Edward Enninful after receiving his Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and Naomi CampbellInvestitures at Buckingham Palace, London, UK - 27 Oct 2016

Style is a given with Naomi Campbell, but substance was her recurring message at the French-American Luxury Exchange symposium.

After a quick historical reference, the supermodel pressed upon attendees at the Lincoln Center event Thursday the need for greater diversity, redefined luxury and new commerce strategies as retail continues to shift. New media and social media’s increasing influence were other factors to be considered.

Noting that the ties between French style and American power have always made a winning combination in the wold of fashion, Campbell said, “The historical connection of the French industry goes way back to the 15th century. And by the 17th century, it was to such a degree that the royal minister of finance said, ‘Fashion is to France what gold mines are to Peru.’”

She also said how France “has always been synonymous with luxury, and it is equally synonymous with equality, liberty and progress. All of which are very dear to my heart. Like all of us here, I’m passionate about the advancement of equal opportunities regardless of gender, race, background, sexuality or anything of that matter. These are universal aims and although sometimes it seems the world had taken a step back, we are overall making great progress.”

Race to equality was the theme for Fashion for Relief’s recent event in Paris. Campbell started the charity 13 years ago after Hurricane Katrina. She singled out British Vogue’s Edward Enninful as “a direct representation of the new way fashion is changing for the better.”

Of course, such progress is long coming. During a 1998 shoot with Bill King and Patrick Demarchelier in Paris, Campbell said she asked about getting a French Vogue cover. “They said, ‘Oh no, we can’t give you now.’ I asked why and they said, ‘We’ve never put a black model on the cover.’”

Feeling disappointed after she left, Campbell said she went to Yves Saint Laurent, whom she was under contract for at that time and said, “‘I’d like a cover of French Vogue and they told me no.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re going to see about that.’ Of course, he said he would pull all of his advertising. But I think French Vogue would have collapsed.’ So I got my cover of French Vogue in 1998,” she said to applause. “I hope that helped to open doors to many other models of color.”

During visits to Nigeria’s Fashion Week and South Africa for Winnie Mandela’s funeral, Campbell saw how emerging designers were using fabric innovation and tailoring techniques that are on par with more established designers. “The luxury industry is evolving and ethnic barriers are being altered with each season. As the industry grows so does the need to reflect all the different races of the world,” she said. “In Nigeria and South Africa, new stylists, photographers, designers, models and creatives will come to the forefront in the coming years,” she said.

However, with traditional retail sales declining and social media building, Campbell said, “It’s no longer about Fifth Avenue, heading to designers and quality made. Clothes are just as likely to be found in independently owned boutiques in deep Brooklyn. Globally, we’re finding that too. London’s Bond Street is challenged by Shoreditch. In Paris, the cool clothes are likely to be found in the Marais and not the luxury street of Avenue Montaigne.”

Campbell mentioned how the shift in consumers’ spending habits has affected her own career, since traditional models rely on advertising campaigns. “Today the business has flipped. Advertisers are relying on the talent with the most increasing social media figures and their influence on followers,” she said (not mentioning her 5.2 million Instagram followers.)

While new media continues to emerge, this change is healthy, she said. “It’s given fresh ideas to new designers, and opportunities and exposure for new audiences and new outlets. Streetwear has emerged as one of the most prevalent aesthetics in the luxury market today.”

The sneaker-clad Campbell mentioned how Riccardo Tisci has played an integral role, while designing for Givenchy. Céline’s $600 slip-on sneaker, Vetements’ oversized hooded sweatshirt, CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year winner Supreme’s James Jebbia and LVMH’s first black creative director Virgil Abloh have been other key contributors from her perspective. Drawing the distinction that the origins of many of these designs come from street culture, skateboard parks and clubs — and not from lofty ateliers in Paris — Campbell said, “This represents an exciting democratization of fashion and is something we should all embrace.”

Given the battle between heritage and modernity (a subject discussed at the conference), Campbell said, “Of course, heritage is important as many of the famous brands originated in Paris. However, fashion is the industry that should be on the forefront of innovation, and not reinterpretation of the past.” She pointed to Azzedine Alaïa, a fatherlike figure who took her under his wing at 15, as someone whose lasting influence visitors could find on the streets of New York as soon as they left the event.

Campbell, along with Iman and Bethann Hardison, remain committed to their Balance Diversity coalition. “I’ve yet to see a watch brand put a model of color in their advertising. I’m always traveling through the airports and looking at duty-free. I’ve yet to see diversity in the duty-free advertisements. This embrace and movement forward is imperative for our industry,” she said, adding that the luxury industry is estimated to be worth more than the entire wealth of Canada.

“While the growth of the global middle- and upper-class market should be a clear indicator that the luxury consumer is not going anywhere, what is not clear is how we will connect with consumers in the years to come,” she said.

Another keynote speaker, Calvin Klein’s chief executive officer Steven B. Shiffman, who is redefining the house under Raf Simons, also spoke of the groundswell of change underfoot. But he reminded guests, “What a year — social disruption, civil unrest, political controversy, out-of-this-world technology, popular TV stars, causing public outrage. Yup, 1968 was quite a year — one that led to lasting changes in America and French society.”

Shiffman said, “Today I believe that luxury isn’t only something that is something that not only feels special but is special. For Calvin Klein, that translates into this philosophy whether an item costs $25,000 or $5, everything we make must be an object of desire and everything you experience must make your heart beat faster.”

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