightclub] in that new Polo drip. I would always run into Biggie and Lil’ Cease. Biggie would be like, “Do they have that in big man sizes?”
Which Ralph Lauren piece caused the most hysteria?
The fleece USA sweatshirt. The red one with the white lettering. I have a remake of it because someone came to my house party and walked off with it. People would line up to come to my house and get free stuff. When I used to do the Ralph campaigns, we traveled with like 25 to 50 trunks of clothes. We would shoot maybe one-third of that. The rest would go back into a stock room that was about 3,000 square feet. You gotta see this room. In it is everything Ralph ever shot. Once in a while, they would let me go in the room and take what I wanted. It was too much to go into my Land Cruiser at the time. So they would box it up and ship it to my house.
Now I know you and your ex Kim Kardashian aren’t currently on chummy terms, but would you ever model Yeezy?
No. You gotta love what you’re wearing. Every designer I’ve ever worked with, I’ve felt that way about their clothes—from Sean John to FUBU. You have to feel it. [Yeezy] is too couture for me. There was a time when [Kanye] was invited to study fashion design in London. I met the professor that runs the school and she was so mad that he accepted and then didn’t take it. She’s like, “He’s going to sell because he’s popular, but will it be true to that of a fashion school graduate? Maybe not.”