Naomi Campbell. Mother, Model & Artist's Muse

Naomi Campbell. Mother, Model & Artist's Muse

From the catwalk to the painter’s studio,

Naomi Campbell's 40-year supermodel career has forged a vibrant artistic paper-trail.  So much more than a “living hanger” (a term once used by fashion critic and writer Robin Givhan to describe her model predecessors), the icon has inspired numerous paintings and sculptures, not to mention, witnessing the evolution of iconic fashion and art collaborations.

Who can forget her walking for Yves Saint Laurent in a canary yellow jacket inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Sunflowers (1888)? The haute couture piece was bought from Christie's in 2019 for a record-breaking 382,000 euros (S$574,000) by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

Campbell has also been photographed by the greatest modern fashion and art photographers of our time, such as Mariano Testino, Helmut Newton and Peter Lindbergh. Their photographs have fetched tens of thousands at Christie's and Sotheby's auctions, and the V&A’s upcoming Naomi exhibition (22 June 2024 – 6 April 2025) acknowledges her place as a singular force, muse and advocate to the arts.

Naomi Campbell. New Orleans. Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

What to expect at Naomi

Campbell is beloved by anyone and everyone in the fashion game. Not only is her runway walk legendary, but so is her philanthropy and activism by way of exposing institutional racism and lesser pay for her Black peers. She's graced the cover of over 500 magazines, appeared in campaigns for virtually every major fashion house, and is one of the most charismatic supermodels in the "Big Five" (a squad of top models in the '90s), alongside Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer.

"It’s been particularly wonderful to revisit the work of late photographers Bill Cunningham and Roxanne Lowit,” says Campbell of the V&A exhibition she co-curated. “They captured what it was like in those early heady days of the supermodels when New York was our playground." Alongside around 100 looks from the best of global high fashion, viewers can expect striking imagery by leading photographers such as Nick Knight, Steven Meisel and Tim Walker; all curated into an installation by her long-time friend and Vogue’s former editor-in-chief Edward Enninful OBE.

The exhibition aims to foreground Campbell’s voice and perspective; drawing upon her own extensive wardrobe of haute couture and leading ready-to-wear ensembles, along with loans from designer archives and objects from the V&A collection. Leading industry heavyweights such as fashion journalist Alexander Fury, have shared their expertise on archive runway designs, sketches, films, photographs and items from her personal collection.

Shoes. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood & the Victoria and Albert Museum

To many of her fans, the 53 year-old and mother of two symbolises a bygone era of novel silhouettes and fashion ingenuity. During the '90s, she witnessed first-hand the expert craftsmanship of current and deceased icons like John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Azzedine Alaïa (who she affectionately calls "Papa"). "Today, to hold the clothes Azzedine gave me is to have him with me a few precious moments longer," Campbell wrote in March for Vogue.

"It’s the same feeling I get when I re-encounter masterpieces by Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, which have all become part of my story." It's through her eyes that we can experience a glittering 1990s epoch, where fashion and art overlapped uncensored. "I have always been someone that cherishes clothes and appreciates workmanship that endures – but to touch the pieces I have saved over the years goes beyond admiration for their beauty and design. It has the magical effect of sending me back in time."

A Stratospheric Career in Photographs

Campbell’s career began at the tender age of 15, when she was scouted in Covent Garden. "I should have gone straight home after school," she once said in an interview with Glossary Magazine. "But Covent Garden was always such a fun artsy place, full of music and people dancing in the square, that I liked stopping there on the way back." What followed was a stratospheric rise from schoolgirl to household name. Only three years after she was discovered, Campbell became the first Black model to feature on the cover of Paris Vogue (August 1988), and the first Black model on the cover of Time.

Naomi Campbell. Steven Meisel. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Naturally, Campbell has been a muse to countless artists and photographers. She began working with renowned photographer Herb Ritts when she was just 18, was painted into a gouache dream-like reverie in Tears (2022) by Christy Powers, hewn into romanesque sculptures and rendered by the poignant art photographer Albert Watson OBE. A photograph of Campbell was proved to be a valuable sale at a Christie's auction of the estate of André Leon Talley, the American creative director, author, and editor-at-large of Vogue magazine.

Shot by the late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld in 1966, the photograph depicted Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow, and Campbell in bed, and surpassed its estimate of USD 700 - 900 by USD 29,340. Past photographs auctioned by Christie’s have similarly achieved their estimate or accrued several thousand surplus. In 2008 a photograph called: Naomi Campbell: Have You Seen Me? (1994) by the fashion photographer David LaChapelle, portrayed a semi-nude Campbell erotically dousing herself with milk, and gained USD 29,800 against an estimate of USD 6,000 – USD 9,000.

Paul Gauguin Story for Harper's Bazaar by Peter Lindbergh, 1992

Photographs taken by Peter Lindbergh are also a safe bet for Christie's buyers, as his sophisticated oeuvre of early narrative cinema and street photography has garnered respect from both the fashion and art worlds. Before his death in 2019, the photographer exhibited across the globe with Gagosian gallery; astounding audiences in Beijing, Moscow, Berlin, Milan and more with his dynamic realism and eye for juxtaposing feminine beauty with modes of antiquity and modernity.

In 2008, Christie's sold Lindbergh’s Paul Gauguin Story photograph (1992) featuring Campbell for USD 49,000 (29,000 more than the highest estimate). Inspired by the Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903), the image was taken in Jamaica in 1992 for Harper's Bazaar, and depicted a nude Campell strewn across a rustic bed gazing up at the camera. Jamaica's thick, luscious vegetation lined the upper-frame and infused the tableaux with the verdant jungle green that Gauguin favoured. Campbell's sensuality combined with the tropical setting also evoked the artist's penchant for mystical symbolism and fascination with the natural world. “I love to take pictures of women with personality, character and style. This is for me the real beauty. Naomi is one,” Lindbergh once said.

We’re living in a “Naomissance”

Campbell's elegant profile has also influenced contemporary parodies of Renaissance portraiture. In 2016, the talented multi-media artist, Mickalene Thomas, used her alchemy of rhinestones, acrylic, enamel and oil to illustrate the supermodel’s striking figure onto a wood panel. Named Naomi Looking Forward #2, it portrayed Campbell reclining on a couch: recalling the posed women from the Renaissance paintings.

Her calves and feet were distinctly paler than usual- a photographic detail taken from the Grand Odalisque (1814) by 19th-century French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), currently on display in the Louvre Museum, Paris. The pale ligaments collaged against a fully-clothed and extremely successful African-American woman, appropriated a long-standing tradition in early nudes. Historically dominated by male artists and patrons, the image replaced the typically subservient model with the presence of a proud woman possessing full autonomy.

Naomi Looking Forward #2 by Mickalene Thomas, 2016

Like Thomas, LaChapelle has also taken inspiration from Renaissance paintings. The inspiration for his critical piece, The Rape of Africa (2014), was derived from Sandro Botticelli's (1445-1510) Venus and Mars (1485), a mythological painting currently hanging in London's National Gallery. LaChapelle is known for referring to art history and social messages when producing his imagery. This certainly rings true for The Rape of Africa: a photograph featuring Campbell shot alongside a male white model in a technicolour tableaux of Grecian costume and post-modern destruction. "It's a postcoital scene: Mars, god of war, is sleeping on all his spoils, while Venus, goddess of love, is looking unsatisfied. Things haven't changed much, I thought. Greed and war versus love and beauty."

At the time of the photograph’s creation, LaChappelle told The Guardian that it critiqued imperialism, racial oppression, consumerism and, "a global society fuelled by greed and power."  "I wanted Venus to represent Africa, a continent that has been, and continues to be, raped – because that's where all the resources lie. Botticelli used Simonetta Vespucci, an aristocrat famous for her beauty, as his model. Who, I wondered, is today's best known beauty of African descent? Naomi Campbell came to mind."

The photographer also replaced Botticelli’s Satyrs with child soldiers, Venus's dress was ripped to allude to rape, and a nightmarish mine situated in the backdrop referred to the tragic working conditions of Africa's gold mines. Meanwhile, racial discrimination enforced by colonisation was implied through the use of bleaching agents and blue eye contacts worn by Campbell. The supermodel herself is a staunch advocate for social justice.

The Rape of Africa by David LaChapelle, 2014

An “honorary granddaughter” to Nelson Mandela, Campbell was honoured at the Human Rights Campaign’s 19th annual Greater New York Gala in recognition of her passionate role as an advocate for global humanitarian issues, including HIV/AIDS research. The V&A will also spotlight her activism through research spanning from 1989, when she joined the Black Girls Coalition to 2007, when she fronted the ‘black issue’ of Vogue Italia. As well as her campaign for diversity on the catwalk as part of the The Diversity Coalition since 2013, and founding her global initiative EMERGE in 2022.

Over time, Campbell’s unequalled career has seen journalists champion her for catapulting photographers and artists into the public’s orbit. Following the announcement of the V&A exhibition last year, The Guardian's Deputy fashion editor, Chloe MacDonnell, credited her with being "instrumental in launching the careers of fledgling designers, such as Lee McQueen and Virgil Abloh, and models including Adut Akech." Indeed, creatives associated with Campbell’s very name, presence and commendation appear indicative of good taste and artistic flair. In the same article, MacDonnell hailed our current era, a “Naomissance” (Naomi Renaissance), an idealistic phrase instilling hope for a future enriched by the supermodel’s advocacy, strength and artistic passion. If this is Campbell’s era, then the exhibition is only the latest victory of her reign.

Title image. Naomi Campbell. Photo by Dave Benett. Getty Images for the Victoria & Albert Museum