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Naomi Campbell and the black models who changed the face of fashion

Naomi Campbell and the black models who changed the face of fashion
Naomi Campbell and the black models who changed the face of fashion

 


Getty Images Naomi Campbell on the red carpet (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

As a new exhibition opens in London about the career of Naomi Campbell, Britain's first black model, a look at the women who carved their path in fashion, including America's first black cover model from Vogue, Beverly Johnson.

“Do you want to be a model?” asked talent scout Beth Boldt as she approached a group of schoolgirls in London's Covent Garden. Naomi Campbell, 15, stepped aside, thinking Boldt was talking to her blonde friends. But it was Campbell that Boldt locked eyes with. “I'm talking to you,” she says.

The shy teenager would go on to become the most famous black model in history: a model of extraordinary versatility, renowned for having the best “walk” in the industry, as well as a media personality and advocate for equal opportunities. rights in an industry where black people had long been sidelined.

Martin Brading Campbell, 16, in New Orleans, Elle UK, August 1986 (Credit: Martin Brading)Martin Brading

Campbell, 16, in New Orleans, Elle UK, August 1986 (Credit: Martin Brading)

Also on display are the silver Dolce & Gabbana couture dress On her last day of community service, she was serving a five-day sentence for a misdemeanor assault fueled by her infamous temper. Asked by Grazia Magazine why she dressed for the occasion, she replied: “Why should they expect me to look scruffy or something?”

Fighting for the right to be seen

Perhaps it was this refusal to be diminished by society's expectations that helped make her the first black cover girl for French Vogue in 1988. When her white model friends were featured but Campbell was refused, Campbell pushed harder. She turned to Yves Saint Laurent, one of Vogue's biggest advertisers, who agreed to withhold the clothes and advertising until the magazine forced him to do so.

Steven Meisel Campbell fought hard to gain equal representation in the industry (Credit: Steven Meisel)Steven Meisel

Campbell fought hard to gain equal representation in the industry (Credit: Steven Meisel)

“I definitely had to fight harder,” Campbell says in the book which accompanies the V&A exhibition. “Some people were just honest and told me that they never thought about using a black girl. So I didn't always take it as racism. I just took it as 'Okay, you 've never tried, now it's time to try.' '”

Campbell was quick to pay tribute to the other pioneers. Speaking to chat show host Michael Parkinson, back at 2004, she says. “When I get coverage, I think it's not just for me, it's for the generation of girls before me [and] after me.”

Getty Images American model Donyale Luna was a pioneer, appearing on magazine covers in the 1960s (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

American model Donyale Luna was a pioneer, appearing on magazine covers in the 1960s. (Getty Images)

The public's mixed reaction to people of color appearing on pages long considered the preserve of white people has also been disappointing. In the United States, some sponsors threatened to cut their advertising revenue and some readers canceled their subscriptions. Nevertheless, the following year, British Vogue put Luna on her blanket. This time her skin was darker, but her portrayal as an ancient Egyptian played on the trope of the “exotic” black woman and represented the limited range of roles available to women of color at the time.

Challenging Concepts of Black Beauty

“Historically, black women in white America have been called different things,” American writer and model Barbara Summers wrote in her seminal 1998 work, Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion. “Beautiful was among the last.” Unveiling the social and historical context of notions of black beauty in her book, she notes the “impersonal and often unattractive” representation of black women in 20th-century arts and the internalization of a “sad legacy of slavery.” , who she said dictated “the parameters of our existence, from what we could wear to who we could be.”

In the early 20th century, new products such as skin lighteners and anti-frizzy ointments sent a message that black people's natural features needed to be corrected, causing what Summers describes as “confusion” about what was black beauty. Meanwhile, lynchings in the United States have clearly demonstrated the dangers of entering white spaces. It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that significant numbers of people began to mobilize against American racism.

Alamy Beverly Johnson appeared on the cover of American Vogue 50 years ago (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Beverly Johnson appeared on the cover of American Vogue 50 years ago (Credit: Alamy)

Naomi Sims was an example of a new generation of courageous models who didn't wait for permission to be invited into a predominantly white industry. Fed up with being rejected by agencies, she went straight to photographers, eventually landing magazine covers and walking for Halston and Giorgio di Sant'Angelo. She defended her fellow Americans Beverly Johnson which this year celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first black American star on the cover of Vogue with a one-woman show, Beverly Johnson: the face that changed everythingbased on her 2015 memoir. “She was so nice to me and I figured that's how I was going to treat other young models,” Johnson said. BET Last year.

In 1988, two iconic black models Imanoriginally from Somalia and born in New York Bethann Hardison founded the Black Girls Coalition to demand equal representation and equal pay in the fashion industry. Campbell joined us a year later and has since described Hardison like “a second mother”. Hardison had participated in the legendary 1973 Battle of Versailles, a tug of war between European and American designers that marked a turning point in fashion history when modern American fashion houses, featuring an army of majestic black models, unexpectedly eclipsed the old guard of fashion. Parisian couture. “Fashion will never again be colonized in the same way,” Summers writes.

Getty Images Bethann Hardison, Karen Bjornson, Alva Chinn and Iman pose with designer Stephen Burrows (Getty Images)Getty Images

Bethann Hardison, Karen Bjornson, Alva Chinn and Iman pose with designer Stephen Burrows (Getty Images)

One of the Coalition's successes was its push for a all-black issue of Vogue Italia. The 2008 edition, featuring four different covers (including Campbell), sold out in the UK and US within 72 hours. Edward Enninful, who directed the shoot, REMARK: “I never thought I would be able to see something like this, my people, my race, wearing the collections, being beautiful, chic, real women in this way. But the most important thing is: it proves that we are bankable. We can sell.”

Inspired by her intrepid predecessors and by her friendship with Nelson Mandela, whom she met in the 1990s, Campbell's activism became central to her work. She is a strong advocate for African designers such as Marianne Fassler and Tiffany Amber, boosting their visibility by participating in their shows and supporting Get Up Fashion Weekwhich celebrates African fashion.

Model activists such as Campbell are gradually winning their battle. The Fashion Spot diversity report At New York Fashion Week, it was found that in spring 2015, only a fifth of models were models of color, compared to more than half in spring 2022. But there is still work to be done before the Models of color feel completely comfortable. Model born in Detroit Megan Milano said in a viral post TikTok Post last year, for example, that she had to reapply her makeup for a New York Fashion Week show because the artist wasn't good with dark skin. “I look like a ghost,” she lamented.

Getty Images TJ Sawyerr describes American model Alton Mason as “the first male model of modern times” (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

TJ Sawyerr describes American model Alton Mason as “the first male model of modern times” (Credit: Getty Images)

For Anglo-Ghanaian model, visual image maker and storyteller TJ Sawyer, who has worked for Calvin Klein, Vivienne Westwood and Lacoste, a persistent problem is what he describes as the “performative tokenism” of part of the industry's interest in black models. “If you're acutely aware that your inclusion is based on checking a quota box or implementing a PR strategy, I think for a lot of people that can feel devalued,” he said. declared to the BBC.

Seeing examples of people who look like us gave me a lot of confidence. TJ Sawyer

Sawyerr's experience, however, was mostly positive. “Seeing examples of people who look like us gave me a huge amount of confidence, so much so that there weren't many questions about whether I could enter this field as a black person,” says -he, giving the example of the American model Alton Masonwhom he describes as “the first male model of modern times”, and referring to his good friend and fellow Ghanaian. Ottawa as “perhaps one of the best examples of what the new accessibility of this industry is doing for people from marginalized backgrounds.”

Now more commonly behind the lens, Sawyerr pays it forward by recruiting black set designers, models, art directors and stylists for projects that, he says, “promote appreciation of our culture and origins” and “celebrate the people “. who may not get the shine that I think they deserve.” Sawyerr, like Campbell, grew up in south London and photographed the model in what he remembers as “a very beautiful moment of closing the loop.” He describes her as “a huge enabler,” who “paved the way for a much more accessible commercial industry when it came to black models.”

Building on the success of his ancestors and now elevating emerging talent, Campbell changed the face of fashion forever and destroyed the narrow idea of ​​beauty that the industry had. “Black women have more DNA on this planet than anyone else,” points out American model Veronica Webb in the 2022 documentary Supreme Models. “We have 100 million different looks, and that should never be denied. No aspect of our beauty should ever be denied.”

NAOMI: In fashion is at the V&A, South Kensington from June 22 to April 6, 2025. The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name in which Campbell discusses 20 of his most iconic looks.

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