19 June 2024

More than ‘simply a model of clothes’: V&A exhibition spotlights Naomi Campbell’s impact on fashion and beyond

19 June 2024

In a first of its kind exhibition, the V&A’s NAOMI: In Fashion showcases the life of catwalk icon Naomi Campbell.

But as the London museum’s senior fashion curator Sonnet Stanfill says, having been given “unparalleled access” to Campbell’s own memories, stories and wardrobe, it provides a truly “unique window into someone who’s become more than a supermodel”.

Made up of two floors, the exhibition collates garments, mementos and photographs from her 40-year career, diving into her impact on fashion and culture far beyond clothes.

“There had been many exhibitions about fashion designers and photographers, but often the model is left out of the story,” says Stanfill. “Naomi Campbell is a clear choice for looking at one model who has used her platform to spotlight the work and creativity of others in the industry, alongside campaigning for equal pay and equal coverage for models of colour.”

It is immediately apparent upon entering the exhibition that Naomi’s story is multifaceted, with a display case showcasing her life before fame in stills from Bob Marley music videos and worn-through ballet slippers.

“When she started out, she never thought she’d be a model,” Stanfill notes. “She trained at the Italia Conti Academy for a career as a dancer.”

The first floor takes visitors through Campbell’s early meteoric rise, touching upon key relationships throughout her career – from Yves Saint Laurent (with whom she famously credits helping her get her first Vogue cover by threatening to pull his advertising unless they cast her), to Gianni Versace and Gianfranco Ferré, who were instrumental in casting models of colour in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

The downstairs not only showcases early connections that would become instrumental in the now 54-year-old’s career, but also moments that shaped her growing fame – such as that still famous Vivienne Westwood catwalk fall in 1993.

The eminent mock croc purple platform shoes she was wearing are reunited with the outfit, displayed on a fallen mannequin to mimic the moment.

The second mezzanine floor pays homage to designers and creatives that have developed with Campbell alongside her career.

Garments include the metallic Dolce & Gabbana dress worn on her final day of community service in 2007, and the Valentino 2019 Met Gala gown Pierpaolo Piccioli designed for her – who noted: “Naomi embodies the creative process and actively orientates it, she recognises creativity and the values behind creativity […] she knows fashion and she knows the language to represent it.”

Integral British designers like Alexander McQueen are also featured heavily.

“The [McQueen] crystal and sequined gown she wore to the 2019 British fashion Awards is one of my favourites,” says Stanfill (Campbell was honoured with the Fashion Icon Award at the event).

“Of course, she wanted to wear a British designer to the event, but what’s significant about that dress is not only the craftsmanship of it, but the depth of the relationship with the designer. It’s wrapped up in an intricate web of connections and relationships that cut across decades.”

For those perhaps not as interested in the fashion directly, Campbell’s viral hazmat suit of 2020 also features, accessorised with a Burberry cape.

“It’s a nice nod to the fact that she doesn’t take herself to seriously,” Stanfill notes of the supermodel’s pandemic get-up, “and that she’s very adapt at using press to capture the moment.”

Despite housing 85-90 mannequins, the show goes beyond garments. Surrounding the top mezzanine is a selection of images curated by Edward Enninful, former British Vogue editor-in-chief. projected seamlessly across the room. “Having worked with Naomi across both of their careers almost from the very beginning, his eye helped make the edit of what tells the story best” notes Stanfill.

The downstairs features a ‘model’s dressing room’, with furniture loaned from Claridge’s and garments from Campbell’s own archive. “We’ve tried to evoke the busyness and chaos of a working model by recreating a dressing room that’s been styled by Naomi,” says Stanfill. “It suggests a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of an on-the-go model.”

The exhibition also includes a soundscape based on a playlist crafted by the supermodel herself, featuring music that’s inspired her and brought her enjoyment and pleasure over the years (there’s a Spotify playlist visitors can download).

The small display case at the end of the exhibit is truly evocative of Campbell as a whole…

Indiscriminate bits of ephemera pepper a glass case that tells the story of a modelling career that evolved to include activism, and a far great cultural impact – from model cards and books lent by former agents, to her Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund T-shirt and photo album snapshots.

As Stanfill puts it, Campbell transcended being “simply a model of clothes and became a cultural figure and an advocate for causes she believes in.

“I think that is the element that will make this exhibition resonate not only with those interested in fashion, but interested in culture more widely.”

NAOMI: In Fashion, sponsored by Boss, opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum on June 22 and runs until April 6, 2024. Visit vam.ac.uk

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