“You better work it, girl of the world! Wet your lips and make love to the camera,” RuPaul lovingly extolled in the 1993 hit, “Supermodel (You Better Work).” From the nightclubs of New York City to every corner of the globe, the statuesque blond drag queen belted out the names of models — including Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista — who changed fashion forevermore.
With its extraordinary blend of rebellion and innovation, the 1990s transformed culture, with fashion leading the vanguard of both pop culture and fine art. The supermodel was born into a world of fearless creativity, one in which photographers, designers, stylists, and art directors created a new approach to art, music, style, and entertainment.
As muse to a myriad of designers throughout her storied career, Claudia Schiffer has a vantage point on the decade like no other, one that she shares with the world in her first book and museum exhibition, Captivate! Fashion Photography from the ‘90s. Schiffer selected 150 groundbreaking images that redefined the way we look and think about fashion photography, offering an in-depth look into a period whose impact and influence can still be felt.
“Let’s face it — no fashion photograph can be called iconic at its conception. That status only comes with the test of time,” Schiffer says. “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. The most memorable images are often provocative and challenge our perceptions of femininity.”
Feeling the Moment
With an eye for the exquisite nuances of beauty and style, Claudia Schiffer brings together iconic images by legendary photographers including Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Karl Lagerfeld, Peter Lindbergh, Corrine Day, Mario Sorrenti, and Ellen von Unwerth alongside never-before-seen materials from her private archive that celebrate the glamour and extravagance, intimacy and playfulness styles.
The book cover boasts a Richard Avedon photograph from a Gianni Versace campaign featuring five supermodels in a dazzling array of pastel sweaters, metallic mini skirts, slouch socks, and high heel loafers. It’s the perfect group shot where the participants read as a unit but maintain their individuality.
“I worked with so many photographers who also became mentors. Figures like Ellen von Unwerth, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort and creative powerhouse, Karl Lagerfeld all of whom gave me true insight into the artistry as well as into the processes of art direction, editing and publishing. The model’s role is to bring fashion alive but she or he is just one ingredient in the alchemy of image-making,” says Schiffer.
“For example, on set for the Versace campaigns, Avedon would bring in a choreographer who would teach us how to move. His practice was also to shoot alongside a mirror turned towards you, so that you could see yourself as he did. In that way you could truly collaborate in the creation of the shot, by getting a good idea of what was working, what wasn’t, and what you could change to make it better.”
A Million Dollar Fairytale
The last decade of the millennium marked a turning point on every possible front imaginable. The massive shifts in globalization, technology, politics, and economics were matched by the profound changes to society, culture, and art. Situated at the intersection of aesthetics, commerce, media, entertainment, and identity, fashion was perfectly poised to reflect the revolutions in thought far and wide.
“The 1990s was a watershed period that upturned ideals of beauty and fashion,” says Claudia Schiffer. “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 Kate Moss by Mario Sorrenti for Calvin Klein, with art director Fabien Baron – these campaigns became part of the style conversation.”
In the final years of the analog era, traditional print and broadcast media maintained their hold on shaping the public discourse. As legacy and independent magazines that pushed the boundaries of art and style, advertising campaigns set the page for the times. Competition to create “the” definitive look sent budgets into the stratosphere as brands were eager to secure exclusives with models, photographers, art directors, and stylists. Fashion campaigns by designers like Calvin Klein frequently made headlines and elevated fashion photography to the pantheon of pop culture.
Paving the Way
Although money was flowing and luxury goods were the ultimate status symbol, the 1990s maintained a feeling of accessibility and respect for the D.I.Y. ethos. After the excess of the 1980s, realness became chic. You could mix and match high and low fashion, even whip up a little something at home. Originality, experimentation, and unconventional ideas were openly embraced. Grunge and glamour went hand in hand, as did bodycon and athleisure, long before anyone used the term. The important thing was to use references as a departure point, rather than cosplay someone else’s ideas.
Captivate! is a masterclass in blending innovation and tradition. Fashion photography both embodies the spirit of the times and transcends it. With chapters celebrating the campaigns, covers, Polaroids, fashion stories, and backstage scenes, Captivate! tells the story of 1990s fashion as seen from inside, reflecting on the elements that made the decade such an enduring force in the conversation today.
“In 1994, Steven Meisel shoots the perfume campaign for cK one inspired by Avedon’s images of Andy Warhol and members of The Factory,” writes journalist and top model Carine Roitfeld in an essay for the book. “These tableaux tell of a young multicultural generation that questions heteronormativity and gender. The wardrobes of women and men are interchangeable. The definition and depiction of ‘sexy’ is evolving. The models are not those found in calendars with their extreme physiques. The bodies presented are less ‘perfect’ than those from before, more accessible, more real. They become desirable role models for young people, who identify with them more easily.”
Three decades later these images provide a foundation to which we can return time and again to consider the ways in which images shape identity — and vice versa. Perhaps photographer Herb Ritts said it best with a quote that appears in the book: “You’re trying to get to one moment with one frame that eventually may speak for your generation.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Captivate! Fashion Photography from the ‘90s is published by Prestel, $69.95, and will be released in the United States on January 25, 2022. The exhibition is on view at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf through January 9, 2022.