German supermodel Claudia
is known for her sultry look in 1990s fashion campaigns for
She became a fashion icon in the 1990s after
shot her when she was just 18 years old for a Chanel campaign—he loved her
Bardot-like beauty after spotting her on the cover of British Vogue. Lagerfeld was what Schiffer calls her “magic dust.”
Ever since, Schiffer has been photographed for over 1,000 magazine covers by some of the world’s most renowned photographers, including
Ellen von Unwerth.
She was trailblazer of the supermodel era, alongside
She was an influencer before social media and defined natural beauty, long before Photoshop and plastic surgery changed the game, in a time of grunge fashion and analogue photography.
Schiffer is now the editor of a new photography book called Captivate! Fashion Photography From The 90s, a survey of fashion imagery from the era, out Jan. 25 with Prestel Publishing in the U.S. It features over 200 shots of supermodels such as Schiffer,
taken by photographers including Juergen Teller and
The book is tied to an exhibition Schiffer curated at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, featuring prints of the book’s top highlights and running through fall 2022.
Schiffer, 51, spoke with Penta about women in fashion photography, analogue versus digital, and her advice to influencers.
PENTA: What was it like being part of the fashion zeitgeist of the 1990s? You were one of the original supermodels.
Claudia Schiffer: 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 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 to capture the visual experimentation and freedom of expression.
Where do you think all this came from?
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, body con Alaia dresses and sneakers,
’ grunge or a
suit—it was its high-and-low mix that was individual, fun, and cool. It really resonates now, when so many young creatives are collaborating and doing things—building from the ground up.
What are some of the strongest photos in the book?
Consider Kate Moss by
for Calvin Klein, with art director
or Mario Testino’s legendary series for Gucci directed by
and styled by
—these campaigns became part of the style conversation. 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.
How different was analogue photography compared to digital?
Well, everything was shot on film and tests were in the form of Polaroids to gauge light, composition, and color. Today, the edit happens on the screen and imagery can be consumed instantly via social media. In the 1990s, the magazines were like the bibles of fashion, with every cover and page eagerly dissected. Budgets were much bigger and literally a location shoot could last for over a week—so many friendships were formed on these trips.
What was it like working with the iconic German fashion photographer Helmut Newton?
Newton exuded confidence, so you felt very safe and comfortable, and he was a perfectionist. Every picture might take longer than maybe other photographers because every detail was meticulously thought through, yet he allowed room for his wit to shine through in spontaneous improvisations. He had great taste, was knowledgeable about fashion, art, and so many subjects and was always very informed in his opinions.
Looking back on these old fashion photos today, what do you see?
I am not given to nostalgia as it can prevent you from moving forward. I would like to be my best self 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 am also working with two fine artisan heritage brands in Portugal, Vista
on ceramics and glassware and that has been rewarding, too. In the fashion world, I recently collaborated with the amazing brand Réalisation Par, that I discovered via my daughter
and I continue to work as an executive producer on films made by my husband.
For years, you have worked with female fashion photographers—which wasn’t always the norm. What was it like?
Fashion photographers Ellen Von Unwerth and
were former models. They had a real understanding of the language of fashion and the profession of modeling; that sense of complicity with the model gives a sense of nuance and knowing.
work has influenced a new generation. She had a brilliance at capturing off-hand gestures, awkward poses in her stripped back photography that rebelled against artifice and the hypersexualized cliches of the ‘male gaze.’
What is it about the female gaze in fashion photography that’s so arresting?
Ellen von Unwerth has contributed an essay for the exhibition catalogue, where she writes: “My photography is a kind of reportage but it’s enhanced reportage. It’s dramatized. It’s exaggerated with the styling and the situation, but I always like to create an image that has a realness to it, something that doesn’t immediately look staged, so it could be like a stolen or captured moment on film.”
I can see a thread running through from female photographers including
who captured the outdoor American girl for Vogue U.S. in the late 1930s and ’40s to Von Unwerth,
(I’ve included many of her backstage photographs in Captivate!) and 20th-century talents like
What advice do you have for young fashion influencers today?
Treat everyone as you would like to be treated and don’t be scared to make mistakes; if you learn from them, you will be O.K.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.