Naomi Campbell is one of the most fashionable iconic models who has completely changed some classic aspects of fashion. With a rather exotic figure, Naomi managed to convince the entire fashion industry that an unusual appearance could become an icon for many women. Moreover, Campbell was not afraid to experiment with her body, so she tried to challenge classical stereotypes about female sexuality and beauty. However, the biggest turning point was connected with the following fact: it was the first time when a black woman became an icon in the fashion history. In fact, Campbell had to combat racial prejudices constantly, and she was “a woman of color, had to fight extra hard to reach the top and remain there” (Fleming 2015). However, Campbell did not try to destroy previous traditions or tackle racial issues. The model rather wanted to prove that it does matter what skin color someone has; it is more important to be a beautiful woman regardless of a race, color, or sexual orientation. This essay promotes the idea that Naomi Campbell is a style icon due to a perfect combination of classic canons with such innovative techniques as the blend of male and female features, sensual nudity, and soft plastic of the body on stage.
When Naomi Campbell first began to appear in famous magazines, she instantly started dispelling stereotypes about black women in the fashion industry. At this point, there were no black female models who were asked to pose for photographers, and they were not an object of general interest. The society was ready for an aesthetical shift in fashion, where exotic models became important and popular for many designers. Campbell was distinguished by her shape and unique style, which was a blend of the western freedom of expression and oriental mystery. The media called her a “black panther”, and the nickname originated not only from her skin color but also from her unusual fashion presentation. The model immediately felt quite free and relaxed in front of cameras, so the first images in British “Vogue” (1990) attracted the attention of such designers as Gianni Versace, Azzedine Alaïa, and Isaac Mizrahi. In this historical issue, Campbell starred together with other young models, looking strictly at the viewer (Lidbury 2015). From this moment, she became a real fashion icon because she embodied a simple street style and femininity.
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Nevertheless, designers chose Campbell not only because of her skin color but also her expressive features as well as great physique and charisma. It is not surprising that all subsequent fashion shows of all leading designers could not happen without her. In fact, Campbell represented the history of fashion in the 90s and its main changes (Blackman 2012, p. 358). She especially contrasted with other models due to her eccentric approach, perfectly combining female sexuality with a male aggressive life-style. The model is known for her recent support of transgender models, but she also tried to blur the unmoved boundaries between males and females in fashion at the beginning of 1990s. In particular, Campbell demonstrated rough and raunchy dresses on the fashion show in 1993 by Perry Ellis (Laker 2010), where she demonstrated a perfect combination of old sweaters and delicate feminine accessories. One more distinctive feature of this show was bumpy shoes, which were worn by soft models, including Campbell. In fact, the designer was Marc Jacobs, who borrowed the grange style from Kurt Cobain, but he moved it to a new level –street fashion. The designers and their models denied luxury and splendid collections, abandoning the imposed ideals of feminine beauty. As a result, young girls were dressed in heavy sweaters and male baggy trousers, showing indifference to the main course of the fashion industry.
On the other hand, there was no clear distinction between genders, because wide torn pants could easily be perceived as a skirt, and men and women equally wore checkered shirts. Campbell added to the collection both coarseness and aggression, perfectly embodying the rebellious nature of the youth. Her exotic expression attracted additional unusual attention to new avant-garde styles and solutions in fashion, causing a real turn in the fashion industry. Hence, coarse clothes replaced classical light and elegant dresses. Such deconstruction was the most important element, replacing harmony and balance. Campbell perfectly reproduced the most essential social and cultural changes in the context of gender issues (Choi 2015, p. 248). In general, an aggressive trend was born out of rebellion and protest, making it versatile for each younger generation.
Campbell cooperated with the most provocative designers, revealing the potential of fashion, particularly in the context of blurring boundaries between elite and popular culture. While Marc Jacobs proposed to use the grange style, borrowing it from Kurt Cobain, a lot of designers decided to take another way, paying attention to minimalism. Campbell picked up the trend of young designers to depreciate high fashion, and thus joined the trend of minimalism that became one of the most influential trends of the 90s. Reducing shape to an absolute minimum, throwing out unnecessary details and decorations, designers began to praise purism, simple shapes, and colors. Campbell and many other models demonstrated the opposite trend in the postmodern fashion, where simple jeans and T-shirts dominated. Minimalism also expressed the street fashion due to its intention to use simple everyday forms. However, the designers transferred the opposite meaning. The grunge fashion was an act of rebellion against capitalism and high fashion, and the minimalistic character tried to show life as simple as it was possible. In this light, the streets of major cities moved to the podium, so designers did not need to buy expensive fabrics or look for new concepts. Campbell was very close to this style because she wore simple clothes every day as Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista from “Trinity”. In addition, there was one more aspect. While high fashion exploited minimalism on the podium, Campbell instead of simple dresses put on concise elegant dresses from Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Thus, the model proved that she could not only break the boundaries between male and female fashion but also the borders between elite and mass culture.
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Campbell was one of the first models who risked baring her body on stage, using physical opportunities as a method of an artistic expression. Every model is ready to show her/his body, but Naomi is one of the few who demonstrated her body in the most vivid way during fashion weeks. She almost trusted one designer to use her body as a canvas for new patterns. Because of such openness, all major designers always wanted to see Naomi at their shows. In this context, her ethnicity played a special role, because such exotic body was a real discovery for the fashion industry: “Her physique is a mixture of a ‘typical’ model (tall, slender and lean) and a female athlete; strong and muscular, but in a sexy feminine way” (Laker 2010). However, numerous critics and feminists expressed their negative attitude to this issue. They argued that the exploited black model reminded the past of the Western civilization that used slaves for making profit (Steele 2010, p. 136). For Campbell, it was important to present her body as a tool for self-expression not as a part of the Western post-capitalist manipulation. However, in 1999 she posed nude for Playboy (Collins 2010), one of the most patriarchic magazines.
Campbell was both a model and a person who tried to convey the key ideas of designers, not only with the help of clothes but also her nakedness. It was especially important for Jean Paul Gaultier, who left very little clothing on her body in order to make avant-garde compositions, also in order to criticize capitalism (Milligan 2016). Therefore, Campbell did not hide her sexuality and body, because it was an instrument of expression in addition to clothes and the conceptual idea. In this case, many performances by Gaultier and Vuitton were very close to Campbell’s philosophy because she tried to change the fashion according to physical opportunities of the human body. Hence, in the early 90s, Campbell begun to develop her unique style that was characterized by graceful body plastic and a special was of presenting clothes.
Campbell distinguished the “Big Six” that represented her own style in major designers, combining individual qualities with the most crucial fashion trends. She tried to show not only clothes but also to underline individuality in every gesture. The model was an anonymous transporter of clothing for years, and Campbell has changed this tendency (Steele 2010, p. 145). Therefore, numerous designers began to focus on the individual features of leading models, integrating their collections according to their personalities. For example, Versace’s house of clothing created a single line according to her image, setting a precedent in the fashion industry. Instead, Jean Paul Gaultier, a constant patron of the model, tried to prove that fashion is a complete art, making each fashion week a grand show for celebrities. Regardless of whether it was grunge, minimalism, or neon, Campbell always stood out because of her plasticity and charismatic behavior, even though sometimes it was beyond the norm. For her, it was important to implement her own vision, adding her own vision and senses, rather than make a perfect show (Steele 2010, p. 146). It is important to point out that such a type of relationships represents some new trends in the fashion industry, where someone else could complement the designer’s concept. The viewer also became a member of the performance, adding his/her own interpretation to the presentation.
A lot of designers perceived Campbell as their colleague. She earned their esteem thanks to her slow pace, extensive observations, and graceful movements, which were different from other models. Unlike Kate Moss, who was ideal for many models, Campbell insisted on the importance of her own individuality, emphasizing her ethnicity and elegant behavior. For many black models, she has provided an opportunity to be free and original in the big world of fashion. She used both personal rebellious nature and deconstructive trends in fashion to solve social problems. It is not surprising that Campbell was engaged in active social work, because her identity formed fashion styles and social programs simultaneously (Campbell 2016). Moreover, she actively used popular culture to create her fashion icon style, and in this way her messages were more likely to reach a wide audience.
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With the help of Michael Jacksons’ music, she has become a real icon for the next generation, especially in the context of glamour (Steele 2008, p. 12). In the video “In the Closet”, she completely re-imagined previous canons, creating an image of seductive women. Previously, Campbell destroyed the boundaries between male and female fashion, high and low, as then she revolved female sexuality. In the video, the model appeared in a simple skirt and shirt, contrasting with the singer. It seems that Campbell combined and rejected previous searches, returning to concise and deep feminine energy. Analyzing the video, one sees not an androgynous or a heroin girl but only a potential of female body, which opened a new stage in the fashion industry. However, the era of super-models ended: “With the turn of the century, the super model era had slowly declined and models were not as relevant in mainstream popular culture as they once were during the previous decade” (Laker 2010). A lot of famous models turned from key popular icons into images from TV shows and wives of Russian rich businessmen.
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In conclusion, Campbell represented the aesthetical shift in the fashion industry, changing numerous movements and becoming a fashion icon for many generations. First of all, she proved that a black model could be interesting for fashion designers and could also be an integral part in the anonymous world of fashion. In each show, she tried to emphasize individuality by means of her magnetic body, revealing both female potential and personality. She managed to bring exotic elements in the fashion industry, adding to classic stories new images. In addition, Campbell was connected with the key avant-garde designers such as Marc Jacobs, Jean Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton, who tried to destroy the boundary between high and low fashion. In this sense, Campbell became a model for men and women, because she perfectly reflected the changes in the androgynous fashion, combining a rational style and wild feminine energy in her strict form. What is more, Campbell influenced minimalism, where a naked female body played a special aesthetical role. She used her body not only for restoring and emphasizing femininity but also participating in performances, making fashion a part of art. Finally, Campbell deconstructed classic patterns, combining street and glamour elements, archaic and modern sexuality. However, the most essential elements of fashion were freedom and independence, and thus Campbell decided to fight for them as they were already out of fashion.