“I grew up in a small town in Germany near the Rhine River. I was quite shy in school and then one evening, I went to a discotheque in Dusseldorf. An agent was there when I was dancing to this song and he approached me and said, ‘You should be a model.’ And it kind of went off like that. I was quite a good dancer. [Laughs]
I never thought I could be a model, so when he stopped me in the nightclub, I thought it was by mistake. I told him if he was serious, he should talk to my parents. I never thought he’d actually give my parents a call. And he did call. My father was a lawyer, so he drew up a tight contract and said, ‘We’ll give it a go for one year, and at least you’ll come back speaking fluent French.’ At any moment, I thought they were going to realize that they made a mistake and send me back. I thought everyone in my school would confuse it with glamour modeling and so I didn’t tell anyone I was going to Paris. I would say that I was sick and go to Paris to do these one-day shoots while I was still in school. When I finally left for good, I said I was going to work for Chanel even though I didn’t have a contract there yet. Eventually that became the truth—and thank God, because I don’t like lying.
The first year, I got really lucky early on and started working with Elle magazine, which sent me around the world on all these different trips with Gilles Bensimon and Hans Feurer. Then I met Karl Lagerfeld and he asked me to join his show. That was around the time when runway models were different than fashion shoot models. And particularly at Chanel, everyone was quite like Coco Chanel. Slightly masculine, dark hair, and the models walked down runway in a very elegant way. I was so shy and I thought there was no way I could do that. Karl told me that all he wanted me to do was walk down the runway like I would normally walk down the street…‘Do it however you want. Be however you are. Don’t worry.’ Suddenly now there was a blonde girl walking down the runway, and she didn’t know how to walk and everyone was wondering what the hell was going on! [Laughs] Then Gianni Versace started doing spectacles instead of fashion shows. There was the lighting, the music change, a really high podium—people would have bought tickets to see a show like this. You would be walking down the runway to Prince and Prince would be sitting in the front row.
Immediately after I started working with Ellen von Unwerth, people started making the Brigitte Bardot comparisons. In her photography, Linda Evangelista was Sophia Loren, Milla Jovovich was Marilyn Monroe, and then I was Brigitte Bardot. A lot of photoshoots looked like that, it was the dark-eyed ‘60s makeup and the backcombed hair. She sent the pictures to Paul Marciano and said, ‘You should meet this girl.’ The Guess Jeans campaign followed, and that created a whole other wave of interest in fashion. After the Guess campaign was the first time anyone had recognized me.
When I started modeling, they said by age 30, my career would be over. But when I was 40, I was literally doing so many things—the boundaries kept changing. So you have your period where you’re trying to get to the top and then it becomes a question of, ‘How do you create longevity?’ Once I reached that, I decided that I only now want to do projects that I’m really excited about. Back then in the ‘90s in particular, I’d go from shoot to shoot and take it as just another job. When you look back, you realize how great these photographers are, even more so. I made a book of all those shoots with Rizzoli—it started from a bunch of Pinterest boards actually. Then we had to find the negatives because we didn’t have digital back then. There were actually a few they couldn’t find.
I never wanted to do anything outside of fashion and beauty because it was the family I lived in and breathed every single day. I didn’t really know anything else. All I wanted to do was succeed and work with the best people in all categories, from hair to makeup and styling. Designing was just a natural step. I learned a lot from designers, the fittings, the photographers and how they created things and how they got their inspiration to create the final result. I had my own ideas over the years and let out some of my creativity into a product.
Without sounding arrogant, I do know a lot about beauty products. If you imagine someone today learning something from a YouTube video, I’ve lived 30 years looking in a mirror. By that, you learn all the tricks—what works, what doesn’t, what’s not so good with natural light, all of those details. For that, I don’t need anyone’s advice. There’s not one thing I use all the time, except for my own line because everything [in it] was something I wanted. And I’ll send it back with feedback if necessary.
As I leave the house, I always put on mascara and use an eyelash curler. I love long eyelashes, so my mascara is lengthening and thickening. Artdeco Luxurious Volume Mascara works for that—I put it on top and bottom. Then I use a bit of an Illuminator and lip balm. I like to shape my brows with a brow pen because you can really correct where you need to and make the shape how you want it. I like to also use a really soft crayon and a clear gel. I got them waxed by this really famous person who used to wax everyone’s brows in the ‘90s, I forget the name. But when I got them done, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘That’s not me.’ Now I just leave them how they are.
I love a smoky eye because it makes your eye color pop. Not like Jean Shrimpton, more like Jane Birkin in the ‘60s. Those sort of effortless pictures where you just quickly smudge it around. It’s not really perfect, but it’s really dark. You start first with the mascara, and then the liner, and then just work in the powders around it. I definitely have to use a brush. My favorite shades for lips are different peaches and apricots from Nars and MAC. I just like a more natural look. On the cheeks, I like a fresh pink because it makes me look like I’ve just run around the block. And for contour, I like to use a soft brown powder. I apply it on high cheekbones and then I’ll use something light brown that’s sort of applied like you went on holiday and tanned really fast above your eyes, or the corner of your forehead and the top of your nose. When you do it together with a blush, it makes it look like you’re fresh and stepped out of the natural sun.
Also, I love having red nails on my toes and my hands all the time. It’s like having rings on or sunglasses—it’s just part of look. In my line, my favorites are Popsicle and Kingsman.
This isn’t my natural color—it used to be my natural color! [Laughs] I used to have this hair color when I was growing up, and then I turned 17 it and got dark and I had to do highlights. Then it got even darker, so now, it’s really dark blonde. Anyone can dye it for me—I work with Schwarzkopf to develop the color so I have it on my own. I just need someone to apply it to the roots.
My hair goes through different stages because of the color. When I put in my conditioner, I comb it in from the bottom-up to avoid breakage. I also cut it regularly to keep it healthy. But I’ve never had a huge hair change because if I did, I’d never work. My contracts literally said, ‘You are not allowed to cut your hair.’ [Laughs] I did a Steven Meisel shoot where I was a brunette with a short hair, but that was a wig.
I do my hair with tongs. My favorite way to have my hair styled is with a soft wave, but if I do it myself, it’s straight. I just use a literal hairbrush and a blowdryer to go in and smooth it all out. I do like the brushes that have soft bristles that go in between. Mason Pearson brushes are too soft and wouldn’t get all my knots out—I need one that’s slightly harder. Harry Josh has a great line of hairdryers that I love. They also work really well.
In the morning, I just shower and wash my face with water. And then I moisturize a lot. When I apply anything, I make sure to massage my face to get the blood moving. Bamford is what I use for the basics—I do the serum, then oil, then cream. In the morning, it helps seal everything in and calm everything down. They also make a cleansing and clearing mask that I like to use when I take an Epsom salt bath. Sisley also makes some creams that are really hydrating—their Black Rose Cream in particular. At night when I’m really tired I do make an exception to not take off my makeup. I’ll just do it in the morning. Being a mom didn’t change my approach to beauty, the only thing it made me do was do it faster. [Laughs] There’s not time to do anything when you’re taking care of your kids.”
Claudia Schiffer photographed by Tom Newton in New York on October 19, 2017.