Naomi: in Fashion – lighthearted V&A show celebrates the supermodel

<span>Naomi Campbell at the press launch for the V&A’s Naomi: in Fashion exhibition at the Dorchester, London on 13 March.</span><span>Photograph: Dave Benett</span>
Naomi Campbell at the press launch for the V&A’s Naomi: in Fashion exhibition at the Dorchester, London on 13 March.Photograph: Dave Benett

When Naomi: in Fashion opens at the V&A on Saturday, visitors will be greeted by Naomi Campbell herself. The exhibition begins with a video montage of a lifesize Campbell catwalking towards the visitor.

One minute she is in a Chanel tweed suit, then Versace clubwear, now a Westwood corset. Her hair is sliced into a bob, or whips the air in a ponytail; now she’s in a fedora, or a turban. Every get up is different, but every frame is only ever really about Naomi. The heart-shaped face with its Bond villain stare as she fronts up to the camera, the swing of her hips and matador snap of her heels as she turns and stalks away. The V&A has never seen such va-va-voom.

Naomi: In Fashion is the first major museum exhibition devoted to a model. Eyebrows have been raised about the canonisation of a fashion model in the ranks of museum-worthy artists. But it works, because instead of attempting to make too earnest a case, the exhibition is fun and quirky and does not take itself too seriously.

There is a recreation of Campbell’s dressing room, complete with Claridges hotel slippers, her favourite Diptyque candle and a packet of antibacterial wipes. A mannequin sprawls on the floor of a case in black velvet and 12-inch platform heels, recreating Campbell’s famous 1993 fall on Vivienne Westwood’s catwalk. Her iconic Covid-era airplane outfit – a Burberry cape over a hazmat suit – is proudly included in a case of her wardrobe treasures, along with haute couture pieces by John Galliano for Dior and by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy. The show ends with an interactive Runway School in which visitors are given a pep talk by Campbell, haughty as the sternest ballet mistress, before being invited to try out their own catwalking skills.

Related: ‘When you fall, you pick yourself up’: Naomi Campbell on her V&A exhibition

This is partly an exhibition about how Campbell and the supers turned models into power players in our culture. Before, models were dandelion-light, doe-eyed and docile. Naomi and co reinvented the job as a kind of Olympian of glamour, beauty as an elite sport, goddesses commanding the catwalk like athletes roaring towards goal.

On the airy upper floor of the exhibition, Edward Enninful has curated an exhibition of photography: Naomi stopping Manhattan traffic, by Mario Sorrenti; a leopard print-clad Naomi racing an actual leopard, by Jean-Paul Goude. The power of the images spell out why it is Campbell, of the supermodels, who is celebrated here. Naomi is not just a model, she is news. As she once said: “I know my value. If I walk for you, you’ll get your press.”

Campbell lent most of the clothes in the exhibition, and while the curation was in the hands of the museum, it is unashamedly a celebration rather than a critique. (The Dolce & Gabbana evening gown that she wore to complete five days of community service for throwing a phone at an employee is described in the accompanying text as an example of her showing remorse, which feels something of a reach.) But her faults are all part of the myth.

On one video screen, Kate Moss tells a story of Naomi’s legendary lateness, saying “even at my own wedding, Naomi arrived later than me – she nearly walked down the aisle after me”. Campbell is ego as art form, and that is a world anyone who has an Instagram account is living in. It makes for an entertaining show.

Blackness is an important part of the exhibition. Campbell rose to fame at a time when the view – expressed by one glossy editor in the 2000s as “any face darker than a cappuccino doesn’t sell magazines” – allowed for rampant racism.

Campbell has always been keenly aware of what her career owed to women such as Bethann Hardison who preceded her, and determined to blaze a trail for the next generation. Prejudice that held a black woman’s beauty could not be as commercial as a white woman’s – or as elegant, or as demure – crumbled to dust in the face of Campbell, chameleon and strategic image maker.

The clothes are jaw-dropping. A monumental Balenciaga inky-black ball gown gazes down from the top of the stairs like a queen on a giant chessboard. A gown of intricate floral embroidery made for Campbell by her friend Sarah Burton is an exquisite piece of sculpture. There are lavender Valentino feathers and swaggering Hugo Boss tailoring. Designers learned long ago to put Naomi in whichever look they want to get on the front page, and she has wound up with an impressive roster of greatest hits. But even the most iconic outfits are only the support act. There is only one star of the Naomi show.