By Alastair Sooke
In 1987, a shy 17-year-old known as Claudia Schiffer was at Checker’s nightclub in Düsseldorf, when a stranger approached her and requested if she needed to be a mannequin. “I thought it was a joke,” remembers Schiffer, now 51, who at the time was nonetheless self-conscious about her peak (180 centimetres). But the person, who labored for a French modelling company, was insistent – and, a couple of days later, accompanied by her mom, Schiffer discovered herself in Paris.
Within weeks, she was dwelling within the French capital, hanging round with her new buddy, the up-and-coming German photographer Ellen von Unwerth – “and the rest,” Schiffer says, “is history”. By the next decade, she had established herself, alongside Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, among the many “Big Six” supermodels who revolutionised the style business.
Recently, Schiffer – who lives in Suffolk with her husband, English movie director Matthew Vaughn, and their three kids – has been pondering quite a bit about these early days. Invited by the director of Düsseldorf’s Kunstpalast museum to curate Captivate!, a present of vogue pictures from the Nineteen Nineties, she spent lockdown sifting by way of 1000’s of digital photos, in addition to her personal “library” of vogue magazines and “shoeboxes of memorabilia”. An accompanying guide, that includes 150 images, together with backstage snaps from Schiffer’s private archive, is about to be revealed.
Part of the amount’s fascination is, merely, the perception it offers into a unprecedented life. We see Schiffer’s first take a look at shot as a schoolgirl posing in a saggy baseball jacket. Crimped blonde hair covers one of her eyes, suggesting, maybe, her introverted disposition. Any diffidence, although, quickly disappeared.
Two years later, Schiffer was modelling for the black-and-white Guess Jeans marketing campaign that might make her well-known: feeling at ease with Von Unwerth, who shot it in Italy, she danced about in a black lace corset and stonewashed denim, half carefree cowgirl, half Brigitte Bardot. “It often just felt like two friends mucking around,” Schiffer tells me now. “And that’s your perfect shoot, where the chemistry between photographer and model happens.”
Yet it was the controversial German designer Karl Lagerfeld who, she says, “came into my life and changed it forever”. Impressed by the German teenager’s first cowl for British Vogue, shot by Herb Ritts in 1989, Lagerfeld invited her to see him in Paris. “I entered his studio on the Rue Cambon full of nerves,” she remembers, “but within hours I was being fitted for his new collection.” Lagerfeld, who died in 2019, was, she explains, all the time “incisive” – and after their assembly, he made Schiffer the face of Chanel.
Really, although, Captivate! is much less a portrait of one particular person than of a whole artwork kind. As Schiffer factors out, vogue pictures is “an intricate jigsaw of experts from all fields”: artwork administrators, stylists, hair and make-up artists, editors – and, of course, the “superstar” photographers, amongst them Richard Avedon and the colour-blind Helmut Newton, some of whom grew to become, she says, her “mentors”.
Whereas the business within the Eighties was, she says, obsessive about “perfectionist high glamour”, the Nineteen Nineties ushered in an age of “fearless creativity”. A brand new aesthetic combined excessive with low – pairing a Chanel jacket with classic Levi’s – and a youthful technology of provocative photographers, together with Corinne Day and Juergen Teller, pioneered “dirty realism” by, for example, taking pictures fashions with out make-up. “As a result,” says Schiffer, “the language of modelling changed. The clichéd poses were replaced by idiosyncratic gestures, with photography focusing on ‘off-guard’ moments.”
The nonetheless level in these shifting tides was the “sexy glamour” of the supermodels, who, Schiffer believes, saved vogue’s “optimism” alive through the recession of the early Nineteen Nineties, “when the designer market was in steep decline”.
The “supers” grew to become icons of “self-made success” and “female ambition”: the analogue prototype, for those who like, for right this moment’s digital influencers. “Now,” says Schiffer, “the idea that a personality or individual can transcend the brands they work with is accepted – but back then it was very new.” As a end result, she provides, “careers started to last longer” and lately fashions are “working well into their 40s and beyond.”
Not, although, Linda Evangelista, one other member of the “Big Six”, who not too long ago revealed on Instagram that she had been “permanently deformed” by beauty surgical procedure after which she withdrew from public view. “I feel deeply for Linda,” says Schiffer, “and admire her strength for speaking out about the pain she has endured.”
Life as a supermodel was, Schiffer tells me, not often simple. “It was insane … like being a rock star. You couldn’t get to your car unless a path was carved for you. People would cut holes in the fashion tents and try to take pictures of us.” By the mid-Nineteen Nineties, she was so well-known that at her vogue reveals safety guards had been employed particularly to “guard my underwear, which was constantly disappearing when I was out on the runway”. If that sounds creepy, Schiffer assures me that all through her career she “always felt safeguarded… My mother was my chaperone in my early years as a model and protected me from the seedy side of the business.” But she recognises that “my experience was not everyone’s”.
Eventually, although, Schiffer’s reminiscence typically returns to that essential likelihood encounter at Checker’s nightclub. “Over 30 years later, I look back,” she says, “and can see how magical that moment was.”
The Telegraph, London
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