Celebrating Naomi Campbell

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As we immerse ourselves in new season inspiration, Nancy Buckland Kirk celebrates Naomi Campbell, the model who’s given us three decades of style and counting…

Just as the September issue of British Vogue gives us a full report of what we will want to be wearing over the coming winter months, the March issue is a blissful reminder that Spring is on its way. So we may be ankle deep in snow in real life, but once those pages are opened, the sun shines and inspiration takes over. Having just watched the latest couture shows in Paris, the cycle of fashion moves so quickly now it is hard to keep up, but sometimes perennial names stand out.

This season the Maison Valentino show, under the guidance of Pierpaolo Piccioli, was just spectacular and a riot of colour, tailoring, floaty frills and haute hippie chic. But one model took centre stage, swathed in simple black and with tightly wound hair and simple make-up. When your lead model is Naomi Campbell, there is really no need to gild the lily. With one look, and one movement, she reduces everyone to the same state and it is the sign of a truly brilliant model: you simply want to wear what she is wearing.

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Campbell also graces the cover of the March issue of British Vogue, again wearing Valentino, only this time the cover is more than just a status symbol for a supermodel. She is also a contributing editor for the magazine, under the stewardship of editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, who has absolutely transformed this style bible since he took over from Alexandra Shulman. Campbell has certainly earned her stripes, interviewing leading cultural figures and speaking out about diversity: she doesn’t simply sprinkle supermodel dust over an issue. For someone who used to just be employed to walk the walk, she is now powerfully adept at talking the talk.

I remember the first time I saw a picture of Naomi Campbell. It was print ad for Miss Selfridge, and she looked like no model I had ever seen before. Before there were even modern British supermodels, advertising tended to be dominated by blonde, all-American types like Christie Brinkley. Naomi was someone who just jumped off the page: graceful and balletic, she also had a hint of pure mischief about her. It must have worked on me, as I went straight to the store and bought the same outfit.

Naomi wasn’t an overnight superstar and she was already fighting battles on many fronts just to be seen. She was a working class girl, a young teenager and was starting at a time when British fashion was not the powerhouse it is now. But in a way, that served her well, as youthful, avante-garde designers loved her. Vivienne Westwood was a huge supporter of Naomi’s, and they remain close friends. She wasn’t the first black model to find fame, as Beverly Johnson and Iman had both forged successful careers a decade or so before, but the status quo in couture and high end fashion remained unchanged. It still felt elitist, and the narrow definition of what was deemed marketable in a model remained very narrow.

With hard work, and determination, though, Campbell kept pushing to knock down barriers and her extraordinary looks and sense of movement meant she was perfect for both editorial work and then on the place where she reigns supreme: the catwalk. There is simply no-one like her on any runway. When the Vogue covers started pouring in, some issues outside the UK found the choice of Campbell caused controversy. It’s hard to believe now, but advertisers and subscribers complained about Campbell being a cover star. Naomi Campbell did what she does best: she carried on regardless.

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She soon became a favourite of designers and editors alike. Azzedine Alaia was one of the first designers to really push Naomi, and his body conscious couture suited her lithe, athletic frame. Gianni Versace really embraced the new era of the supermodel which really took off after that infamous 1990 Vogue cover, and while so many models called themselves ‘super’ Naomi was part of a trio called ‘The Holy Trinity’ where she was joined by Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. Other models like Cindy Crawford, and Claudia Schiffer, where hugely popular and commercial but it was the top three who really ruled the fashion world. Naomi had no problems walking for top designers, or being used in their print ads, but when it came to more commercial areas, she was wholly absent. She was never awarded a major beauty campaign and they were the jobs that really earned the most. There was still a ceiling in place that Naomi was still not able to stick her Manolo Blanhiks through.

Her career, and her life, are always in the news. Yes, there have been controversies, and as I type she is allegedly romantically involved with singer Liam Payne. But there is also another side to Streatham’s finest export. Her close relationship with Nelson Mandela was exceptional and genuine, and her work for charities like Fashion For Relief is more than a one season wonder. She rolls her sleeves up and has a go, whether it be singing or TV presenting, and now she is a a heavy hitter when it comes to promoting diversity in fashion and she has a powerful voice that is both heard and recognised.

When you look back at so many fashionable, cultural moments of the last three decades, Naomi has been involved. From that magical moment on the Versace catwalk, George Michael’s ‘Freedom’ video or that groundbreaking cover of Time Magazine, her poise and elegance are simply unmatchable. And when the original supermodel juggernaut hit a wall, and the curvy, glamorous faces involved fell out of favour for a while, Naomi never did. She simply stood side-by-side with Kate Moss, and set to work once more. Their walk at the closing ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic closing ceremony lives long in the memory.

Naomi Campbell is 49 this year and graces this Vogue cover in an entirely different way than she did three decades ago. Then, she was there to sell you a couture dream. She still does that, of course. Her beauty and elegance remain undimmed. But now she also gets to speak, and write, as well as being a still hardworking model. And finally, this season also sees Naomi grace her first major beauty campaign for Nars, a brand which is certainly not shy when it comes to being both groundbreaking and controversial. It is the perfect match and once more I looked at the images and thought: get me that lipstick! It is not just Campbell’s unique and magnificent beauty that draws you in, but a sense that she really is a woman’s woman.

Will there ever be a new Naomi? It feels like an eternal question, and my sense is there never will be while the original is free to be her own industrious self. When you think of how far that shy schoolgirl has come since being discovered in her school uniform in Covent Garden, to the absolute power broker she is today, she has done far more than being the world’s highest paid model, an award that has always been given to others. She has taken every opportunity and glided with it, majestically, and both through her walk and her words she has taken those Blanhiks and walked over every stereotypical hurdle placed in front of her. Bravo, Miss Campbell. You really are one in 7.7 billion.

About the author: Nancy Buckland Kirk is a writer with a keen interest in fashion and beauty and a career which has spanned modelling, teaching and spreading the word about leading beauty brands. You may also enjoy Nancy’s recent skincare review, featuring one of this year’s most wanted skincare ingredients, squalane: Putting GOW’s 100% pure squalane oil through its paces.

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