Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images for the Victoria & Albert Museum
Fashion 04 Jul 2024 4 MIN

Why ‘Naomi’ should be on your London itinerary

Famous friends, pieces from the supermodel’s archive and that iconic fall, all captured in a must-visit retrospective

On the day NAOMI: In Fashion opened to the public at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (June 22), I found myself in the company of mainly middle-aged British women as my exhibition companions. Following the crowd through more than 100 looks and accessories mapping the 40-year-long career of the 54-year-old British supermodel, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their recollections of her headline-making moments, the featured trends they once embraced—while listening to them hum the exhibition’s soundtrack, curated by Campbell herself. The excitement was palpable, akin to the familiarity and euphoria that greets musicians when they perform in their hometown. 

Born in 1970 in South London, Campbell aspired to a career on stage and performed in music videos for Bob Marley and Culture Club when she was just a child. At 15, while out shopping with friends, she was scouted by a model agent. Two years later, in December 1987, she posed on the cover of British Vogue in a camellia-embellished Chanel look, which is also featured in the ongoing exhibition. With that, she became one of only two Black girls to score a cover since 1966. 

From then until now, she has been a collaborator in countless moments that contribute to the esoteric appeal of high fashion, making her influence undeniable. But rather than to pay homage at the altar of Naomi, I was at the exhibition more as a voyeur, for the magnificent display of designer outfits she’s worn through the years, mostly plucked from her own wardrobe. 

It didn’t disappoint. From the jewelled spring/summer 1991 Versace dress featuring Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe pop art (“Normally after the show Gianni did a dinner and we always remained in the last outfit we walked in. I wore this dress to dinner,” Campbell recalls in the exhibition notes) to the molten gold mini-dress from the late Alexander McQueen’s debut 1997 Givenchy couture show, which Campbell modelled with a pair of now-iconic horns, to the hot pink chiffon lace gown by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino that she wore to the 2019 Met Gala (“The Met ball was on a Monday and I went to do the fitting on the Friday before…It was more of a ‘dress dress’, it was more covered up, and it was not me at all. Then I saw Pierpaolo on the Sunday and he had completely reconstructed the dress…”)—each piece was breathtakingly beautiful.

But to sum it up as a room full of pretty clothes would undermine its impact. The exhibition provides a nuanced glimpse into the fashion temperament of the last few decades, guided by Campbell’s personal narrative. Several themes emerge—from the highs to the lows. Strongly featured is the prejudice against Black models that Campbell, and others who came before and after her, had to fight. Her appearance as the first Black cover girl of Vogue France in 1988, a monumental moment, happened only when her friend and mentor Yves Saint Laurent threatened to pull all advertising from the magazine. 

The exhibition also beautifully showcases the symbiotic relationship between designer and model, and among co-creatives, which the show’s storytelling foregrounds. An entire section focuses on the works of the late Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa, who Campbell considered a dear friend and mentor, and lovingly called Papa. She, in turn, was Alaïa’s muse and fitting model, staying up late into the night with him as he pinned fabric. Also on display are the vertiginous blue Vivienne Westwood platforms from 1993 in which Campbell infamously fell, showcased on a dress form contorted to mimic her swan-like tumble (“That fall is part of me, so I own the fall. It’s OK, people make mistakes. The most important thing for me is just getting up and doing it again.”). The media frenzy around the moment was so intense that Campbell recalls other designers asking her to fall during their shows soon afterwards (which she refused).


To centre an entire exhibition around a model is a rarity, even today. Campbell thrived at a time when fashion houses could remain independent, and her magnetic personality was integral to the making of their image. It also, at times, made her a divisive figure—her infamous temper got her a week of court-mandated community service in 2007 when she threw a mobile phone at a housekeeper (Campbell reported for service one day in a silver-sequinned Dolce & Gabbana gown). A few years later, she was also banned from flying British Airways for some time after she physically and verbally abused the crew.  

All these things, the good and the bad, are part of the legend of Naomi. In today’s world of fashion conglomerates and PR-driven campaigns, will the world encourage the existence of another supermodel like her? 

NAOMI: In Fashion is on display at the V&A Museum until April 6, 2025