Last time, The Image Makers explored collaborations between high-end designers and fashion photographers. These successful collaborations (between design houses and the world’s high-end photographers) can turn a little-known atelier into instantly recognisable icons. Examining the influential brands and their photographers that became synonymous with them; the following is a breakdown of how creative execution can develop into a world-famous signature brand image over time.
In the second chapter of our Image Makers series, we continue to look at influential partnerships between high-end designers, and top-tier photographers. We explore the highly lucrative collaboration between risque fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth, and Guess. This time sees the beginning of the “Guess Girls” – resulting in a partnership that spans over thirty years.
THE WORK OF ELLEN VON UNWERTH
Ellen von Unwerth is a female fashion photographer worth celebrating. Her unique perspective is born out of her experience as a model, allowing her to connect with her subjects. This creates a unique intimacy, not often seen in fashion photography. She is one of the very few female fashion photographers (alongside Sherman, Leibovitz, and Goldin) to stand toe to toe with the legendary male photographers of the 90s and 2000s.
Sebastian Plantin (Curator of her 2018 exhibition: Ladyland) says, “Her pictures are not only aesthetically pleasant, but they are also educational because they express a more sophisticated approach to femininity. In Ellen’s photographic world, women can stand alone and be in control, they are self-assured and emancipated from the male figure”.
Von Unwerth’s style is striking. With influences like the glamorous eroticism of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin; the resulting pinup-style photographs convey a subversive feminine gaze. This is empowering rather than objectifying… Something seldom seen in mainstream fashion photography.
She has the uncanny ability to capture the personalities of her subjects. Von Unwerth’s eye for talent is responsible for the launch of a variety of ’90s supermodels careers. Some of these names include Claudia Schiffer and Eva Herzigova.
Her dramatic photography campaigns often draw inspiration from black and white movies. Such images appear on the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. Not only that, but they also frequently feature in international exhibitions at institutions like MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A HAPPY CHILDHOOD
Born in Frankfurt in 1954, von Unwerth lost her parents at age two and spent her youth between orphanages and foster homes.
“I didn’t suffer too much,” Unwerth wrote of her early years, in her autobiography Fräulein. “In fact, I remember my childhood as being very happy.”
After graduating from high school in Munich, Von Unwerth worked as a circus assistant performing stunts and magic, before being scouted and becoming a model. She moved to Paris, and worked as a model for several years, but often felt limited. Looking back she told CNN, “I was a model for 10 years and I was so frustrated, I was lively and always had fun ideas but the photographers were always like, just stand there, look to the left, look to the right, don’t smile.”
GUESS AND PAUL MARCIANO
Ever since the Marciano brothers launched Guess in 1981, in Southern California Guess quickly became a name synonymous with trendy denim apparel and sexy advertising. The visual identity of GUESS was the handiwork of Paul Marciano, who made the decision in 1986 to switch Guess’ advertising photography to black-and-white from colour. Guess has left indelible imprints in branding with its striking images of sexy Guess Girls.
Since the 1980s, being a Guess model has been a role reserved for bombshells and sex kittens. Throughout the years, the brand enlisted supermodels, actresses and even one former First Lady. Whether blonde or brunette, Guess girls turn up the glam factor in denim, swimsuits and lingerie.
GUESS IS YOUNG, SEXY & ADVENTUROUS
In an interview with WWD Marciano says, “Since the day we started Guess, the brand has always stood for young, sexy and adventurous, and it is these same qualities that I look for in the models that become Guess Girls. They also have to look healthy. When the waif look first came into fashion, Anna Nicole Smith was in the Guess campaigns looking like a real woman. A girl who looks too thin and unhealthy does not look sexy to me, and she does not look right for Guess.”
Paul Marciano states in many interviews, that he liked to discover new faces for his Guess Campaigns, but most important was the chemistry between the model and photographer, which he believes is key to a successful shoot, and hence a phenomenal campaign.
Throughout its thirty-plus years of advertising, Guess has helped launch the modelling careers (and boost the acting careers) of some of the most globally-recognised models in the biz while making jeans look irrevocably sexy. Integral to this, and the success of the Guess Girls campaigns is its relationship with legendary fashion photographer, Ellen Von Unwerth.
THE FIRST COLLABORATION BETWEEN ELLEN VON UNWERTH AND PAUL MARCIANO FOR GUESS
Von Unwerth’s years of frustration while modelling fueled her creativity. She began shooting photos, and first gained name recognition in 1998 through a collaboration with Paul Marciano, the CEO of Guess. Marciano said that when scouting photographers for his campaigns he looked for something in their work that caught his eye. With Ellen, he found a photographer who shared the same level of obsession for creating great images. Marciano and Unwerth shared a passion for old American and Italian movies and wanted to use that concept as a base to create timeless campaign images.
PAUL MARCIANO INTERVIEW WITH PAPER MAGAZINE:
“One day I saw pictures in The Face or Arena. They were beyond sexy. I looked at the name: Ellen von Unwerth… She was German, the magazine was English but the rumor was she lived in Paris. Finally, I had a meeting with her… Her first campaign ever was GUESS.”
In her first-ever campaign for Guess, Ellen Von Unwerth shot Carre Otis. The starlet later told WWD (of the shoot, “The moment was a pivotal one in my career and the photos catapulted me into a new stardom. Audiences could relate to the beauty Guess honoured in women. There was no ‘one type.’ We were celebrated as blonde or brunette bombshells, and curves were applauded as we bore witness to Anna Nicole’s stunning Guess campaign.”
A HOUSEHOLD NAME
However, the pivotal shoot for Von Unwerth comes one year later, when she discovers a future supermodel – Claudia Schiffer. Schiffer starred in the 1989 Guess campaign, strutting the streets in sky-high Guess jeans. The campaign was so successful it essentially launched the careers of Claudia Schiffer, and Ellen von Unwerth, whilst simultaneously making Guess a household name.
Paul Marciano explains to Dazed Magazine:
“Ellen and I were scouting for unknown models for the Guess campaigns. We came across a young German model that had an amazing resemblance to Brigitte Bardot and in our opinion was the answer to our dream to faithfully recreate the old movies of the 50s. Her long, blonde hair and sensual curves, along with her unique personality, so independent and determined, set the standard for all Guess girls to follow her. Claudia is the quintessential Guess girl.”
“I met Ellen von Unwerth in Paris when I was 17.” Claudia Schiffer reflects, on the 30 Year Anniversary of Guess. “We were both starting out and got on like a house on fire, just mucking around next to the Centre Pompidou in my own clothes. Cut to the Guess team, who saw the pictures and wanted us for the Guess Jeans ad campaign.”
ENCOURAGING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Schiffer told the New York Post, “We shot [the bicycle photo] in Pisa, Italy, one glorious summer day… Ellen really encouraged me to move around and express myself freely rather than hold a pose. Everything was very spontaneous, and I found myself balancing barefoot on the back of a bicycle, riding through the streets in a black swimsuit, as if off to a distant beach.
Those are the best shoots: You can be as silly and naughty as you want because there’s trust.”
“I love shooting Guess,” Ellen von Unwerth tells Dazed Magazine, reflecting on her career with the iconic denim brand.
“Guess changed my career primarily in that it gave me the opportunity to shoot so many great and gorgeous women.
“I became known for creating a certain kind of sexy image. From the beginning, I was given so much freedom — we have shot some of the most memorable women in the world. I love that the photographs have generated such a response from around the world.”
PAUL MARCIANO INTERVIEW WITH PAPER MAGAZINE:
“I believe people do not forget a visual brand. If you do something exceptional, something iconic, something that will stay in your mind when you close your eyes, that’s good. If you close your eyes, you see the image of Ralph Lauren. You see the image of Calvin Klein. You close your eyes and can see the image of GUESS. The chic, casual sexiness. It’s always feminine and voluptuous, not ashamed of curves.”
SUPERMODELS WHO STARTED AS “GUESS GIRLS”
Playful, erotic, woman-focused, and ultra-feminine quickly became the signature style of Ellen von Unwerth, and the dominating look in her countless Guess Campaigns to follow over the next thirty years. With a passion for oversaturated colors, or grainy black and white, her images are unmistakable, as she photographs top models, celebrities, and socialites in timeless Guess campaigns.
TAKE THE PHOTOS OR GO HOME
In 1991, Von Unwerth teamed up with Guess to photographic already established supermodel Naomi Campbell, shooting alongside the relatively unknown Eva Herzigova, until he issued an ultimatum to take the photos or go home.
Naomi Campbell later reflects on the shoot, telling WWD, “I had always loved the Guess images and I was so excited to do it because it was also the first time I went to Brazil and Rio and to be the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ for a day was a dream. I was in heaven!”
“I have been so blessed to have worked with many of the greatest fashion photographers and designers who have produced images which have been so important throughout my career, but that special combination with Ellen von Unwerth and Paul Marciano for Guess was amazing.
“It was wonderful and those images were a milestone of the early days of my career.”
Herzigova continued her campaigns with Guess the following year.
“Back in the days when I started modeling, the Guess Jeans campaign was one of the greatest. When my agency called me to tell me I got the job, I couldn’t believe it. Ellen von Unwerth has transformed me into Marilyn for them. And if I recall, we have done few campaigns for Guess — even one in favelas in Brazil with Naomi and one in New York in the The Actors Studio and on the streets of New York. Those ads always looked like movie stills — black-and-white and full of emotions and life.”
AN UNFORGETTABLE GUESS GIRL
Paul Marciano explains to WWD, “When I saw Eva, I thought immediately how much she looked like Marilyn Monroe. Her resemblance to a 50s icon like Marilyn Monroe, her playful nature and her determination broke through on these first shoots making her an unforgettable Guess girl.”
ICONIC CHILD STARS AND SOCIALITES
In the 1993 Guess campaign, Ellen von Unwerth captured former child-star Drew Barrymore, displaying a sexy, seductive side to her viewers, as she emerged from the child star to adult temptress within her own right. In the campaign, she is living out her best summer dreams in acid-washed cut-offs and a bra top, straddling a ruggedly handsome male model.
Another iconic teen starlet turned bedazzled Guess Girl through Von Unwerth’s lens was the notorious Paris Hilton. It was the first time the imminent socialite, who paved the way for future influencers for generations to come, was captured in a way that was both flattering and high-end. Paris, a family friend of Marciano, was so desperate to become a Guess Girl, that she offered to shoot for free to break out of her typecast portrayal.
“Ever since I was a little girl I have looked up to models like Claudia Schiffer. I dreamed of being a Guess Girl and my dream came true.” The heiress tells WWD.
She goes on to say that she “absolutely loved working with Ellen von Unwerth. It made me extremely proud to drive down Sunset Boulevard and see my Guess photos on a huge billboard.”
Since 1988, Von Unwerth has worked consistently with Guess, not always on a yearly basis, but at least once every few years delivering yet another landmark campaign, which has the ingredients of a classic Ellen campaign collaboration with the denim company. Returning to its iconic roots, Guess once again utilized the talents of Von Unwerth in 2010, who was by now a top-billed Fashion photographer.
The designer-photographer team released another dynamic collaboration, capturing Alyssa Miller and Elsa Hosk in Memphis, giving the girls a rockabilly look which rendered them scrumptious, without being trashy.
“Working alongside Ellen and incorporating our rock ‘n’ roll history combined with a picturesque setting, stunning talent and impeccably designed clothing are the perfect ingredients for another iconic campaign,” Marciano explains, in reference to the campaign.
Guess Jeans Campaign, Memphis, with Alyssa Miller & Elsa Hosk, Fall 2010 | Photograph by: Ellen von Unwerth
“Through Ellen’s lens we have created yet another masterpiece to sit alongside the classic campaigns that have made GUESS a household name” she says.
A NEW GUESS GIRL – AMBER HEARD
In 2011, Marciano and Von Unwerth struck gold once again when they captured the then relatively unknown Amber Heard in that season’s campaign. “I met Amber at the Beverly Hills hotel and as soon as I saw her I knew she was our new Guess girl.” Marciano reflected. “She was fun, fresh, she had the dream to make it big and with her natural beauty and classic, all-American good looks she just embodied the Guess girl.”
Amber Heard was a fresh face at the time but, owing to recent events, is now one of the most infamous celebrities in the world. The young celebrity looked back on her Guess shoots with fondness telling WWD magazine.
She adds that, “Guess is the epitome of an iconic American brand, and I am honored that Mr. Marciano felt that I could help represent that. Growing up, I can remember the Guess ads always catching my eye. It is surreal that my image is now there. Being a part of the Guess campaign has been an incredible experience and I feel lucky to be a part of the Guess family.”
A THIRTY-YEAR REUNION
In 2012, Paul Marciano, Claudia Schiffer and Ellen von Unwerth reunited at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the GUESS clothing brand. The trio, who credited their joint Guess campaign in 1989 as launching their respective careers, were flocked by well-wishers who grabbed copies of the coffee-table book “A Third Decade of Guess Images” and clamored for autographs.
Marciano marveled at the brand’s journey from a 700-square-foot space in downtown Los Angeles to a global company with 12,000 employees.
A guest held out a copy of the book, flipped open at the iconic shot of Schiffer wearing nothing but a bustier, hoop earrings and tousled blonde locks. “If I had to pick a single photo out of my entire life, these 30 years, it would be that one,” Marciano told WWD, as he signed the page. “It’s the photo that changed her life and that changed life for Guess.”
One of her final campaigns with Marciano was in 2014 when Guess delivered a classic Fall campaign. Playing on an ‘Americana’ theme, the Tennesse-inspired campaign was photographed by Ellen von Unwerth. Utilising the star power of Gigi Hadid, Samantha Hoopes, Bojana Ksrmanovic and Yara Khmidan, the girls were decked in Western glam as they modeled denim on denim, high-waisted jeans and pencil skirts for one sexy look.
PAUL MARCIANO’S FALL FROM GRACE
Similar to the path of many luxury houses in the fashion industry over recent years, Guess has been racked by scandal, which first came to light at the dawn of the #METOO movement. In this situation, it was not the photographer, Ellen Von Unwerth, but the leading figurehead for Guess, CEO Paul Marciano who came under scrutiny for gross workplace misconduct.
On Jan. 31, 2018, supermodel Kate Upton wrote, “It’s disappointing that such an iconic women’s brand @Guess is still empowering Paul Marciano as their creative director #metoo.”
In an interview with TIME, Upton detailed her claims against Marciano, co-founder and former CEO of Guess, who she says assaulted and began harassing her during her first professional modeling campaign when she was 18.
Marciano issued a follow up response to TIME in which he called Upton’s accusations “absolutely false” and “preposterous.” “I have never been alone with Kate Upton,” he said. “I have never touched her inappropriately. Nor would I ever refer to a Guess model in such a derogatory manner.” He added: “I fully support the #metoo movement. At the same time, I will not allow others to defame me and tarnish my reputation. I have pledged to Guess and its Board of Directors my full support and cooperation with a fair and impartial investigation.”
Upton detailed one alleged instance of abuse. Describing a photoshoot she modelled on for Marciano, and his favourite photographer, Ellen von Unwerth, the latter of whom, she painted in a favourable light.
CLAIMS AND ALLEGATIONS
Upton said in an article later published by time, “When I worked Ellen von Unwerth, Paul’s behaviors became much more aggressive without Yu Tsai there as a buffer. Ellen and I rode together on the way back to the hotel. I remember her asking me if I was friends with Paul because he seemed to really like me”.
She continues, “When we arrived at the hotel, Paul came right up to me, grabbed me hard by my arm and insisted he was taking me to dinner, just him and I, to celebrate the campaign. Ellen picked up on this, literally grabbed my other arm, and invited herself by saying she was so excited to celebrate the campaign with us. Paul told her she was not invited to dinner, and I felt like she saved me by pulling me away from him and jokingly walking me to the elevator, saying, “Well if I’m not going, Kate’s not going.” I have always been so grateful to Ellen for doing that.” [A representative for von Unwerth said she supported Upton but did not recall the particular incident.
Following Upton’s allegations, and those of several other plaintiffs, a four-month investigation into sexual misconduct claims was launched regarding Paul Marciano’s behavior. Hacked Magazine reported that the inquiry found that he used “poor judgment” and put “himself in situations in which plausible allegations of improper conduct could, and did, arise.” In response to the investigation, Guess co-founder Paul Marciano stepped down as executive chair of the company’s board,
The investigation into Paul Marciano involved interviews with more than 40 people and a review of nearly 1.5 million documents. Guess paid $500,000 to five of Marciano’s accusers to avoid lawsuits.
Lisa Bloom, the attorney who represented four of five Marciano’s accusers, said in a statement that she’s pleased by Marciano’s resignation. But the lawyer, who’s represented other models with harassment claims, added that Guess needs to take decisive action to truly make amends.
Bloom also said her clients say Marciano forced them to perform sex acts. She said the clients accepted financial settlements due to concerns about the statute of limitations on their claims and because the agreements still allow them to tell their stories in the future.
She called the accusations against Marciano “serious, deeply disturbing, credible claims.”
ELLEN VON UNWERTH’S THRIVING CAREER
Although Ellen von Unwerth has not shot for Guess for some years, she is still one of the most influential photographers in the world, especially within the fashion and entertainment industry. Whether shooting top fashion campaigns, or high-profile celebrity weddings, such as Kourtney-Kardashian and Travis Barker, or Niccola Peltz and Brooklyn Beckham, her work is everywhere. She regularly features in high-end magazine spreads such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, along with publishing her personal photographic books, and exhibiting selected work.
Reflecting on her long-running career, von Unwerth has witnessed a shift in audience opinion. “People’s reactions, which reflect the perceptions that they have, have evolved tremendously in the past number of years,” she told Dazed magazine. “What was provocative back then is considered normal today. For example, when I shot two women kissing 30 years ago, people found it shocking.”
Decades down the line, she maintains you can’t predict success, “Claudia and Eva, just sort of happened. It was surprising for everyone.” She told British Vogue.
Von Unwerth has been known to capture her subjects in the most genuine moments. She also admits to continue photographing her subjects once the shoot was over. Her artistic ideology reflects her own life. “My creative philosophy is very simple and includes everything I do: I love life and I love to capture it. I want to share it with people now and for generations to come” says Unwerth.
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