Captivate!: Fashion Photography from the ’90s

Beverly Peele and Tyra Banks photographed by Arthur Elgort for Vogue, 1993. © Arthur Elgort
Beverly Peele and Tyra Banks photographed by Arthur Elgort for Vogue, 1993. © Arthur Elgort

FELIX KRÄMER, A GENERAL DIRECTOR OF DÜSSELDORF’S MUSEUM KUNSTPALAST, writes in the foreword to Captivate!: Fashion Photography from the ’90s that “galleries, institutions, studios and the people who work in both the public and private spheres are struggling for survival” during the pandemic. It makes sense, then, to lean on a cash cow: the fashion exhibition. Who wouldn’t love to stand in front of a blown-up picture of a phalanx of famously beautiful women shimmering in Gianni Versace’s gold chain-mail dresses, whether they remember seeing it firsthand or on Tumblr or in Donatella’s re-creation that marked the twentieth anniversary of her brother’s death?

Many of the photos featured in the book are of Claudia Schiffer—who edited the collection and curated the accompanying exhibition—and her peers, among them Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, et al., in some of their most famous editorial (fashion magazine) and commercial (fashion-magazine ad) spreads. Set to begin in September, the exhibition charts the rise of the supermodel, the class of mannequin who went from mere faces to the faces, celebrities who could appear anywhere—a catwalk, a periodical, a billboard—and began appearing everywhere.

The ’90s also saw the rise of the fashion conglomerate: LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s attempt to purchase Gucci was the decade’s haute boardroom drama. And as the industry’s emphasis moved away from selling expensive clothes and toward using expensive clothes to sell lots of cheaper goods, an influx of corporate funds allowed fashion campaigns to straddle art and commerce to an extent never before seen. Those who were able to grab hold of some of that money, a small guild of models, photographers, stylists, and other artisans whose work could have shown up on any magazine page, were able to create some lovely images, many of which continue to inspire contemporary designers who have spent their entire lives under the supers’ reign.

Absent the captions, it can be hard to tell whether the photos in Captivate! were created for a publication or a designer. But who cares? Fashion media documents a designer’s transmutation of the innumerable ideas about how a person might appear in the world into something that laypeople might use to spruce up their lives for a moment, and fashion advertising monetizes it. The fashion exhibition’s job, given enough temporal distance from a given fashion’s moment of being in fashion, is to help people forget that the distinction once mattered.