It's not every day you get to hang out with one of the original Supers from the decade you were born. But there I found myself, set to meet Claudia Maria Schiffer — the shy, German model discovered in a Düsseldorf nightclub and thrust into an industry she never had the confidence to be a part of — in her New York City hotel room, on a Tuesday afternoon. The woman with the million dollar smile, and me.
After signing with Elite Model Management post-high school, Schiffer flew to Paris for the first of what would be many times; there, she met photographer Ellen von Unwerth, who became her mentor and confidante. "Our chemistry was amazing," Schiffer recalls. "Deep down, I discovered this talent of being something like a five year-old in front of the camera, with the hair and makeup on, doing silly, stupid things. She brought that out of me." Von Unwerth would go on to send pictures of Schiffer to Paul Marciano of GUESS?, who, in 1989, gave her her first big break: an international campaign. In an interview with E! in 2007, Marciano said: "The GUESS? name became really much more known around the world because [of] Claudia."
Working with GUESS? was a pivotal point in Schiffer's career. "I remember coming to New York, riding down the elevator — I didn't have any makeup on — and I came out [on the street] and someone said, Oh, you're Cloud-ia Schiffer!," she says, pronouncing her name like the visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the air. "That was the moment I realized something had changed." It was also the moment Schiffer's career went from being just a fashion model to an instrumental part of fashion's Golden Age. Be it Chanel, Versace, Valentino — or her many Elle covers — the show couldn't start without her.
"We were in the middle of this amazing change in fashion, but we didn't realize we were a part of it," she says, reflecting on the period that turned models into supermodels, and supermodels into superstars. "On the runway, you had to walk a certain way and be a certain size. There were so many boxes you had to tick. In the audience, you had only buyers and maybe some editors. No one famous would ever go to a fashion show."
But that was then. And just last month, the world stopped when the curtain drew on Versace's spring 2018 show in Milan, to reveal the original faces of the '90s — Carla Bruni, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, and Schiffer — just before they took to the runway to commemorate the 20th anniversary of designer Gianni Versace's death; statuesque and dripped in chainmail, just as they were some two decades ago. With Donatella Versace in tow, the most recognizable women in fashion reprised the walks that made them household names.
"When we had that moment and we were all standing on those cubes going, 'Are you nervous? Yeah. Are you nervous? Yeah. Oh, we're all nervous — shit! Are you hot? Yeah. Are you sweating? Yeah. Oh, we're all hot. Ah, it's about to start!' And then you go, Aw, I miss the old days. This was so much fun. But then, of course, when you walk back out of it and you go back home, you think, This is me. This is my real life."
"When you're in it, you don't really notice it," Schiffer continues. "During that time, you just sort of went in and did your job as best as you could. I didn't know who anybody was. A shoot with Helmut Newton? I didn't know him. It's only years later that you look back on everything and think, That was really special."
She recalls the time she found herself walking down the early Versace runway to Prince songs in front of Prince himself. She remembers the times her bra would be stolen from the changing room while she was out on the runway, too. "There were thousands of people waiting outside waiting for our autographs, ten security guards just to walk us to our cars — so, suddenly, the fashion industry just changed." Perhaps there didn’t need to be any celebrities sitting front row, because they were all walking down the runway already.
Amongst their newfound fame and the madness that came with it, the girls — the girls — all found solace in each other. It was through moonlit dinners and enduring after parties that they forged their lifelong bonds. During the day, however, it was every woman for herself. "We were fighting like mad. We all wanted the best of the best: 'I want to wear the wedding dress in the Chanel show; I want to be the first one out; I want to be the last one out; I want to be on the cover, but if you're on the cover, I want to be in the center of the cover' — it was a nightmare of competition going on between this group."
She likens the Golden Era of supermodels to boarding school, but when asked if she misses her former fashion classmates, she hesitates to respond. "How can I put it..." She launches into an answer only someone who's finagled her way through 30 years-worth of interviews could: "So, you're someone completely different when you're younger. You don't have your own family, you're not married..." I knew where she was going with this. "But I wouldn't want to live that time again, now, because I'm happier now because I have the real value of friends."
She continues: "It's a tough business. I have models coming up to me all the time asking why they're crumbling. But you have to remember: You get criticized a lot. Imagine being on a photoshoot and there are people behind you whispering — and you know what they're whispering because they whisper loudly — and they're pointing out everything that's wrong with you." At this point, her voice begins to slip into a colloquial register, and suddenly I feel like I am finally getting to talk to the real Claudia, not the media-trained star.
"You only have a certain amount of jobs," she adds. "Then you get put on option and someone else gets it, so you don't get it, or they cancel last minute — but there are so many moments of rejection that you have to cope with as a person. And, even though I'm quite a shy person and maybe sensitive in that way, I've built up an inner strength as well." She looks at her hands, which haven't stopped dancing through the air since we sat down.
"You have to look at it this way: You are who you are. If someone doesn't like you, then they don't like you. It's not your choice. There's nothing you can do about it. But you have to be happy with who you are. The rest can take it or leave it. You have to be a bit arrogant about it and understand the logic of it all. The key is not to care. These things are moments of time, but everything changes. You have to give yourself a reality check every day, but if you have a great, stable real life, then you can dip in and out and treat yourself to the craziness every now and then. But you come out into a healthy, normal life."
For Schiffer, that "healthy, "normal" life involves a Tudor mansion just shy of Cambridge, a marriage to director Matthew Vaughn, whom she often collaborates with, and a menagerie of kids and farm animals. Recently, she compiled some of her most legendary photoshoots into a 272-page book (which just "felt like the right thing to do"), designed a shoe line in collaboration with Aquazurra that starts at $725, an eponymous makeup range whose packaging was inspired by dusty rose Vespinos in Italy, and released her own Barbie that was inspired by a shoot she and von Unwerth did for Italian Vogue. (Unfortunately, the doll won't be sold in stores, which is a real bummer considering the fact that the last time the supermodels were turned into dolls was in the mid-'90s when competitor Sindy sculpted figurines of Schiffer, Campbell, and Karen Mulder.)
But it's safe to say that, even though Schiffer has mostly retired from the runway, she's kept herself occupied over the years. Her résumé includes holding the Guinness World Record for appearing on the most magazine covers (ever), launching her own series of workout videos called "Perfectly Fit," and making unforgettable cameos in movies like Love Actually, Zoolander, and most recently, Kingsman: The Golden Circle. In typical supermodel form, all of this has never made her stop and say, Okay, I've accomplished everything I set out to do.
For over 30 years, Schiffer has managed to remain in complete control of her brand, her image, and her reputation. She's straddled the world of high fashion and commercial fashion — a feat that rendered her and her amazonian cohorts an anomaly amongst models back then, where you were one or the other. And she's one of the rare supermodels that's been able to keep her title while dipping in and out of the job, unlike some of her contemporaries like Tatjana Patitz and Yasmin Le Bon, who have more or less quit the industry entirely, or like the immortal Naomi Campbell, who's never left it.
When you listen to Schiffer speak, she sounds the way she feels: at the other end of an incredibly unique and cosmic life experience, having been through a life documented in photos, and yet seems to be blissfully detached from it all. But sitting in front of her, it's difficult to not be overwhelmed with a sense of perfection. From her perfect hair to her perfect skin to her perfect teeth — all the way down to her perfect shoes (from her own collection with Aquazurra). Then she tells me that, for her whole life, perfection eluded her. It was in that moment I realized we had more in common than I thought; that she might not be so perfect at all.
"I wasn't the popular girl in school. I was too tall, too skinny; my bum stuck out, so they called me a duck; because I blushed so badly, I always sat last row; and I'd go home to eat lunch because I didn't have friends," she said, looking down at the floor. "The fact that someone said, You can be a model, was a massive change in my life, because it was [the climax of] 20 years worth of therapy."
"I didn't believe it," she admits. "It was the most important part of my career because it was the moment that changed me. As in, I was able to cope with life."