MODEL MOGUL Mother
New York magazine|August 30 - September 12, 2021
NAOMI CAMPBELL, at 51, is discovering what comes after GLOBAL ICON.
MICHAELA ANGELA DAVIS
BLACK PEOPLE ACTIVATE fashion in a particular way,” my friend AJ (the artist Arthur Jafa) said with casual certainty a couple decades ago. We were poring over clippings of Black images he had surgically extracted from glossy Eurocentric fashion magazines. Now sleeved in big black binders and emancipated from their privileged published pages, they could be seen by us more honestly. Like generals in a war room, we studied the images’ relationship to one another and to us. It was an advanced exercise to train our eyes and sharpen our sensibilities, to decentralize whiteness and recentralize Blackness even in the whitest and most exclusionary of space— something Jafa elevated into an art form and for me was to become daily practice.

The runway and its extension into the fashion industry at large has historically been a very white and narrow space. And while there have been pops of color here and there of exquisite and talented beauties, Black and nonwhite models are still generally regarded as a trend—seasonal and largely disposable in a mid-20th-century Dior-esque kind of way. Naomi Campbell disrupted that disregard. She was perennial, inevitable, and undeniable. Naomi was the activator.

Impossibly beautiful (as were Naomi Sims and many others not so named), she, like elite athletes and nearly all high-fashion models, is endowed with features not awarded by merit but gifted by nature. Naomi is a force. She not only activated fashion; she did so with sublime physical intelligence. She was ferociously elegant. From the moment her 15-yearold feet took their first step on a rare tight catwalk in Paris, she bodied every runway she ever hit. And now, at 51, she’s still walking like a Black panther, still undisputed.

Undeniably, her walk is fire. Naomi walks warrior, not waif. When her foot touches the floor, muscles tremble and release in rage only to snatch back in complete command like royalty. Gorgeous and riotous, her signature strut is signifying. Her stomp is an awakening of the Holy Ghost, a drumbeat for battle. However, she, not Mother Nature, started it. Naomi attributes her elegance and walk to her birth mother, who traveled the world as a contemporary ballet dancer while Naomi spent time with her grandmother and attended theater school, but destiny led her not to pirouette but to prance hard-core. Bearing witness to Naomi’s walk, one might think not only her mama but Queen Nanny, Yaa Asantewaa, Carlota Lukumi, and Harriet Tubman had all personally schooled her in the Ancient Mystic March of Arts.

Fashion can be a vicious gladiator sport. Naomi, more than any model of any color, seemed to understand that. Maybe as a result of an act of Providence, she never tried to be anyone’s pretty and silent clothes hanger. She was naked with all her complexities—her mess and her majesty on full display. She has demanded respect and redemption, all without shame. Naomi has, openly, unapologetically, relentlessly, been Naomi. An extremely rare existence for any Black body anywhere, to shamelessly be oneself. She came to the fashion game armed with swords forged from her own flesh.

Black people, particularly those who felt unseen, instantly homed their gaze on the importance of Naomi. Hers was a revelation, a revolution, a runway-to-freedom walk. She walked for all the Black kids in the margins—those who had fashion fever but whose melanin and circumstances had barred them from the track. Naomi walked with all the passion of the countless queer folks and trans girls who, in dank basements and gymnasiums, idolized her and practiced for endless hours to emulate and capture her confidence and fierceness. Just to survive. The Ball community turned her walk into a whole category, a technique, a way to move through the world of one’s own very existence. Queen Bey herself immortalized it in her song “Get Me Bodied.” Because to many in the entire beloved community, Naomi is beyond the most famous supermodel. She is a superhero with staying power as her superpower.

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