Pin It
Naomi Campbell Kenneth Ize Arise Fashion Week
@kennethize

Naomi Campbell: the supermodel with a plan to put Africa on the fashion map

Amidst the chaos of Lagos’s Arise Fashion Week, Campbell outlined exactly why the Nigerian capital should have your attention

With just a few hours until Naomi Campbell walks the runway four times at Lagos’s Arise Fashion Week, the atmosphere backstage is chaotic. But then, everything about Nigeria’s most populous city can feel stressful: the heat, the traffic, the general lack of regard for timeliness. “We’re going to need someone to order drinks for this room because we’re going to be in and out of it for the next few hours,” asserts Campbell as she paces around in an ornate suite inside the Lagos Continental hotel. “You,” she points at a young man. “You can put that bag down. Can someone get me a cigarette?”

Amid this palpable tension, it’s easy to interpret her as acerbic, and easier still to be a little intimidated. As we catch a moment to talk, I ask her what she thinks the general misconceptions are about her as a personality. “I don’t really care,” she replies, before deeply inhaling the cigarette that materialised a few moments after she’d asked. There’s been a lot of reports of Naomi the diva, so many that I’m almost preparing how to react if she shows up.

During our weekend together, though, I met a warmer, more philanthropic version of her that isn’t given half as much press. By all accounts, Campbell seems more at home among the anarchic energy of Lagos than on the high fashion runways where she made her name, and now, with 33 years of modelling and a huge amount of influence under her belt, she’s intent on helping others make theirs – which is why she’s begun making frequent trips to the West African hub, a troupe of influential friends and industry insiders in tow.

This time around, Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful and André Leon Talley were both in attendance – wanting the ex-US Vogue editor-at-large to witness what’s happening in the Nigerian city, she had invited him (and his sizeable entourage) out at the very last minute, enlisting him to host a talk. “It’s been chaos, but good chaos,” she explains. “It fuels me, gives me that adrenaline rush.”

Having modelled at Arise for the first time last season, this time, Campbell’s role had evolved to become more curatorial, as she endeavours to raise the profile of a host of young, talented creatives. It’s something she talks about with a lot of passion: “Coming here last year opened my eyes to seeing that these designers are not getting the exposure they should, and they’re so talented,” she says. “I’d wanted to wear some of their clothes in Europe and America but I was told they just didn’t have the means to produce more than one of each look. It was so sad for me to hear, and I thought: ‘What can I do to help?’ This is my industry, that I’ve been a part of for so long, and I want to help them.”

While her fixation in elevating the status of Africa isn’t entirely new, she’s recently doubled down her efforts to push Lagos as an important fashion destination on the fashion map. Which is why, this year, she delved into her impressive address book and pulled out the details of a series of high profile fashion players, all of whom descended on the city for this edition of Arise. Among them were the likes of Liya Kebede, one of the world’s highest paid models, and hyped up-and-coming face Alton Mason, who both joined Campbell on a number of runways.

It wasn’t just bringing in models that Campbell helped coordinate, though. “I picked 32 designers that I wanted to bring people from the outside to see. I think the time is now,” she asserts. When choosing who those designers would be, factors important to her were technique, whether they made their own fabric, and whether they possess a flair which will bring them commercial success. Her passion, she explains, is also fuelled in part by the fact that even now, after 33 years as a model, she can only name a few designers she has worked with that are black: including Patrick Kelly, Tracy Reese, Stephen Burrows, and Andre Walker. “I've always spoken up about it. I'm not someone that's going to brush it under the carpet, neither am I going to be walked over.”

Unsurprisingly, Arise Fashion Week almost entirely centred around creatives of colour, as African designers converged with cult, London-based favourites. Out in force, fresh from her debut as part of the Fashion East family in February, was Mowalola, whose sexy, erotically charged collections have previously referenced Nigerian petrolheads, and collapsed the walls that separate gender. Also there was fellow Fashion East-er Asai, whose stand-out Hot Wok styles were stormed down the runway on the back of the PDA founder Ms. Carrie Stacks

“(Arise) will grow more and more, and next year, we’ll be able to bring more international designers. Brands will want to start showcasing here, that’s the goal. That, and contributing to the infrastructure of Africa, to make it the continent of fashion design, architecture, art, and tech – which it should be!” – Naomi Campbell

Elsewhere, New York’s Pyer Moss presented a poignant collection, alongside Seven Mothers – a short, heartfelt film that deals with the grief he felt over his mother’s death as a child – while LVMH Prize hopeful Kenneth Ize, Rich Mnisi, and Deola Sagoe all presented their latest collections. “It’s nice to have a mix,” adds Campbell. “It will grow more and more, and next year, we’ll be able to bring more international designers. Brands will want to start showcasing here, that’s the goal. That, and contributing to the infrastructure of Africa, to make it the continent of fashion design, architecture, art, and tech – which it should be!”

While on the subject of her crusade, one name and inspiration is never too far away. She brings Nelson Mandela up multiple times, on various occasions, throughout the weekend: it’s clear she still frequently thinks of her honorary grandfather. “It’s to him that I attribute my drive in the sense of wanting to champion Africa and get people to recognise this great continent in the right way,” she explains.

Campbell’s commitment to Africa and its people doesn’t end with fashion, though. The supermodel makes frequent visits to support hospices, orphanages, and trusts around the continent. On this particular trip to Lagos, during a visit to the Hearts of Gold hospice – which takes care of abandoned children with special needs – both Edward Enninful and Campbell were present to witness the traditional naming ceremony of a new arrival. Clutching an eight-day-old baby in her arms, Campbell sobbed as the child was named Naomi, before another young boy was given the name Edward.

Given the current conversations that surround hypervisible charity work and poverty porn, Campbell had previously been reluctant to allow press to see these meetings, but concluded that she must court them to promote her causes. “I first realised it when I started Fashion For Relief – if I really wanted to help and spread the word, I had to open my mind and open the gates and let them in.”

Closing out the weekend was a talk in which Campbell announced the launch of a series of design schools in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Cape Town, and Nairobi, at which a new generation of future fashion designers will be prepared to make their mark on the industry – as founded in partnership with Gucci. As part of a move towards greater inclusion and understanding of different cultures, the label hopes to rectify the mistakes of the past by rightly inviting a more diverse chorus of voices to join the conversation.

In many ways, the hectic weekend heralded the moment Campbell properly flung open the gates to the city's fashion scene, and presented the world with a manifesto as to what’s to come. While many of the people who landed in Lagos for Arise hadn’t even known they’d be there just a couple of days before, and the event was, for the most part, utter chaos, there was a sense that, not too long from now, Campbell will eventually get things right. It goes without saying that nothing of this fashion week is akin to London, Milan, or New York. But what it does have is a palpable energy, which feels like you’re at the nucleus of some enormous cultural shift. Its mania, by the time you’ve spent a couple of days there, is part of its allure.  

“I've said many times that with my career there's no handbook,” Naomi laughs. “When I feel passionate about something, I want to share it with the whole world.” For now she’s telling others to step up, and has a clear message: keep your eyes on Africa.