19 Jun 2024

Naomi Campbell on high fashion discrimination

Culture Correspondent

High fashion and the headlines collide as Naomi Campbell becomes the first supermodel in history to have a retrospective at the V&A. We met its star and yes, she was fashionably late.

Minnie Stephenson: It’s very rare for anybody to have an exhibition about their entire life when they’re still alive in the way that you have done. Does it feel daunting? Are you proud of it, or do you feel nervous about it?

Naomi Campbell: I’m nervous about everything I do creatively that I put out to the world to see. I’m a perfectionist. I want it to be at its best but I want this to be more than anything, an intimate portrayal of me, of things you didn’t know about me and things that you’ve never seen.

The exhibition, ‘Naomi in Fashion’ charts 40 years on the catwalk, told through her wardrobe. A cultural icon who began modelling at 15 before becoming the first Black woman to appear on the cover of French Vogue.

Naomi Campbell: It wasn’t so easy for women of colour to get covers. But I definitely fought for mine.

Minnie Stephenson: I just wondered being at the front like that, did it ever feel lonely being the first?

Naomi Campbell: I didn’t know it then, you know. I know, just as a black woman, that I had to prove myself 150%.

Minnie Stephenson: You’ve been open about the fact that at times you weren’t paid as much as your white counterparts.

Naomi Campbell: Of course I was. I wasn’t paid as much. I wasn’t given the same opportunities. Some people are like, so why are you still working so much now? Because I’m being given the opportunities now. Maybe then, I wasn’t allowed to prove myself.

Minnie Stephenson: There’s been a huge effort in modelling and across the board to diversify the industry. Does it feel genuine to you?

Naomi Campbell: I’m not sure. Right now I feel like there’s a slip back and so it’s really trying to get that equilibrium and balance, is what I’m hoping and wanting and stay optimistic for.

The retrospective looks back at Campbell’s collaborators and friendships, from George Michael to Nelson Mandela and notably the late designer Alexander McQueen.

Naomi Campbell: I loved Ali [Alexander McQueen] as a friend as well as a creative. So protective, so insightful. He said to me, I don’t want you to do this. And he was right. Very maternally, He was an incredible cook. He’d like, come home and have dinner, cooking in the kitchen. It’s just like, really? God.

Minnie Stephenson: You must miss him.

Naomi Campbell: Yeah. They don’t make them like that anymore. You have friends that can tell you the real deal. Yeah.

At times, Campbell’s catwalk moments were eclipsed by her courtroom appearances. None more so than in 2007, when she was sentenced to five days community service after admitting she had thrown a phone at one of her assistants. The model famously wore Dolce and Gabbana for her stint of sweeping and scrubbing on the streets of New York.

Minnie Stephenson: When you look back on that moment in your life, how do you reflect on it now? Was it a difficult time?

Naomi Campbell: I did something, I did my community service. But also, I’m going to leave with my head held up high. But I understand why I did my community service. I understood why, but I took my accountability. I’ve never not.

And nobody can accuse Naomi Campbell of not remaining relevant. During the pandemic, she combined extreme hygiene and high fashion. Unsurprisingly, it went viral.

Minnie Stephenson: Vogue said Naomi Campbell’s hazmat suit was one of the most symbolic looks of 2020. How did that come about?

Naomi Campbell: Well, I bought like a pack of 30 hazmat suits or 50, maybe on Amazon. Some people said I stole them from PPE, from the hospitals. It’s like all these stories. That’s my germaphobe. That’s my thing. It’s whether there was Covid or not, I clean.