S he may now be one of the most recognisable women in the world, but in 1987, an unknown Claudia Schiffer was actually discovered at a nightclub in Düsseldorf. She was just 17 years old and went on to become one of the original supermodels and a defining face of the 1990s.
It is fitting then that she has returned to Düsseldorf to curate an extraordinary time capsule of an exhibition: Captivate! Fashion Photography from the '90s at the Kunstpalast museum. Featuring iconic images by the likes of Juergen Teller and Ellen von Unwerth alongside magazine covers and Schiffer's own behind-the-scenes photography, it is a celebration of a decade that changed fashion forever.
As the exhibition opens, and the accompanying book is released, Schiffer opens up about her earliest memories in the industry, working with the world's most famous photographers and how she selected what to include from her vast archive of images.
The 1990s are heralded as the decade of the Supermodel and you were at the heart of that movement. What makes fashion photography from that era so special?
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. As a first-time curator, I also wanted to encapsulate the vision of fashion that helped captivate and shape the perspective of a generation.
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 through to the British-based David Sims and 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 that 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.
What are some of your earliest memories of working with the photographers who came to dominate the industry, who are featured in the Kunstpalast exhibition?
One great memory 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. Cut to Paul Marciano, who saw the pictures and wanted us for a 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.
When you were on a set or location with a photographer, could you tell if something magical was happening? That the photos taken that day would end up being iconic?
Fundamentally, there needs to be rapport between the model and photographer. As a model, you needed to study a photographer’s work, a designer’s work and learn how to translate that vision in front of the lens. In Valentino you are transformed into a romantic heroine; in Versace into a siren; in Chanel into an effortlessly chic woman of the world. What I learnt early on is that each photographer ‘sees’ in a different way. Helmut Newton was meticulous in every detail and that is what gives his imagery such graphic strength. By contrast, Elgort is a master at capturing exuberance outdoors. But the shoot itself is an intricate jigsaw of experts from all fields – photography, hair and makeup, location and set design, models, stylists, art directors and editors. Afterwards, the magic happens in the darkroom, in the printing, retouching and layout. A captivating shoot really is the result of great teamwork and I so wanted to relate the notion of ‘team’ in the show.
Let’s face it though - no fashion photograph can be called iconic at its conception. That status only comes with the test of time. Fashion photography is a great cipher of trends and dreams and while born out of the moment, it can achieve a timeless status and capture a bigger story. For me, that was what was so exciting about the research – pinpointing these amazing moments that still speak today. The most memorable images are often provocative and challenge our perceptions of femininity. Look at Juergen Teller’s work – he makes you see beauty in a different way. Because fashion photography is a democratic art form, circulating on billboards, digital platforms, packaging and in magazines, it has an enormous sphere of influence. The 1990s was a watershed decade that welcomed fashion photography and photographers as a driving force in visual culture.
Is there a particular shoot that stands out as a personal favourite?
One of the most amazing shoots was the Valentino campaign in Rome with Arthur Elgort. This shoot was the perfect example of how Elgort allowed stories to unfold in real life. The shot was based on Fellini’s iconic film La Dolce Vita and I played the role of Sylvia. Throughout the day, we attracted more and more attention until life finally imitated art: we were chased through the streets by paparazzi and crowds, just like Sylvia’s character in the movie. In one balcony scene, a crowd of people formed below and when I was directed to wave out at them, they responded by chanting my name. It was surreal.
Do you remember how it felt to see yourself on billboards and magazine covers for the first time?
Each cover is memorable, but certainly my first ever, which was for French Elle was special. I was living in Paris at the time, and it stared out at me at every kiosk.
Have you ever been tempted behind the camera yourself?
Aside from snaps of family, friends, events – no. But over the years I have gained such enormous respect and knowledge having worked with great masters, each with a unique eye. Fashion photography is a vibrant medium which shapes a time and an era and communicates emotions, ideas, and life so poignantly. I continue to keep a keen eye on new talent and imagery.
For the exhibition, you’ve provided photos from your own private collection. How did you choose what to include and what do the more candid images say about that time?
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, with whom I had the honour of working on many occasions.
Overall, for the exhibition and book, I had literally thousands of images to choose from. And because I wanted to show the numerous formats of fashion photography in the pre-digital age – from fine art prints to Polaroids, contact sheets and fashion magazines, to campaigns and model cards – the selection was extensive. I wanted to also create strong contrasts between iconic covers shots, runway imagery and candid backstage snaps.
What made it? What didn’t? I always asked myself 'is this quintessentially 90s?' and does the image truly represent the individual photographer’s eye? I also wanted to celebrate the teams of photographers, models, stylists, hair and makeup artists, and art directors that collaborated to make fashion happen. Where the 1980s was defined by perfectionist high glamour, the 90s was about energy, reality and personality and the show also captures that big shift.
From the outset, I didn’t see the show as chronological but about groupings and chapters. It includes Supermodel Phenomena, Campaigns, Fashion Stories and My Story. 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 shown together in a group show.
How has it felt to look back over all these pictures? Has it made you nostalgic?
The big task of editing Captivate! made me so appreciate the 90s and the extraordinary creativity. I do miss the camaraderie and the adventures, but you can never ‘repeat’ such a time.
How much do you think fashion photography has changed since the 90s?
The 1990s was the last decade of the analogue era so everything was shot on film and tests were in the form of Polaroids to gauge light, composition, and colour. I wanted these formats as well as of unseen and backstage images. Today, the edit happens on the screen and imagery can be consumed instantly via social media. In the 1990s, the magazines were like the bibles of fashion, with every cover and page eagerly dissected. Budgets were much bigger and literally a location shoot could last for over a week – so many friendships were formed on these trips.
As a collector yourself, what kinds of art and photography catch your eye?
I’m 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. 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.
Do you keep any kind of fashion archive of items you’ve worn over the years? What is the most treasured?
Some of the really special pieces include a hand-painted Chanel bag that Karl Lagerfeld gifted me because I was admiring it so much at the fitting, a Chanel Oscar dress made out of an umbrella fabric, some fun Chanel tortoise earrings, a Versace metallic mini skirt from one of Gianni’s nineties collections and my bespoke Valentino wedding dress designed by Valentino Garavani. There is an Azzedine Alaïa “my heart belongs to daddy” dress, a Dolce & Gabbana flower dress and my Yves St Laurent necklace and the black lace bustier from my first Guess campaign. The list is long. These are personal treasures that I want wear again and pass onto my daughters.
What do you hope people learn or take away from the exhibition and book?
First and foremost, the impact of the pandemic has severely affected the economic health of the arts and culture sector across the globe. Galleries, institutions, studios and the people who work in both the public and private spheres are struggling for survival. My primary hope is that Captivate! – both the exhibition and the catalogue – attract a wide audience to the Kunstpalast and boost a love of fashion and photography. The experience of attending a show in real time is unbeatable and the coffee table book brings the exhibition to anyone around the world, who can’t attend.
Captivate! Fashion Photography From the ‘90s is proudly sponsored by Sotheby's.
The exhibition, curated by Claudia Schiffer will be at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf until 9th January 2022. The accompanying book is published by Prestel in hardback on 19th October RRP £49.99. For more information, please visit https://www.kunstpalast.de/
Main image: Karl Lagerfeld with models Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen and others, Paris, 1994. Image © Mario Testino.