Naomi Campbell wants to level the playing field. The supermodel has long been a dedicated supporter of fashion from across the African continent. And her latest project, in partnership with the Lagos, Nigeria-based culture and style magazine, Arise, aims to offer designers from across the diaspora an opportunity to showcase their wares on the world stage. Arise Fashion Week’s 30 Under 30 Contest, titled “the New Stars,” is set to introduce an array of young talents looking to make their mark. The four-day design competition kicked off yesterday. This year, the shows will be broadcast virtually, but the prizes—including a $500,000 first place grant—will be handed out in person by Campbell.
Campbell has collaborated with Arise and its founder Nduka Obaigbena for years, taken on a larger role the last two years. Due to the events of 2020, many prominent design competitions have gone online, but Campbell, who will walk in the winner’s show and serve as host, felt it was essential to support the designers. The group will be present at the live venue, thanks to protective bubbles that separate judges and creators. This year's audience will catch all the action online, but Campbell felt it necessary to appear in person. “I didn’t want just to sit there and do it virtually,” she says, noting that every travel precaution was taken to ensure the safety of participants. “It’s important to me that they have the awareness and recognition that they should be getting, and if I can help bring that to them, I’m happy to do it.”
The contest offers more than a one-time financial boost. As the winner will be given the mentorship, grants, and exposure necessary to build a lasting business, it addresses issues that have been barriers to success. “It’s a whole different ball game here,” shared Campbell on the phone from Lagos. “These designers have never gotten the opportunity to be on a global platform. Designers need guidance and support that [ensures] they’re going into the right markets, working with the right factories, and connecting with the right collaborators.”
Already, Campbell has been moved by the ingenuity of 2020’s participants. “Across the board, across the world, I think the creativity that’s come out of the pandemic has been incredible,” she says. “I’m very proud—it’s an honor to wear their designs. I find these young designers right now, they’re so proud of their work. They’re confident because it has a story that they’re telling.” Still, what she’s most excited about is their future within the industry. “I just want to see them succeed and achieve their dreams,” she says. “[Designers from the African continent] have been ignored for so long, so to see these designers get the chance to have the recognition they deserve makes me happy. You can open a door, but that doesn’t mean that everything works. Still, having equal opportunities is necessary.”
To that end, Campbell hopes the larger fashion community continues its commitment to inclusion. Though strides like Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize’s Fall 2020 runway show in Paris and the Arise contest itself have pushed the needle, Campbell feels there’s more work to be done. “Designers need to feel included, and they haven’t before,” says Campbell. “Kenneth’s show was February of 2020, and I was behind the scenes with Desiree [Ijoh] just trying to get him financial support, to be put on the official fashion week schedule. Now everyone wants to work with African designers because they want to maintain their image and look like they’re complying now that they’ve been called out. That’s why we need real follow through and to keep at it. I don’t want these young designers to be taken advantage of or used for the wrong reasons.”
Through long-term support, Campbell hopes to see the industry become a more inclusive and welcoming space. In recent talks with Kering Group, she pitched the idea of a mentorship program at the company’s headquarters in Paris, and the corporation’s leadership took note . “We’ve set things up so that there are designers from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and working for the Kering Group,” she says. “A year and a half ago, when I proposed this to them, they understood it and embraced it. Now [designers] are getting to work and learn there for a year. That is a commitment, and it’s what I’d like to see more of.”
In the meantime, the supermodel is doing her part to bring about change, offering the designers insights gained over a more than 30-year fashion career, and using her platforms to give them exposure. The Arise contest will be covered on her YouTube channel with a video dedicated to the event, its winner, and Campbell’s behind-the-scenes experience. After the winner is selected on Saturday, she’s already set her sights on the next challenge: empowering even more global talents. “It’s Africa, it’s India, it’s the Middle East, there are so many emerging markets where [designers] are not getting opportunities, and that’s where my mind is at now. That’s what I want to do; I will go to each and every one.”