In 1987, the fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier shot the supermodel Naomi Campbell in the desert wearing a gold Chanel jacket. It’s a stunning photograph and a historic one. This image featured on the December issue of British Vogue that year – it was only the third time the fashion magazine had a black woman on its cover.

The picture is so iconic it was acquired by The National Portrait Gallery for its permanent collection in 2016. It can currently be seen at the V&A in an exhibition celebrating the life and career of Naomi Campbell.

Born in the 1980s myself, my teenage years were during the 1990s, when Campbell rose to fame. It was uncommon then to see a woman of similar skin tone to me in mainstream media. This cover was groundbreaking, coming at a time when fashion editors believed that black models didn’t sell issues. It was also taken in the first year of Campbell’s career – a career which would go on to break so many more barriers.

As the fashion expert and writer Michaela Angela Davies puts it: “Black and non-white models are still generally regarded as a trend — seasonal and largely disposable in a mid-20th-century Dior-esque kind of way. Naomi Campbell disrupted that disregard. She was perennial, inevitable, and undeniable. Naomi was the activator.”

Naomi at the V&A is the first exhibition ever to focus on the person who wears the garments, rather than the designer who created them. It goes some way to correcting the historical oversight of the significant effect of models on fashion culture.

This exhibition is a testament to just how important the black British model has been to wider culture and representation, in the fashion world and beyond.

Produced with Campbell, the exhibition features pieces from her own wardrobe along with loans from designer archives and objects from the V&A’s collections representing key moments in her 40-year career. Spread across two floors, intricately woven along these pieces is the story of how she succeeded despite the immense challenges of being a young black woman in this era, which inspired her activism.

Dresses in a gallery.
Some of Campbell’s iconic outfits on show in the exhibition.

It begins with a section on the early years of her life. You can hear Campbell’s own voice talk about the “the freedom of expressing yourself through dance”. Campbell was scouted in 1985 at the age of 15 when she was pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer. The exhibition shows how this background set her up for her unexpected career as a model.

Campbell’s first catwalk was for French designer Yves Saint Laurent in 1987. In this section, a photograph of her entry pass for that show sits close to a pair of scuffed ballet shoes. As Davies said: “No one walks like Naomi Campbell. She walks like a warrior and navigates the territory of high fashion with supernatural flair.”

A video montage of such striking walks down catwalks greets visitors before you even enter the exhibition. In it, you see Campbell stomping the catwalks of Anna Sui, Chanel, Vivienne Westwood and Prada. Each frame appears a work of artistry and a testament to her commanding presence.

“God bless Yves,” she says in a caption that appears on the label prefacing the feather dress she wore her first couture. She attributes Laurent as the designer who helped change the course of her career.

Naomi In Fashion written in large letters
The entrance to Naomi In Fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent reportedly threatened to withdraw his advertising from French Vogue if they continued to refuse to cast black models for their cover. Yet, as much as the exhibition is about the clothes, accessories, and the collaborations, it very much connects to contemporary conversations about diversity in the fashion industry. In Campbell’s words:

When I look at Iman and Beverly Johnson and Naomi Sims and Peggy Dillard, and all the others, I appreciate the fact that they opened the door for me. If they had not come before, I would never be as far along as I am now. And I hope that I’m opening the door for people who’re behind me.

This exhibition portrays Campbell not just as a supermodel, but as a cultural innovator, highlighting her role in disrupting established norms, breaking racial barriers and using her platform to empower new creatives, advocate for equality and drive social change.

As one of the first black supermodels to achieve global recognition, she defied convention and broke the mould of what was considered the accepted beauty standard of the time. Her career success has contributed to improving standards for the representation of other ethnically diverse models in fashion.

While this metamorphosis continues, we should take a moment to enjoy all that the glitz and glamour this exhibition has to offer. It celebrates the rise of a supermodel icon – and the transformative power of fashion.

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