German model Claudia Schiffer is known for her sultry looks in the 1990s fashion campaigns for Guess Jeans, Valentino and Chanel.
She became a fashion icon in the 1990s after Karl Lagerfeld photographed her when she was just 18 for a Chanel campaign. Lagerfeld was what Schiffer calls his “magic dust”.
Since then, Schiffer has been photographed for over 1,000 magazine covers by some of the world’s most renowned photographers, including Helmut Newton and Ellen von Unwerth.
She pioneered the model age, alongside Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. She was a pre-social media influencer and defined natural beauty long before Photoshop and plastic surgery were a game-changer, in an era of grunge fashion and analog photography.
Schiffer is now the publisher of a new photography book titled Captivate! 90s fashion photography, a survey of contemporary fashion imagery, published Jan. 25 with Prestel Publishing in the United States. It features over 200 photos of models such as Schiffer, Kate Moss and Helena Christensen taken by photographers such as Juergen Teller and Mario Testino, among others.
The book is linked to a Schiffer exhibition held at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, featuring prints of the best moments from the book and running until fall 2022.
Schiffer, 51, spoke with Penta on women in fashion photography, analog vs. digital, and her advice to influencers.
PENTA: What was it like being a part of the 90s fashion era? You were one of the original models.
Claudia Schiffer: Young designers, photographers, stylists and art directors, as well as hairdressers and makeup artists, have emerged and fundamentally changed our view of fashion and design. There has been an incredible amalgamation of fields in fashion, music, art, and entertainment, which made the era vibrant, exciting – the impossible has become possible. I really wanted to capture visual experimentation and freedom of expression.
Where do you think this all came from?
The boom was fueled by the global appetite for fashion and the range of media ranging from MTV to mainstream magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and a new custody of style titles such as The Face, Self Service, iD and V Magazine. The 90s gave way to the birth of the top model but also of the superstar designer, stylist and photographer. And fashion. Wearing a Chanel jacket with vintage jeans, Alaia dresses and sneakers, Marc Jacobs grunge or a Helmut Lang suit, it was her top and bottom mix that was individual, fun and cool. It really resonates now, as so many creative young people are collaborating and doing things, building from the ground up.
What are the strongest photos in the book?
Consider Mario Sorrenti’s Kate Moss for Calvin Klein, with art director Fabien Baron, or Mario Testino’s legendary series for Gucci directed by Tom Ford and styled by Carine Roitfeld – these campaigns have become part of the style conversation. The most striking images are often provocative and challenge our perceptions of femininity. Look at the work of Juergen Teller, he makes you see beauty in a different way.
How was analog photography different from digital?
Well, everything was shot on film and the tests were in the form of Polaroids to assess light, composition and color. Today, editing is done on screen and images can be consumed instantly via social media. In the 1990s, magazines were like fashion bibles, with every cover and page carefully dissected. Budgets were much bigger and a location shoot could literally last over a week, so many friendships were formed on these trips.
What was it like working with iconic German fashion photographer Helmut Newton?
Newton exuded confidence, so it felt very safe and comfortable, and he was a perfectionist. Each photo may take longer than maybe other photographers because every detail has been meticulously thought out, yet he allowed his mind to shine in spontaneous improvisations. He had great taste, was well acquainted with fashion, art and so many subjects and was always very informed in his opinions.
Looking at those old fashion photos today, what do you see?
I don’t like nostalgia because it can keep you from moving forward. I would like to be my best at every age and that also means taking risks. Captivate! is my first foray into curation and I really enjoyed the challenge of creating this exhibition with the brilliant team at Kunstpalast. I also work with two artisan heritage brands in Portugal, Vista Alegre and Bordallo Pinheiro, on ceramics and glassware and that has also been rewarding. In the fashion world, I recently collaborated with the amazing brand Réalisation Par, which I discovered through my daughter Clémentine, and I continue to work as an executive producer on films directed by my husband.
For years you’ve worked with female fashion photographers, which hasn’t always been the norm. How was it ?
Fashion photographers Ellen Von Unwerth and Corinne Day were former models. They had a real understanding of the language of fashion and the modeling profession; this feeling of complicity with the model gives a feeling of nuance and knowledge. Corine’s work has influenced a new generation. She had a knack for capturing flippant gestures, awkward poses in her stripped-down photography that rebelled against artifice and hypersexualized clichés of the “male gaze.”
What makes the female gaze in fashion photography so striking?
Ellen von Unwerth wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog, where she writes: “My photography is a kind of report, but it is an enriched report. It is dramatized. It’s overkill with the style and the setting, but I still like to create an image that’s real, something that doesn’t immediately feel staged, so it could be like a stolen or captured moment on film.
I can see a common thread of female photographers including Toni Frissell who captured the American girl outdoors for Vogue USA in the late 1930s and 1940s to Von Unwerth, Roxanne Lowit (I have included several of her behind-the-scenes photographs in Captivate!) and 20th century talents like Liz Collins, Cass Bird and Harley Weir.
What advice do you give to young fashion influencers today?
Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated and don’t be afraid to make mistakes; if you learn from them you will be fine
This article has been edited for length and clarity.