In 1987, a shy 17-year-old called Claudia Schiffer was at Checker’s nightclub in Düsseldorf, when a stranger approached her and asked if she wanted to be a model. “I thought it was a joke,” recalls Schiffer, now 51, who at the time was still self-conscious about her height (180 centimetres). But the man, who worked for a French modelling agency, was insistent – and, a few days later, accompanied by her mother, Schiffer found herself in Paris.
Within weeks, she was living in the French capital, hanging around with her new friend, the up-and-coming German photographer Ellen von Unwerth – “and the rest,” Schiffer says, “is history”. By the following decade, she had established herself, alongside Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, among the “Big Six” supermodels who revolutionised the fashion industry.
Recently, Schiffer – who lives in Suffolk with her husband, English film director Matthew Vaughn, and their three children – has been thinking a lot about those early days. Invited by the director of Düsseldorf’s Kunstpalast museum to curate Captivate!, a show of fashion photography from the 1990s, she spent lockdown sifting through thousands of digital images, as well as her own “library” of fashion magazines and “shoeboxes of memorabilia”. An accompanying book, featuring 150 photographs, including backstage snaps from Schiffer’s personal archive, is about to be published.
Part of the volume’s fascination is, simply, the insight it provides into an extraordinary life. We see Schiffer’s first test shot as a schoolgirl posing in a baggy baseball jacket. Crimped blonde hair covers one of her eyes, suggesting, perhaps, her introverted disposition. Any diffidence, though, soon disappeared.
Two years later, Schiffer was modelling for the black-and-white Guess Jeans campaign that would make her famous: feeling at ease with Von Unwerth, who shot it in Italy, she danced about in a black lace corset and stonewashed denim, part carefree cowgirl, part 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 cover 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 recalls, “but within hours I was being fitted for his new collection.” Lagerfeld, who died in 2019, was, she explains, always “incisive” – and after their meeting, he made Schiffer the face of Chanel.