Captivate! Fashion Photography from the ’90s at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf

Ever since we started planning our December trip to Düsseldorf, I’ve been wanting to explore the city’s status as Germany’s fashion capital. And what better way to do so than catch the curatorial debut of one of the world’s most in-demand supermodels – Claudia Schiffer! If you’d also like to go on a personal journey through the decade that shaped the fashion industry as we know it, you only have until the end of the week! The Captivate! Fashion Photography from the ’90s exhibition at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf closes on 9th January.

Wall with 'Captivate' written on it next to a photo of supermodels in red and white striped T-shirts

Admission

As is the case in many venues across Germany, the 2G rule currently applies to the Kunstpalast visitors. This means you either need to be recovered (genesen) or vaccinated (geimpft). In addition to your certificate, you also need to present a proof of ID upon arrival.

As part of the COVID-19 precautions, there’s a limited number of time slot tickets available on the museum’s website. They were sold out on the day we wanted to visit, but we decided to try our luck anyway and managed to get two extra tickets at the ticket office! For the price of €14, you get to access both temporary exhibitions. In addition to Captivate!, you can also visit Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno – the museum’s first major exhibition dedicated to music.

As someone who doesn’t listen to electronic music, I honestly didn’t expect to like it as much as I did! An absolute highlight was the room where you could relive a concert of the legendary Düsseldorf duo Kraftwerk in 3D. Is this a bad time to admit I may have found this exhibition even more captivating (pun very much intended) than its fashion counterpart? I guess you’ll have to come and be the judge…

Inside the Captivate! exhibition

As someone whose journey to international stardom began at the end of 1980s in one of the Düsseldorf nightclubs, Claudia Schiffer is the perfect person to reflect on the decade that came to follow. Through a collection of images by some of the greatest photographers of our time including never-seen-before works and memorabilia from her personal collection, she aims to encapsulate the spirit of the 90s.

Wall with framed black and white photos of '90s supermodels inside Kunstpalast Düsseldorf

Supermodel phenomenon

The first section is dedicated to the birth of the supermodel phenomenon. This term was coined in the 1990s in reference to a group of women, including Claudia, who essentially reinvented the concept of modelling. The industry soon went from casting anonymous women who either specialised in runway, commercial, or editorial modelling to creating household names that transcended boundaries and achieved an unprecedented level of fame.

Wall with framed photos of supermodels and Supermodel Phenomenon written on it
Photo of the '90s supermodels in gold dresses at the Captivate! Fashion Photography exhibition
Photo of the original '90s supermodels at the Captivate Fashion Photography from the '90s exhibition
A framed photo of Kate Moss drinking milk taken by Ellen von Unwerth
Photo of Claudia Schiffer standing by the pool in a black one-piece swimsuit with a phone in hand
A black and white photo of the original '90s supermodels posing in front of the Brooklyn Bridge
A framed black and white photo with "For Claudia from her friend Helmut, Paris 1988" written on it

In this part of the exhibition, we can see a selection of images featuring the original supermodels. The centrepiece of the room is the legendary blue gown from the A/W 1994 Versace show. And if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a supermodel yourself, now’s your chance! You can strut down the catwalk to an exclusive playlist of Claudia’s favourite ’90s fashion hits that opens with, of course, Freedom… The second I made sure it wasn’t just an exhibition prop, I just had to give it my best shot!

Catwalk inside the Captivate! Fashion Photography from the '90s exhibition at Kunstpalast Museum
A woman walking down the catwalk at the Captivate! Fashion Photography from the '90s exhibition

Campaigns and covers

The next part of the exhibition touches upon the evolution of fashion campaigns. In the 1990s, fashion was recognised as a very lucrative industry. Supermodels started occupying more and more urban space – from billboards and magazines to the sides of taxis. Budgets skyrocketed as fashion brands fought to create the most innovative campaigns with huge teams behind them. The people behind the lens became equally important to those in front of it. We can see examples of some of the most recognisable campaigns of the decade on display.

A framed black and white photo of Claudia Schiffer holding a kitten

As the record holder for the model with the most magazine covers, it’s only fair that Claudia Schiffer also curated a selection of old covers that spans across an entire wall. And there’s another treat for fellow Vogue collectors! You can actually purchase one of the vintage magazines in the museum’s gift shop. At first I looked at the original price and nearly brought one home until I spotted the eye-watering €30 price tag on the back… I guess admiring them from a distance will have to suffice for now!

A collection of old magazine covers on the wall of Kunstpalast Museum in Düsseldorf
A woman sitting on a bench looking at a wall of framed old magazine covers

Polaroids

Could you imagine a world without Instagram now? In the next section, Claudia takes us back to the pre-digital age, when people showed their lives in a different kind of squares! Most of the wall and floor space is covered in Polaroids to draw attention to different formats of fashion photography. Living in an era where we are used to capturing moments in an instant, the idea of having to wait several minutes just to check the lighting and composition during a photoshoot feels almost surreal!

Fashion stories

The final section of the exhibition focuses on editorial photography. It pays homage to all the people working behind the scenes to bring a certain vision to life. As this is the type of photography that can attract high-paying advertising clients, it comes with more freedom (and money) to experiment with different concepts. I don’t think I truly understood just how much effort goes into producing one magazine photoshoot until I first watched The September Issue. It was really interesting to observe the process from the perspective of someone on the other side of the lens.

Four framed photos portraying a man and a woman against pink, blue and yellow backgrounds
A framed photo of Claudia Schiffer sitting in a baby blue gown and holding an open book

If I had to name one major theme of the entire exhibition, it would certainly be divergence. By showcasing the works of various iconic photographers, Claudia highlights different approaches to fashion photography. The characteristically provocative shots of Juergen Teller stand in contrast to Karl Lagerfeld’s classic photos or Ellen von Unwerth’s playful imagery.

Three framed black and white photos of supermodels taken backstage of a fashion show

We can also observe two types of the 1990s aesthetic. On the one hand, we have the perfectionism and glamour of supermodels. On the other, there’s the growing popularity of the grunge movement that resulted in deconstructing fashion and portraying raw beauty. It was a time of bold creativity, pushing boundaries, and challenging people’s perception of fashion. Supermodels paved the way for modern-day influencers, while fashion magazines no longer dictate trends. With the advent of social media, more and more often trends are created by consumers. Every single one of us can become a fashion icon now, which we were reminded of just as we were about to leave the exhibition…

Woman standing in front of a mirror with "Who will be the next fashion icon? It's you" written on it

Final thoughts on the Captivate! exhibition

As someone born in mid-1990s, my memory of the decade is understandably rather blurry. I have to admit I don’t usually look at it with nostalgia – unless I’m watching Friends or Notting Hill.

Rather than revisit old memories, I used this exhibition as an opportunity to learn more about that time in fashion. While I’ve never particularly bought into the supermodel phenomenon, the glamour of that era definitely speaks to me. Especially now that sweatpants dominate the streets, I loved being able to feast my eyes on elegant dresses! Of course, I would happily welcome that baby blue gown from the iconic Helmut Newton photo in my closet too…

I’m also a highly visual person, so I enjoyed exploring different photography styles and approaches as much as I did the fashion. When you’re one of the most photographed faces in the world, over time you become somewhat of an expert yourself. While I would’ve loved to learn even more about Claudia’s personal journey, I think her curatorial debut was really successful. Judging by the popularity of this exhibition, hopefully we’ll get to hear more industry stories soon…

What’s the most memorable fashion exhibition you’ve ever visited? The Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at the V&A will certainly be hard to top for me! If you’d like to see why, check out the post I wrote about my experience!

Postcards featuring photos of '90s supermodels in Kunstpalast Museum's gift shop

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