No supermodel has risen to the heights of fashion quite like Claudia Schiffer. The German-born super, who was discovered in 1987 by a modeling scout in a Düsseldorf nightclub, has since appeared on over 1,000 magazine covers and campaigns across the globe, for a career that spans more than 30 years.
As one of the most iconic boldface names in the modeling industry, Schiffer saw her rise in the 1990s as the face of Guess Jeans; she was also the face of Chanel, thanks to Karl Lagerfeld, and has worked with every label under the sun, from Yves Saint Laurent to Dior and Valentino.
But listing off brand names is not her thing. As Schiffer once said: “I don’t think you should give away your name and face to something you don’t believe in 100 percent.” Now, she’s backing a project she truly believes in—Schiffer is curating an exhibition of 1990s fashion photography including photos by Helmut Newton, Ellen von Unwerth and Arthur Elgort, among others. Opening at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf on September 15, Captivate! Fashion Photography from the ‘90s showcases over 150 iconic fashion photos alongside memorabilia from Schiffer’s own archive.
The exhibition ties into a new book she edited, which is being published by Prestel Publishing on November 30. The book features arty shots of Christy Turlington by Patrick Demarchelier, along with group shots of supermodels taken by Michel Comte, not to mention a pink-haired Kate Moss lying in bed by Juergen Teller, Naomi Campbell by Peter Lindbergh and Karl Lagerfeld fanning himself after a runway show flanked by a sea of models. Schiffer spoke with W about the exhibition, her upcoming book, turning 50 years old, and what she misses most about Karl Lagerfeld.
Why did you want to participate in curating this book and exhibition?
Since the beginning of my career, I have collected fashion images and worked and learned from true masters, like Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, and Peter Lindbergh. My personal collection forms the basis of the exhibition. As a first-time curator, I also wanted to capture 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.
What was so special about 1990s fashion—from the photographers to the models and stylists—that many people overlook today?
The 1990s was a watershed moment that upturned ideals of beauty and fashion. Campaigns became a valued part of visual culture and fashion photography was an “idealizing vision.” It was a democratic art form. The competition to create definitive global campaigns was fierce. Above all, there was innovation and experimentation. That’s hard to beat.
Tell me about working with Helmut Newton. Was he challenging, demanding, or fun to work with?
It was an honor to work for Helmut. He was one of the first photographers to form a coterie of models with whom he regularly worked. I understood him immediately because he was very German: organized, calm, and collected. Helmut loved women. There are photographers who are more interested in the art of photography, but through Helmut’s photographic lens, women always look beautiful and powerful. He was elegant and his pictures were provocative and erotic, but they always have a sense of refinement.
What do you miss the most about Karl Lagerfeld?
Karl was my magic dust; he transformed me from a shy German girl into a supermodel. He taught me about fashion, style, and survival in the fashion business. I will be eternally grateful to him. He is the only person who could make black and white colorful. What Andy Warhol was to art, Karl Lagerfeld was to fashion.
What can you say about looking back on these photos now? What did you learn from them?
I think 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. 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.
You have also worked with notable women fashion photographers, from Ellen von Unwerth to Corinne Day. Is the experience of working with women photographers different? Does it put you more at ease?
In the 1990s, there were relatively few female fashion photographers, it was really a boys club. Young talents would work with photographers as apprentices and assistants to learn the craft and eventually launch out on their own. The system was hierarchical and quite rigid. I had the pleasure of working with Ellen Von Unwerth, who was free in her approach. Shooting with her felt like two friends dancing and having fun. I love the sense of movement, irreverence, and sensuality in her photos.
You said on your 50th birthday that “age should be celebrated.” What part of aging is the best, in your eyes?
I celebrated my 50th birthday with family and friends in August this year. It was wonderful. I’m proud of my achievements, and so grateful for the enriching experience of working in fashion for so long. It really opened my eyes to the world, and I learnt so much from the photographers, editors, stylists, and designers I worked with. Karl Lagerfeld said to me very early on “be true to yourself” and that advice has remained with me.
How did your upbringing in Germany prepare you for your international career?
I grew up in a very stable, loving family near the Rhein River by Düsseldorf. Modeling had never crossed my mind until that chance meeting at Checker’s discotheque with a modeling scout. My upbringing gave me a sense of discipline and ambition. In the 1990s, Germany was not known for fashion, but it was a breeding ground for a generation of incredible photographers and creative visionaries. It was always a pleasure to work with Von Unwerth, Helmut Newton, Karl Lagerfeld, Peter Lindbergh—we could converse in German and all shared the same humor and references.
Do you have any advice for young models today?
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; work hard, be punctual, polite, and disciplined. Have a good lawyer right from the start. Know what you want and where you want to be. Make a long-term plan and never give up.