Claudia Schiffer Introduces Her Curatorial Debut Exhibition of 90s Fashion Photography

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Claudia Schiffer is one of the most iconic faces and names to come out of the 1990s fashion supernova. Her story began at a disco in Düsseldorf, Germany where she was discovered and immediately signed as a model to the Metropolitan Model Agency, aged at sweet 17. She soon appeared on the cover of Elle, starred in her first Guess campaign, and was later handpicked by Karl Lagerfeld to be the fresh face of Chanel. Before she knew it, the blue-eyed blondie was a rockstar supermodel.

    In her new 90s photography book Captivate!, she invites us into her memories of the “golden era of the global supermodel,” as she shares her favorite fashion imagery that defined the decade alongside exclusive photos from her own archive. The book also includes essays by leaders of fashion culture then and now, Ellen von Unwerth, Christiane Arp, and Carine.

    In Schiffer’s three-decade-long (and counting) career, she’s starred in some of the most memorable fashion photography every created. She’s collaborated with the greatest photographers of fashion history, from Unwerth, Herb Ritts, Juergen Teller, Michel Comte, Helmut Newton, Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Sorrenti, Arthur Elgort, and Peter Lindbergh — all of whom Schiffer spotlights in Captivate!.

    Schiffer told CR about the new book and her curatorial debut exhibition of the same name at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany (a full circle moment).

    CR: Why the title “Captivate!”?

    CS: Firstly, I really like the word. The show is about fashion photography in the 1990s and great images do ‘captivate’ the imagination and become part of the pop consciousness.

    CR: What was it like being invited to curate your first exhibit? Did you have an initial vision for the presentation?

    CS: As a first-time curator, I 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 also an incredible merging of fields across fashion, music, art, and entertainment and that made the era dynamic, exciting – the impossible became possible. 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.

    CR: How did it feel to dig through your personal and professional history for this project? What was it like collecting the memories and points of view from editors, designers, stylists, and models for this book?

    CS: It took time and a lot of patience – I mean there were 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, fashion magazines, to campaigns and model cards – the selection was extensive. I wanted to also create strong contrasts between iconic cover 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.

    The most difficult task was creating a blueprint and the ‘rooms’ within the Kunstpalast. 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.

    CR: Do you have a favorite memory or fashion moment you included in Captive!?

    CS: A 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 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 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.

    CR: How did you replicate the collaborative and exciting environment of fashion photoshoots in the exhibition?

    CS: 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.

    CR: Which photographs from your personal collection made it into Kunstpalast’s Captivate! Exhibition?

    CS: 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 honor of working with on many occasions.

    CR: How has fashion photography changed since the 1990s? How has the influence of the ’90s dictated fashion media today? Why is it important to look to the past for inspiration?

    CS: 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 ‘idealizing vision’ and a new, democratic art form. The competition to create definitive global campaigns was fierce. Consider Testino’s legendary series for Gucci directed by Tom Ford and styled by Carine Roitfeld — 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 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 Alaia 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.

    CR: In Captivate!, you present the supermodel phenomenon as a collective of women. What was the camaraderie like amongst the “supers” at the time, as you all reached unprecedented heights in your modeling careers together?

    CS: Well it was the appearance of the supermodels as a collective for many brands like Versace, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana that proved to be dynamite. 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.

    We lived so many moments together and for Versace we were part of one big family. The epoch and the simple fact of time helped forge bonds. Before the 90s, a model’s career would rarely last past her 30s and there was a constant turnover of faces. With the supermodels, careers started to last longer as we became powerful brands in our own right. That trend has only grown and today there is no aging out. Models are working well into their 40s and beyond. That really points to a culture shift in the representation as it gives such a more rounded vision of womanhood and a vision of beauty at every age.

    CR: Top models today have social media as a tool to showcase their work and build an empire of their following. How has the supermodel changed since the 90s? How do you define a supermodel?

    CS: Supermodels 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.’

    Prior to the 90s, models were largely nameless and categorized as ‘runway’, ‘commercial’ or ‘editorial.’ As “Supers” we were seen as individuals and traversed those boundaries. We walked the runway, featured in campaigns and on the covers of magazines, but we were also invited onto talk shows, to appear in films and on TV. I remember so well appearing on Late Night with Letterman aged 22 in a scarlet Chanel jacket — such a fun time. Today, the idea that a personality or individual can transcend the brands they work with is accepted, but back then it was very new.

    CR: In the book, you write that Karl Lagerfeld was to fashion photography what Andy Warhol was to art. What did you learn from working with Lagerfeld?

    CS: 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, and 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.

    And I admire Virginie Viard who since stepping into the role of creative director has incorporated a very feminine point of view — visible in the fluid lines, the multifunctional pieces – and a real zest for color and texture. She continues to update the iconic pieces – the beautiful tweeds, little black dresses, and quilted bags — in such an imaginative way. I was one of the faces of the J12 campaign in 2019 and it’s wonderful to have this continuity.

    CR: With so much professional fashion imagery published on social media, whether major campaigns or fashion stories, how has the role of the fashion magazine changed? How do you think magazines will hold up in the future aside new media?

    CS: 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. It’s been great for marketing fashion and beauty products, and for models, social media is a superb way to manage your own exposure.

    Since the birth of social media, fashion has witnessed a big 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 is being championed like never before. Non-professional 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 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. There is no ‘aging’ out — look at Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Amber Valletta, or Cindy Crawford and her daughter Kaia, 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.

    CR: Are there rising fashion photographers you’re excited to follow or work with?

    CS: 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 have really caught my imagination. 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.

    CR: The book contains essays by Ellen von Unwerth, Christiane Arp, and Carine. Why was it important for you to include these women in Captivate!? How did they contribute to the fashion legacy of the 1990s?

    CS: I have worked with such an extraordinary, incredible people and I’m so enjoying the different avenues my career has taken including roles where I am designing or curating collections, which felt like a natural next step for me. Working with the curatorial team at the Kunstpalast and with the contributors to the book including Carine Roitfeld, Ellen Von Unwerth, and Christiane Arp, has been amazing. I’ve learnt a lot and I always want to be learning.

    CR: What plans do you have for future projects?

    CS: 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 (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 slip dresses, daisy prints and a classic black and white microdot – these finds were the starting point.

    Captivate! Fashion Photography From the ’90s edited by Claudia Schiffer is published by Prestel in hardback and available on November 30, to purchase a copy visit

    The exhibition curated by Claudia Schiffer will be at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf from 15 September 2021 – 9 January 2022. For more information, please visit

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