The first place in the United States where Naomi Campbell set foot was New Orleans, courtesy of a shoot for British ELLE. Years later, when Hurricane Katrina struck the city, she, like so many people, sat helplessly watching the disaster unfold on TV. “What can we do?” she asked herself. “We have to do something.” For Campbell, that “something” was mobilizing the fashion community to take action. So with only a week to go before New York Fashion Week, she convinced the then-head of IMG, Teddy Forstmann, to give her a tent in Bryant Park. The result was the first-ever Fashion For Relief show. With Beyoncé and Pat Cleveland walking the runway in looks from Marc Jacobs, Gucci, and Calvin Klein, it was that fashion-beloved thing: a “moment.” “Corny as it may sound,” she says, “we came together to do something.”
Campbell has always been a uniter. The first time she went to Brazil, she visited the favelas, despite being warned not to go there. She found their inhabitants to be “very giving, very sweet, not dangerous people,” whom she connected with instantly. She’s forged similar bonds with Syrian refugees in Jordan and young women in Lesotho living with HIV. And she’s involved with the #Togetherband campaign, a partnership between the UN Foundation, Bottletop Foundation, UBS, Eco-Age, Project Everyone, and TO.org to work toward the UN’s 17 global goals for sustainable development. She teamed with TO.org on its Shadowman Van initiative, which has helped build a public bathroom and community center out of discarded plastic bottles in Uganda.
Fashion For Relief is still going strong, and its events have raised money for the victims of natural disasters, including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines. Campbell even teamed up with fellow supermodels Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington to support Knot On My Planet, the elephant-preservation charity for which Doutzen Kroes serves as global ambassador. “Africa is very close to my heart,” Campbell says. “I have a place in Kenya, and it’s tragic and disgusting to know that people are killing elephants for their ivory, destroying the nature and beauty of this continent. So it wasn’t very difficult for me to say yes.” The reunion ended up being one for the books. “Many people have asked us to come together on numerous occasions, but we chose this because we all feel the same way about it.”
Conserving natural resources was something the supermodel’s mother “always drilled into me” when she was growing up—“Turn off the lights, don’t run water, be mindful.” Campbell strives to be sustainable with her wardrobe, too. She hangs on to pieces without regard for trend cycles. “I don’t care how old it is, if I have a connection or an affiliation or a love of the creativity of the person who made it and the design, I’m wearing it.” And occasionally, she even takes public transportation, as a recent Valentino ad campaign demonstrated. Does Naomi Campbell really take the subway off-camera? “Of course I’ve taken it,” she says. “And am I recognized? Yes, but if they say hi, I say hi. Do I take it often? No, I don’t. But I have taken it!”
Hair by Ro Morgan for Bumble and Bumble; Makeup by Adam Fleischhauer; Manicure by Andy Suh. Produced by Catherine Sans at Serlin Associates.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of ELLE.
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