How this first-of-a-kind London exhibition is celebrating 40 years of Naomi Campbell

NAOMI: In Fashion, devoted to the supermodel, is the first time a model has been the subject of a retrospective exhibition

By Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Thu 27 Jun 2024, 7:02 PM

Never before has a model been the subject of a retrospective exhibition in an art institution. Still, this happens at the wondrous Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London, and it’s through ‘NAOMI: In Fashion’, devoted to Naomi Campbell, a former ballet student from south London who epitomised the concept of the supermodel, a 1990s construct.

Ms. Campbell, 54, is a frequent visitor to Dubai—she recently said the city is the place to be in 2024—and a lover of the Middle East. “The region has been extremely embracing to me, and as a woman of colour, I feel that I am looked at as one of them. I feel very blessed,” she told Vogue Arabia some time ago.

‘NAOMI: In Fashion’ is organised chronologically and in thematic sections to explore Campbell’s unequalled, enduring, and storied 40-year career. The most iconic style moments track her complete fashion evolution.

The show features more than 100 looks from her personal clothing collection. Visitors admire memorable outfits she wore that marked her long-term collaborations with Azzedine Alaïa, Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Galliano for Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander Mc Queen, and many others. “Campbell has become part of the history of each brand,” explains the exhibition curator Elisabeth Murray.

Naomi in Fashion exhibition, 18th June 2024
Naomi in Fashion exhibition, 18th June 2024

Whether the legendary gold metal-mesh dress by Versace, the gorgeous pink look at Met Gala by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, the theatrical motorcycle bustier by Thierry Mugler, or the pair of staggeringly high Vivienne Westwood platform shoes worn by Campbell during her famous 1993 catwalk fall, she wrapped in those designs always represented the fashion model archetype.

Her recent involvement with Balenciaga and her steady support of African and Indian designers, such as Manish Malhotra are also documented. The creative industry is expanding, and today’s cultural figuration of beauty in fashion is also a matter of extra-European countries.

The exhibition delves into Campbell’s roles as a supermodel, muse, brand builder, creative collaborator, activist, and philanthropist, offering a rich tapestry of her life and work.

Edward Enninful, the former editor-in-chief of British Vogue, who has worked with Naomi more than any other model, came up with the idea of a show on this one-of-a-kind mannequin, “a tireless perfectionist,” he says.

The clips of her legendary walk, the shoots, and the fashion editorials with the most visionary photographers who molded the supermodel phenomenon are on display. Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, and Nick Knight produced many iconic images of Naomi. Mr Knight explains, “I have filmed her, photographed her, and made sculptures of her, and in each of these mediums, her incredible beauty and strength has enabled me to create important images of modernity, power, and relevance to the time we live in.”

Tim Blanks, editor–at–large for The Business of Fashion, stresses Naomi’s empathetic relationship with photographers, which helped shape her career when she turned 16 and the catwalk called.

Campbell never planned on being a model. “I wanted to be in theatre arts. I got side-tracked into modelling,” she said. Born in 1970 in south London, she enrolled at the Barbara Speake Stage School, a dancing school co-founded by the mother of drummer-singer Phil Collins, when she was only five-years-old. At eight, she appeared with other kids in a music video for legendary Bob Marley’s Is This Love (1978), and at 12, in a video for CulturClub’s I’ll Tumble 4 Ya (1982). Two years earlier, at 10, she entered the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts to study ballet. While still a student, in 1986, she was scouted by Beth Boldt, head of the Synchro Model Agency, while window-shopping in Covent Garden. A few months later, before her 16th birthday, she graced the cover of British Elle.

Her expressiveness on the catwalk comes from her education as a ballet dancer. “Campbell has credited her peerless ability to ‘walk’ the catwalk in part to this rigorous dance preparation," explains Sonnet Stanfill, curator of 20th-century and contemporary fashion at the V&A. “Although Campbell’s rise was rapid, it was grounded in this training.”

When Naomi turned 16, stylist Ray Petri encouraged her to visit Paris. “The first show she walked in Paris in 1986 was Comme des Garçon,” says Tim Blanks. “Her life changed on that trip.” Through a friend, she met with Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaïa “right after a pickpocket had thoroughly cleaned her out. She spoke no French, and Azzedine spoke no English, but he managed to calm her and cook her dinner. He was always her safe haven in Paris. Naomi acknowledged the bond by calling her ‘Papa.’”

Fashion critic Alexander Fury stresses that Campbell’s relationship with Azzedine was a symbiosis, which, for many, epitomises the entire dynamic of a model as a designer’s muse. A section of the exhibition is dedicated to the ‘Muse’ Campbell.

“Azzedine loved that I came from a dancing background,” reveals the model of colour. “He loved the way his clothes looked on me. And I just loved him: his heart, his spirit, his personality, his kindness and unconditional support.”

Azzedine Alaïa in Paris and Gianni Versace in Milan became her father figures. Gianni was known to call Campbell his sister. “As a mark of his love for Campbell, a reflection of how she inspired him, he frequently allocated up to 10 looks to her in his shows — other models were perhaps given three,” remarks Fury.

Her fellow model Christy Turlington introduced her to Gianni in 1987 in New York. She first walked for Versace in the Autumn/Winter of 1988 and continued to be the Italian fashion house’s queen in its design signatures. “The fittings were very quick with Gianni because he was very clear on what he wanted on you,” recalls Naomi. “I remember them as quick, seamless, and fast. He was so clear, even down to the hair.”

Under Gianni Versace’s watch, Campbell became a ‘supermodel’ with Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington.

Versace is credited with introducing the term by referring to his favorite girls, whom he turned into well-paid celebrities. The Oxford Dictionary definition of a ‘Supermodel’ is “a highly successful fashion model who has attained the status of international celebrity.”

“The supermodel phenomenon was the transformative moment when fashion crossed from the elevated stratum of the clothing industry to mass entertainment,” says Mr Enninful. “In the beginning, there were five, as enshrined in Peter Lindbergh’s photo for the January 1990 cover of British Vogue: Naomi with Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford. The media frenzy distilled that to three—Linda, Christy, and Naomi—dubbed ‘The Trinity’. The models were the stars, and a handful of photographers were the directors, and they were in a structure mirroring Hollywood’s classic hierarchy.”

“They’re hotter than a curling iron,” read the cover story for the September 1991 issue of Time magazine entitled ‘Supermodels’ with Campbell gracing the cover. “They’re beautiful, that’s obvious. But they have something else: presence, or maybe allure, fascination, or magic. Whatever it is, it hits the instant one sees Naomi Campbell in a yellow totem gown, a Nefertiti of the 1990s.”

Naomi was a source of inspiration for genius and open-minded Karl Lagerfeld, who liked to see her interpret Chanel in her own way. “Once, I walked into Chanel, coming in from India, and wore a sari. He loved it,” Naomi recalls. “Next thing I knew, he created this sari for me in the show made of these tiny matte sequins. Gianni Versace was similar in that sense.”

In describing her work schedule from those years, Campbell remarks it was mad. “It used to be London, Milan, Paris, and New York. We were OK in London and Milan, and then in Paris, someone had a crackup because it was just too many shows. We were doing 18 to 21 shows in Milan, so we were exhausted by the time we got to Paris.”

Today, at almost 55, her appearances are more carefully considered, not more than ten a year, and chosen when Campbell feels personally aligned with the brand, designer, and craftsmanship, explains the exhibition curator. She says Naomi’s energy has now focused on the African continent, from advocating for girls’ education to being involved in Arise Fashion Week in Lagos. “She promotes the next wave of African designers,” she stresses. There are many talents, for example, Marianne Fassler and Thebe Magugu in South Africa, Kenneth Ize, Tiffany Amber, Mai Atafo in Nigeria, and Sudanese-French designer Abdel El Tayeb. Their looks are included in the show.

“It’s taken a long time for our fashion capitals to accept these designers coming from these emerging markets: Africa, India,” Naomi said during the 2020 Arise Fashion Week. “This is the time for change.”

In 2022, Naomi established Emerge in collaboration with Qatar Creates. The organisation aims to support the next generation of creative talent, focusing on Africa and other countries excluded from the international fashion scene. Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, and Valentino cooperated in the first series of Emerge events in October 2022, which hosted African and Middle Eastern fashion houses.

The section titled ‘Activist’ emphasises Naomi’s friendship with Nelson Mandela, the late South African anti-apartheid activist, politician, and statesman who served as the first president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

“What I do believe, and this is something I learned from Madiba, is to use who I am, my voice, to help others, to expose, to show, to make sure that the work is done,” Campbell said. “He told me to share, which I do today.”

NAOMI: In Fashion runs at the V&A, London, until April 6, 2025

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