A look at one of fashion history’s most significant models: Veruschka
Part of what makes fashion history so fabulous are the enduring images by talented photographers and their models…
One of the best has been Vera Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinort, known as Veruschka, who was born in 1939 and is particularly known for her work between 1960-1975, but continues to add her creativity today through art and fashion.
She worked with fashion industry greats, including magazine editors, Diana Vreeland (Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue) and Grace Mirabella (Vogue), artist Salvador Dalí, photographers Richard Avedon, Francesco Scavullo, Peter Beard, Irving Penn, Steven Meisel, Bert Stern, and Franco Rubartelli.
As a supermodel, she appeared on a huge number of covers, charting a rapid change in fashion styles and approaches to photography.
Born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), it wasn’t always glamorous, however. She had a hideous childhood, however, starting off with the grandeur of aristocracy, and ending in poverty and tragedy.
Her father, Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, was a German count, army reserve officer, and key member of the German Resistance.
In 1944 he was executed for his part in the failed “July 20” plot to assassinate Hitler when Veruschka was five years old. Note: This may be more familiar to some as “Valkyrie“, the 2008 film starring Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
After his death, young Vera, her mother and three sisters, were banished to labor camps until the end of World War II, and upon release, were homeless.
She was a gawky teenager, at 185 centimetres tall, ridiculed for her height and “ugliness” by other children who called her “Stork”. Attending 13 schools didn’t help, and she spent a lot of time alone in the woods hiding among the trees and wishing to become one.
Art helped her to escape, and she studied it in Hamburg, before moving to Florence, where she was discovered by the photographer Ugo Mulas at age 20, in 1960.
Embarking on a career as a full-time model, she met Eileen Ford from the Ford Modeling Agency who told her that tall models were now popular in the US (but still not in Europe at this time) and she moved to New York in 1961.
New York was not the grand adventure she envisioned, so she returned to Germany, remade herself as “Veruschka” with a mysterious Russian past, and tried New York (and a different agency) again.
Diana Vreeland, legendary editor of Vogue magazine, helped significantly to get her on track, encouraging her creative input.
Vreeland sent her on exotic shoots such as posing only in body paint, “going native” in Kenya, and shooting in the Japanese snow wearing a lynx coat next to a sumo wrestler, and being sent to the Arizona desert with a bundle of fabrics, furs and Dynel wigs.
At the peak of her success, she was earning $10,000 a day (completely remarkable for the 1960s) but saved none of it.
Moving on to new ventures and legacy
In 1975, she withdrew from the world of fashion, after artistic disagreements with Vreeland’s successor at Vogue, Grace Mirabella. Mirabella wanted her to change her image so average female readers could relate to her but Veruschka refused.
Although largely absent from mainstream fashion, she continues to inspire and is considered one of history’s best fashion models to this day. For his 2003 spring/summer 2003 show for Celine, fashion designer Michael Kors paid homage to her spirit by sending tanned, bohemian-styled models down the catwalk.
The holiday-themed “Veruschka Voyage” collection included gleaming gold embroidery, hot pink and orange colours and large brassy jewellery. See the full collection on the Vogue website.
She has devoted herself to art (especially body art) and lived for many years in a share house with multiple cats in Brooklyn, New York, but has since moved to Berlin.
In this 2003 article by Naomi West, Veruschka said that modelling was all about transforming herself. “I was always being different types of women. I copied Ursula Andress, Brigitte Bardot, Greta Garbo. Then I got bored so I painted myself as an animal,” she says in a deadpan way.
“One day I ended up as a stone. I was depressed and went out on to my terrace in Rome. I wanted to disappear, to be like the stones of the terrace. I painted myself lying down in the mirror, and copied the stones on to my face.”
Learn more about Veruschka
- For more insight into her life in the last decade, see this 2005 interview by George Gurley in the Telegraph (reprinted in The Age) and these amazing photos taken by Holger Trülzsch.
- See her project, “Veruschka Self-Portraits” with photographer, Andreas Hubertus Ilse and attendance on the catwalk, such as her stint for Giles Deacon at London Fashion Week (September 2010).
- Share our collection of Veruschka photos and her Vogue covers on Facebook, and add the VERUSCHKA BOX SET to your wishlist.