The word icon has lost its true meaning in recent years, but it’s the only one that works for supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Alongside peers like Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Kate Moss, the German-born model defined the look and style of fashion in the 1990s. Whether they were gracing runways or dashing around New York City in what is now known as “model-off-duty” style, their very existence as fashion’s most famous faces made an everlasting impact.
With nostalgia for the ’90s at an all-time height, Schiffer recaptures the era in its original glory in her upcoming coffee-table book, Captivate! Fashion Photography from the 90’s, out November 30 from Prestel Publishing. It features the work of photographers including Herb Ritts, Karl Lagerfeld, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Sorrenti, and Ellen von Unwerth, as well as never-before-seen images from Schiffer’s own personal archive.
In addition to the book, Schiffer curated a photo exhibition at the Kunstpalast Art Museum in Düsseldorf, Germany, on display until September 2022. Both projects celebrate the “glamour and extravagance, intimacy and playfulness, and sexy and provocative styles” that defined not only the industry, but the ’90s as a whole.
Below, we speak with Schiffer about how Captivate! came to be and some of her standout memories from fashion’s favorite decade.
What are some of your fondest memories of the ’90s?
One of the most amazing shoots was the Valentino campaign in Rome with Arthur Elgort. It was a perfect example of how Elgort allowed stories to unfold in real life. The shot was based on [Federico] 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.
Another favorite 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 with me in my own clothes. And then, the Guess team saw the pictures and wanted us for Guess Jeans ad campaign. Shortly afterwards, Revlon rang asking me to be the face of its debut perfume for Guess. I remember flying around the U.S. 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.
What do you think made that specific decade so “captivating,” as you put it, and why is it something we’re still trying so hard to re-create?
The 1990s was a watershed period that upturned ideals of beauty and fashion. Campaigns became a valued part of visual culture, and fashion photography became 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 fueled by the global appetite for fashion and the range of media, from MTV to legacy magazines, including Vogue and Harper’s BAZAAR, to 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, body-con Alaïa dresses and sneakers, Marc Jacobs’s 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.
Has the whirlwind of runway shows and nonstop shoots changed at all since then? How have you seen the industry evolve over the years?
I think the industry has grown beyond my wildest imagination. There are more collections, brands, the pace is faster, and social media has had a huge impact. It’s been great for marketing fashion and beauty products, and for models, social media is a superb way to manage your own exposure. The flip side of the big exposure is perhaps the pressure to share everything with everybody. In the 1990s, you could still have a private life.
Since the birth of social media, fashion has witnessed a big sea change. What’s interesting is to see is the 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. Nonprofessional models have become a vital source of inspiration for their peer groups, as well as for designers. It’s so healthy to see such diversity in faces and styles.
And models can now be true polymaths, entering fields such as activism, sustainability, fashion design, technology, well-being, acting, and they can enjoy multitrack careers. I think the supermodels provided the template. There is no “aging” out—look at Naomi Campbell; Kate Moss; Amber Valletta; or Cindy Crawford and her daughter, Kaia [Gerber]; Georgina Grenville; Carolyn Murphy; and myself—we all continue to work. For me, curating a show and editing a book represents a challenging and fulfilling new avenue.
The ’90s are often described as an “iconic” time—in fashion, music, and pop culture at large. What makes something iconic in your eyes?
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 resonate 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.
When curating the exhibition, I always asked myself: Is this quintessentially ’90s? And does the image truly represent the individual photographer’s eye? The selection was totally driven by aesthetics, and 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 images 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 shown together in a group show. And 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 other future projects do you have in the works?
I’m very lucky to love what I do, so design collaborations and curating roles felt like a natural next step for me. In addition to the Kunstpalast “Captivate!” fashion photography show that I curated, I have a glassware and ceramics collaboration with the wonderful Portuguese heritage brands Vista Alegre and Bordallo Pinheiro. The collections, which launched last year, are inspired by my love of nature, and there are new ranges coming out in 2022. I so enjoy learning about the craftsmanship behind these makers and drawing up shapes and motifs.
I also have just collaborated with the lovely brand Réalisation Par that I discovered via my daughter Clementine. The range is out now and is very much inspired by the ’90s and the kind of pieces I used to wear on a daily basis. I looked into my archive collection and found silk slipdresses, daisy prints, and a classic black-and-white microdot—these finds were the starting point.
Looking back at that time period, what advice would you give yourself? Personally and professionally?
Modeling opened up the world to me and introduced me to so many incredible creative minds. I learned a lot about photography, fashion design, business, and, of course, myself, so I have no regrets. Every decision, right or wrong, has led me to where I am right now. I’ve always been tenacious, though; 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! Also, 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.
From Harper’s Bazaar US