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Designer Ralph Lauren, the keeper of the WASP image, stunned the fashion industry when he signed Tyson Beckford, a male, African-American model, to an exclusive contract with his Ralph Lauren Corp. last month.

In modeling, males have always been the poor relations of females. But being both male and black can make things especially tough if a plum role in fashion advertising is the objective.

The 24-year-old Mr. Beckford may change all of that.

"Designers want African-Americans to buy their clothing but have never really shown them in their ads. They've taken a beating from those people," said Bethann Hardison, president of Bethann Management, New York, Mr. Beckford's agency.

Said David Hershkovits, editor of New York's trendy Paper: "We put [Mr. Beckford] on the cover of our magazine because he is making advances in an industry that has been hostile to black males with his looks. He doesn't have traditional looks. He has hip-hop sensibility but still has street credibility, and this odd combination made him appealing to us for our cover. That issue [February 1995] sold very well, probably better than many others. People say that black models on covers don't sell, but Tyson proved them wrong."

That will come as good news for Ralph Lauren Corp., which posted sales of $363.5 million for apparel in 1994, according to MRCA Information Services, Stamford, Conn.

Mr. Beckford had previously appeared in one-shot ads for Polo/Ralph Lauren. The first was last fall's now-famous shot of him in a red Polo sweat shirt with USA stamped on it. He's now in the spring 1995 campaign.

Fall 1995 will be the first season of Mr. Beckford's new contract, which calls for an estimated $550,000 for one year with an option to renew. The contract makes him the highest-paid male model in the industry. Over the next few seasons he will appear in spots, created in-house, for all of Ralph Lauren's menswear and accessories. Carlson & Partners, New York, handles media.

"Tyson has great style and intelligence. He has a modern look with a dramatic edge that brings a lot of excitement to our ads," Mr. Lauren said when asked why he chose to sign Mr. Beckford.

There are other up-and-coming black male models such as Richard Elms, who has appeared in ads for Calvin Klein, and David Boxwill, who has worked for Tommy Hilfiger. But none has yet achieved Mr. Beckford's celebrity.

"He's setting a precedent. Other designers will probably follow eventually. Traditions in advertising are slowly passing," Mr. Hershkovits said.

Laura Lightbody of Wilhemina Models called Mr. Beckford "divine, brilliant, salable and the flavor of the moment. He's letting the public know there is a place for African-American male models in advertising. He may open doors in terms of contracts for other black male models with designers like Calvin Klein or Donna Karan."

For his part, Mr. Beckford thinks his new contract is "cool, and I'm very happy about it." He also sees himself as paving the way for other black male models.

"Doors are opening up," he asserted. "The fashion industry is finally accepting us, but it should have been done long ago."

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