Interview: Claudia Schiffer Recalls the ‘Extraordinary Creativity’ of the ’90s

Ellen Von Unwerth, Claudia Schiffer, Guess Campaign, 1989

Everyone has their own interpretation of ’90s fashion, but one theme resurfaces again and again: a colliding of aesthetics. Masculine and feminine, minimalism and glamour, the natural girl-next-door glow contrasted with the disenchanted vibe of grunge. ‘80s ostentatiousness was out, and a more stripped back, raw style took root. Pop culture, MTV, and the rise of the Supermodel created a new, accessible fashion landscape, from the runways to the streets.

In CAPTIVATE! Fashion Photography of the ’90s, we get a sense of it all from a high-fashion point of view. Curated by the now legendary model Claudia Schiffer, the book takes us on a journey through some of the era’s most unforgettable editorial images and campaigns. 

“The ’90s gave way to the birth of the Supermodel, but also the superstar designer, stylist, and photographer,” she explains. “And the fashion! Wearing a Chanel jacket with vintage jeans, body con Alaia dresses and sneakers, Marc Jacobs’ grunge or a Helmut Lang suit – it was a high/low mix that was individual, fun and cool.”

Though it would be years until social media dominated the visual landscape, giving birth to the polymath influencer, the ’90s really and genuinely started it all. So seeking wisdom though nostalgia, we engaged Ms. Schiffer about the gorgeous new book, how it was Karl Lagerfeld that actually launched her career, and why in fashion, it’s always key to have a really good lawyer.

Kate Moss

You talk about the ’90s as the rise of the Supermodel – how did it feel to be in that world? Was there a lot of pressure to hold that title?

Supermodels were a creation of the late ’80s and ’90s. We enjoyed a fame that stretched way beyond fashion and across the globe. We became known by name, [we] were a creative and commercial force. In the recession of the early ’90s, I think we helped keep the glamour and optimism of fashion alive when the designer market was in steep decline. As the economy picked up, the Supermodel’s role was to project the image of a brand across the world at a time when fashion was expanding globally. It was the democratization of fashion and the boom in brand fortunes that allowed the Supermodel to “happen.”

Of course, previous eras had model stars – Lauren Hutton, Twiggy, Penelope Tree and Iman, to name a few – but as Supermodels, we also became symbols of a self-made success, in an era that championed female ambition and that was also fueled by sex, power and glamour.

It was indeed such an influential decade, and feels like it was really the beginning of a new level of media accessibility, with the rise of reality television, MTV, and other more behind-the-scenes looks at fame. Were you cognizant of that shift happening at the time? Are you glad there was still a semblance of privacy (without social media) compared to today?

I think the industry is fundamentally the same, but it has grown beyond my wildest imagination. There are more collections, brands, the pace is faster and social media has had a huge impact. 

Since the birth of social media, fashion has witnessed a sea change. What’s interesting is to see is the rise and rise of the influencer. There’s so much talent today that is diverse in race, age and increasingly, size. Individuality and personal style and expression are being championed like never before. Non-professional models have become a vital source of inspiration for their peer groups as well as for designers. 

And models now have a voice – they are true polymaths, entering fields such as activism, sustainability, fashion design, technology, wellbeing, acting…and they can enjoy multi-track careers. I think the Supermodels provided the template. 

Were you ever worried about aging out of the profession? Or did you always have an idea of what you would do next?

There is no ‘ageing’ out – look at Naomi Campbell, Georgina Grenville, Kate Moss, Carolyn Murphy, Amber Valletta, or Cindy Crawford and her daughter Kaia…and myself – we all continue to work. For me, curating a show and editing a book represents a challenging and fulfilling new avenue.

These photographs are, in a word, iconic. How does it feel looking at all of them now? What memories or feelings did you have when pulling them all together?

Let’s face it, 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. 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.  

Who had the greatest impact on you as the model and businesswoman you became?

Well, it was Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel that launched my career. I first started working for the house back in the late ’80s and that collaboration continued for over 30 years. Karl taught me so much about fashion, culture, photography, and he also advised me to remain true to myself and trust my instincts – those wise words remain with me. I remember those early catwalk shows and campaigns vividly.  

I loved learning that your big break coincided with Ellen von Unwerth’s big break as a fashion photographer. Your impromptu test shoot led to a major Guess Jeans campaign that pretty much everyone recognizes and knows. How did this shoot happen?

I first met 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 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 bedhead 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.

So, Ellen Von Unwerth was the first photographer I worked with and her pictures launched both of our careers. 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.

Doug Ordway Golden Girls Models: 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

What was it like for you as the subject to work with such a wide range of photographic visions and talent? 

I worked with so many photographers who also became mentors. Figures like Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort and 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 [Düsseldorf, Germany] Kunstpalast’s Captivate! exhibition.

What advice would you offer young models coming up in the industry? 

I’ve always been tenacious, I trust my instincts and I think that’s been important to my success. Your intuition is always right and the older you get the harder it is to listen to it. In a way, wisdom and experience can get louder. I’d also say to someone starting out, take pride in being professional – working hard, being punctual, polite and disciplined. Do have a good lawyer right from the beginning. Know what you want and where you want to be. Make a long-term plan and never give up! Treat everyone as you would like to be treated and don’t be scared to make mistakes; as long as you learn from them, you will be okay.

What about the current era of fashion photography do you find exciting? 

There is so much talent. I’ve so enjoyed working with Inez & Vinoodh, and there are many more female photographers such as Tierney Gearon, with her haunting double-exposure imagery. In this last decade, Cass Bird and Zoë Ghertner, who takes beautiful portraits of women of all ages, as well as Harley Weir, who is brilliant at capturing complex emotions. Fine art photographer Collier Schorr is also a true original. We worked together on a cover story for Vogue Italia last year in an homage to Helmut Newton. It was a special collaboration and her lighting was immaculate. I also admire the work of Tyler Mitchell, he has a fresh eye and I see some aspects of Guy Bourdin in his images. Every photographer must study the past first and then break away to create a vision of the present.

Captivate! Fashion Photography From the ’90s, edited by Claudia Schiffer. is published by Prestel in hardback and available in the US as of January 25, 2022. The exhibition curated by Schiffer will be at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf from September 15, 2021 through January 9, 2022.

Michel Comte Models: Kristy Hume, Nadja Auermann, Nadège du Bospertus, Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Shalom Harlow, Brandi Quinones, 1994

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