We’ve all seen those images that somehow perfectly capture a moment, an hour of time, perhaps even a full day. What about a decade? Having spent the ten years that gave us everything from glamour to grunge embodying the look of the moment, this is the question German supermodel Claudia Schiffer explores in her debut exhibition. Currently on show through to January 9th at the Dusseldorf Kunstpalast, Captivate! Fashion Photography From The '90s offers a unique look back at the images and image-makers of the decade. Today, we sit down with the model-cum-curator to find out what exactly made the 1990's so captivating.
As a teenage girl from Rheinberg about to sit her final exams, when did you tell your family and friends you could be a model and when did they start believing you?
I loved fashion and read all of my mother’s fashion magazines. My mother always wore elegant outfits from Christian Dior and other chic brands. I was very much into the 80s look: vintage jeans and baseball jackets. Modelling wasn’t particularly on my radar and I did not know much about it. When a modelling scout from Metropolitan Model Agency came up to me that night back in 1987 and asked me if I wanted to be a model, I thought it was a joke and suggested my best friend – little did I know I'd be on their books until the late 90s! In a few weeks, I found myself in Paris and the rest is history! I hadn’t even ever been to this disco before that night, so over 30 years later I look back and can see how magical that moment was.
Of all the many talented photographers you’ve worked with, who’s had the biggest impact on your career?
Ellen Von Unwerth, she was the first photographer I worked with and her pictures launched both of our careers. In the early years when we were both first signed for Guess. It often just felt like two friends mucking around and that’s your perfect shoot, where the chemistry between photographer and model happens. You can be as silly and naughty as you want, because there’s trust.
I’d also have to say Herb Ritts, because my UK Vogue Cover was shot by him, which was the reason Karl first invited me to his studio at Rue Cambon in Paris. Herb was part of a handful of photographers, who just never got it wrong. Whether it was natural lighting or in a studio, his pictures didn’t need retouching. He had an eye for beauty, which was rare and that I’ve not often seen in my career. We worked together so many times during my career on covers, campaigns and TV commercials.
Do you recall your very first photoshoot and how it went?
Yes, one of my favourite memories is from my time with German photographer Ellen von Unwerth in Paris aged 17. We were both starting out and got on like a house on fire, just mucking around next to the Centre Pompidou in my own clothes. And, then the Guess team saw the pictures and wanted us for Guess Jeans ad campaign. That was the beginning, and shortly afterwards Revlon rang asking me to be the face of its debut perfume for Guess. I remember flying around the US to every major city for signings in department stores that attracted huge crowds and appearing on all the major TV shows from Jay Leno and Oprah to David Letterman. After the campaign tour, I returned to my apartment in New York near Central Park. One morning, sleepy eyed with bed head hair, I was in the elevator when a person entered and asked, “Are you the Guess girl?” I knew then my life had changed forever.
Claudia Schiffer Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Kristy Hume, Nadja Auermann, Nadège du Bospertus, Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Shalom Harlow, Brandi Quinones, 1994. @ Michel Comte - Michel Comte Estate/AIM AG.
How quickly did you learn to see eye to eye with designers and photographers?
I worked with so many photographers who also became mentors. Figures like Ellen von Unwerth, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort and creative powerhouse, Karl Lagerfeld all of whom gave me true insight into the artistry as well as into the processes of art direction, editing and publishing. The model’s role is to bring fashion alive but she or he is just one ingredient in the alchemy of image-making.
For example, on set for the Versace campaigns, Avedon would bring in a choreographer who would teach us how to move. His practice was also to shoot alongside a mirror turned towards you, so that you could see yourself as he did. In that way you could truly collaborate in the creation of the shot, by getting a good idea of what was working, what wasn’t, and what you could change to make it better.
Over time, and as my knowledge grew, I began to collect prints and original archive material. My personal collection forms a part of the Kunstpalast’s Captivate! exhibition.
You’ve also worked with such designers Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace, who we know as fashion icons. What were they like as people?
How other people love and live for their holidays, Lagerfeld loved his work and the art culture and people that inspired him. He often said he dreamt up collections and he would often wake up to sketch in the middle of the night. He never went on holiday but moved between his various houses. He was a creative genius to whom, like a Mozart, incredible abilities just came naturally. As a photographer as well, he was prolific and excelled at fashion portraiture. He was incredibly generous when taking photos, sharing his knowledge and his enthusiasm was infectious. What was remarkable is that he was always open to my input and loved gathering people around a table, chatting and laughing. Karl had the sharpest sense of humour.
And it was a dream working with Gianni, Donatella and the Versace family. They were all so welcoming and Gianni had such a big heart and so much warmth. He turned his runway into a live show with choreography, great lighting effects and theatrical staging. I remember walking in one of his shows to a Prince track only to see Prince himself sitting in the front row alongside celebrities from the music and film world; the atmosphere was electric. And of course, there were the iconic Versace campaigns, as the campaign shot by Richard Avedon – I chose an image from that shoot for the cover of the exhibition book for Captivate! It embodies the fun, glamour and artistry of the supermodel era.
Nicknamed the ‘Kaiser’ of the fashion world, Lagerfeld was quite known for his meticulous attention to detail. How did it manifest in the creative work which you’ve collaborated on?
Karl Lagerfeld came into my life when I was just 18, and changed it forever. He had seen my first UK Vogue cover, shot by Herb Ritts and asked to see me. I entered his studio on the Rue Cambon, full of nerves but within hours I was being fitted for his new collection. Karl was so incisive and worked at great speed. The next day, I was driving with the crew to Deauville to shoot my first Chanel campaign. I remember us bonding over the fact that we were the only two people full of energy – at 3 in the morning. In his case, he was always full of energy; I was just always full of adrenaline loving every second of working with him.
Claudia Schiffer Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Claudia Schiffer, Palmdale, California 1992 © Herb Ritts - Herb Ritts Foundation/Trunk Archive.
The late, great Peter Lindbergh once said he wasn’t interested in photographing smiling faces, as the smile obscures all of the finer, more engrossing details of the face. In your experience, was he or any other German colleague as sombre as stereotypes would have us believe?
In the 1990s, Germany was not known for fashion or style (the axis pivoted between New York, London, and Paris) but it was a breeding ground for a generation of incredible photographers and creative visionaries. It was always a pleasure to work with Von Unwerth, Helmut Newton, Karl Lagerfeld, Peter Lindbergh, we could converse in German and shared the same humour and references. Lagerfeld would always joke that we were the only ones on set who wake at sunrise and begin work – I guess that sense of Teutonic discipline runs deep!
What sort of photographs do you have on your own walls and in your albums?
I started collecting imagery early on in my career and rediscovered this material when I embarked on the curator journey for Captivate! from my personal archive, I have included 90s Polaroids from my first test shoots and a great self-portrait with Helmut Newton who I had the honour of working with on many occasions.
I’m also fascinated by art, design, and interiors and for years I’ve visited flea markets and vintage stores collecting glassware, ceramics and porcelain. I also collect contemporary art and mid-century vintage furniture – our home is a mix of 50s, 60s and 70s pieces from Scandinavian style to Bauhaus German and I source pieces online at websites like 1stdibs, Vinteriors and The Modern Warehouse. As a young model though living in the Marais in Paris, I spent a lot of time wandering around galleries. I remember visiting an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Pompidou and thinking, one day, I'm going to buy one of those. It was the first gift I bought myself and the camouflage painting now hangs in our study. I also find clouds very inspiring, so naturally I fell in love with The clouds by Andreas Gursky. My favourite piece though is by Ed Ruscha, called Marry me, which my husband had commissioned and is how he proposed to me.
What else can visitors expect to see?
As a first-time curator, I also wanted to encapsulate the vision of fashion that helped captivate and shape the perspective of a generation. The 1990s was an extraordinary period which witnessed the rise of a culture of style, the birth of the supermodel and fearless creativity. Young designers, photographers, stylists and art directors, as well as hair and makeup artists emerged and fundamentally changed the way we view fashion and design.
There was an incredible merging of fields across fashion, music, art and entertainment and that made the era dynamic, exciting – the impossible became possible. In photography, there was a vast range of styles spanning the epic black-and-white romance of Peter Lindbergh, the sexy freedom of Ellen Von Unwerth and to the British-based David Sims, Corinne Day and Mario Sorrenti in New York who championed imperfection, the everyday and coined what became known as ‘dirty realism’. I really wanted Captivate! to capture the visual experimentation and freedom of expression.
The 90s is a period of great inspiration that is being rediscovered now and you can see that in the way younger generations are dressing in vintage Levi’s and tanks, in slip dresses and Birkenstocks and hunting out analogue vinyl albums and Polaroid cameras. The era’s photographic masters are emulated and referenced by influencers across Instagram. I hope Captivate! appeals across the generations.
Claudia Schiffer Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Golden Girls, Emma Sjöberg, Nadja Auermann, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Ève Salvail, Shalom Harlow, Carla Bruni, Olga Pantushenkova, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Yasmeen Ghauri, Amber Valletta, Tricia Helfer, Helena Christensen, backstage at Versace RTW Fall 1994 © Doug Ordway.
As a whole, what does this exhibition tell us about the style and spirit of the 1990’s?
The decade saw such incredible creativity powered by a new generation of photographers, image makers and designers. I called it Captivate! as I hope the show captures the imagination, the aspirations and energy of an era.
What made it? What didn’t?
The selection was totally driven by aesthetics. I always asked myself “is this quintessentially 90s?” and “does the image truly represent the individual photographer’s eye?” These are the questions I asked myself repeatedly selecting 150 images from literally thousands. Where the 1980s was defined by perfectionist high glamour, the 90s was about energy, reality and personality. Throughout the process, I was seeking out those timeless works that transcend time and still resonate today. I’m so happy and proud that we were able to secure many of these images – it is the first time many of these photographers, models and talents have been together in a group show.
I really wanted the exhibition to be a celebration of the breadth of creativity that was witnessed in the 90s, across the span of runway, campaigns and fashion editorial.
What would you say makes the 1990’s so captivating?
The 1990s was a watershed period that upturned ideals of beauty and fashion. Campaigns became a valued part of visual culture and fashion photography was an ‘idealising vision’ and a new, democratic art form. The competition to create definitive global campaigns was fierce. Consider Kate Moss by Mario Sorrenti for Calvin Klein, with art director Fabien Baron – these campaigns became part of the style conversation.
The boom was fuelled by the global appetite for fashion and the range of media from MTV, to legacy magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and a new guard of style titles such as The Face, Self Service, i-D and V Magazine. The 90s gave way to the birth of the Supermodel but also the superstar designer, stylist and photographer. And the fashion! Wearing a Chanel jacket with vintage jeans, bodycon Alaïa dresses and sneakers, Marc Jacobs’ grunge or a Helmut Lang suit – it was high/low mix that was individual, fun and cool.
Above all, there was innovation and experimentation. That’s hard to beat and it really resonates with now when so many young creatives are collaborating and doing things – building from the ground up.
Claudia Schiffer Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Seventh on Sale, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, New York 1992 for Revlon © Bruce Weber.
Claudia Schiffer Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Helena Christensen, Claudia Schiffer, Stephanie Seymour, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Hollywood 1993 for Vogue US © Herb Ritts - Herb Ritts Foundation/Trunk Archive.
Claudia Schiffer Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Claudia Schiffer, Viareggio, Italy 1989 für Guess Jeans © Ellen von Unwerth - Ellen von Unwerth/Trunk Archive.