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Fashion journalists can be a jaded bunch, but you wouldn’t know it from the vibe in the backstage media room while Naomi Campbell gave her acceptance speech onstage Monday night at the CFDA Awards. The otherwise-boisterous room — dubbed “Winners Walk” for its role as the post-speech spot where photos and interviews happen — fell almost silent as photographers and writers stopped to watch the video monitors as the supermodel’s remarks quickly proved to be among the night’s most emotional moments.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America bestowed Campbell with its Icon Award for 2018 at its annual awards ceremony, which took place this year at the Brooklyn Museum. The 48-year-old, London-born supermodel was famously scouted in Covent Garden when she was 15, and appeared on the cover of British Elle before her 16th birthday.
Her recent occasional appearances on TV, runways and in fashion editorials continue to draw raves as proof of Campbell’s staying power and icon status.
“They told me I would only last 11 years, but I’m here, and it’s been 32 years,” Campbell said, while also acknowledging the sometimes-rocky road of her career, from stories of substance abuse to that infamous moment in 2006 when she threw a cellphone at a housekeeper. “Many in this room have dealt with my lateness, but I’ve never lied, and I’ve grown up in front of all of you, and here I am 32 years later, clean and sober. I consider a lot of you in this room my extended family: You’ve been with me through thick and thin, through the good times and the rough times, the Naomi-it’s-time-to-grow-up times, and you’ve kept me grounded and loyal, and for that I thank you.”
On the red carpet prior to the event, Campbell was the top name mentioned when guests were asked about the moment they anticipated most. “Naomi, Naomi, Naomi!” said producer-director Lee Daniels, who was requested by Campbell to present her with the award (she has appeared on both TV series he’s created, Empire and Star). “What she means to fashion is as much as she means to me: It’s beyond, it’s indescribable. It’s a spiritual awakening.” And what about Campbell’s signature runway walk? “The invention of ‘the walk’ started with her. I don’t think anyone will ever replace it.” Daniels thought a moment before adding, “I may need to change my speech now — I need to add something about that.”
Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing’s friendship with Campbell dates back far longer, he said. “I remember as a young man when I started my career at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, and Naomi was there when Gianni Versace came for a trunk show, and again when Karl Lagerfeld came with his own Karl Lagerfeld line,” recalled Downing, now the fashion director for the Dallas-based retailer. “Naomi opened the show, and she closed the show. She certainly wouldn’t do any exit in the middle of the show, because she was Naomi Campbell and why would you do anything other than the opening or the close? She’s truly an icon, and she also proves today that you don’t have to be 16 years old to be on the runway.”
Like Daniels, almost everyone who expressed excitement about seeing Campbell remarked on her seductive saunter. “I’m not even sure I understand her walk, but she’s always been an inspiration to me as a model,” said Martha Hunt, while Lais Ribeiro, who accompanied designer Carly Cushnie, appreciates Campbell for the barriers she broke. “To see young girls look up to her and think, I could do the same, that’s such a powerful thing,” she said.
Cushnie agreed. “The word ‘icon’ gets so easily thrown around, but Naomi is the real thing,” she said. “I couldn’t believe she hadn’t been honored already. She’s definitely overdue for this award.”
In her speech, Campbell paid tribute to the photographers and designers with whom she’s worked over the years — including 2018 CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year Raf Simons, who created Campbell’s custom red fringed dress — but she saved a special note for the late Azzedine Alaia, who passed away in November. “When he left us, I lost my papa,” she said. “I was 15 years old when he put me under his wing, and I know he’s with me here tonight. I promise to keep his legacy alive as long as I’m able to do so.”
Campbell also name-checked the women who likewise vaulted into the single-name stratosphere during the height of the 1990s supermodel era: “Cindy [Crawford], Stephanie [Seymour], Linda [Evangelista], Christy [Turlington], Claudia [Schiffer] and Kate [Moss] — you are my sisters,” she said. “Without you, I don’t think anyone would have ever heard of me, and I thank you for your unconditional love and support.”
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