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Tatjana Patitz: Top star of the supermodel era

Tatjana Patitz, whose beauty was described by Harper’s Bazaar as ‘defying definition’  (Reuters)
Tatjana Patitz, whose beauty was described by Harper’s Bazaar as ‘defying definition’ (Reuters)

A perfect physical embodiment of the phrase “natural beauty”, German-born model Tatjana Patitz came to international prominence in January 1990 when, together with Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford, she appeared on the front cover of British Vogue.

The seminal black and white portrait, shot by photographer Peter Lindbergh on a hot day in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, was what industry insiders would consider a real “fashion moment”. With hindsight, it is recognised as the moment the supermodels were born. With their understated make-up created by Stéphane Marais and chic hair courtesy of Christiaan, it was Sarajane Hoare, then fashion editor of British Vogue, who decided what they should wear.

“I’ll organise the clothes,” Hoare told her colleagues, recalling the crucial meeting in the Daily Mail. “I didn’t sleep for two nights. But it was a big success.” The five women featured, who came to define the supermodel era, were dressed relatively simply in translucent stretch bodysuits by Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo and in stonewashed Levi jeans, barely visible in the final cut.

The cover, commissioned by the late Elizabeth (Liz) Tilberis, then editor in chief of British Vogue, is today regarded as one of the landmark fashion photographs, not simply of the Nineties but of the entire 20th century. Such was the impact of the image that it catapulted Patitz and her contemporaries to global fame.

In retrospect, of these singular beauties who collectively came to embody an era, it was Patitz who scored a double whammy. While the UK newsstands displayed the glamorous Lindbergh group shot on the cover of Vogue, it was Patitz who featured on the cover of the American edition. Photographed by Herb Ritts, she sported a black and white Op Art jacket by Isaac Mizrahi. The coverline: “1990 fashion’s great new look”.

Tatjana Patitz, who has died aged 56, was born in Hamburg, Germany, on 28 May 1966. Her father was a travel journalist and her mother a former dancer from Estonia who had previously performed at the Lido in Paris. When Patitz was seven years old, the family moved to Skandor, Sweden. By the time she was 15 years old, it had been suggested she enter the Elite Model Look competition. Based purely on a polaroid, Patitz was placed third by John Casablanca, founder of Elite Model Management.

Patitz performs during a fashion show at the Forbidden City in April 2000 (Reuters)
Patitz performs during a fashion show at the Forbidden City in April 2000 (Reuters)

Relocation to Paris followed, with her first Vogue cover secured by the end of 1985. Enjoying success in Europe, including being caught on camera by legendary photographer Horst P Horst for French Vogue, Patitz worked with the crème de la crème of photographic visionaries, including Ritts, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Patrick Demarchelier and Steven Meisel.

Lucrative advertising campaigns inevitably followed, her image used to elevate the customer base of companies such as Revlon and Calvin Klein. Patitz was the face of Byzance, a perfume by Rochas Paris. Although gaining recognition in fashion’s inner sanctum, Patitz did not become widely known until she appeared in Lindbergh’s photo ‘The White Shirts’, 6 Supermodels, Malibu in 1988.

It was, however, the now infamous British Vogue cover of January 1990 that catapulted her to global fame. Patitz was cast shortly afterwards in George Michael’s iconic “Freedom! ’90” music video, together with Campbell, Crawford, Turlington and Evangelista.

Patitz was an animal activist, environmentalist and voracious book reader (Getty)
Patitz was an animal activist, environmentalist and voracious book reader (Getty)

It turned out to be a transformative experience. Of the filming, Patitz reflected decades later: “It was at the height of the early Nineties, when the fashion, film and music industries blended together. MTV was huge at the time, with all the incredible music videos. I became more recognisable in a different way, I think.”

Patitz was courted by Chanel, Christian Dior, Versace, Valentino, Armani, Vivienne Westwood et al to appear in their shows. Beyond the catwalk, she dabbled in acting, taking guest roles including a part in Duran Duran’s video for their 2009 song “Skin Trade”.

She progressed to films, including action thriller Restraining Order (1999), Pret a Porter (1994), and Rising Sun (1993). Discussing the research required for her role in Rising Sun, Patitz commented on the emotional make-up of the woman she portrayed: “I got into the psychology of why she liked to get strangled and tied up in plastic bags. It has to do with self-worth.”

Patitz appeared in The Larry Sanders Show in 1992, and, two months before her death, on a German quiz show. Her approach to her switch to film and television was fatalistic. “I’m taking every day as it comes,” she told The Times. “To think of the possible outcomes I would drive myself insane.”

Despite being part of fashion’s elite inner circle, Patitz preferred the great outdoors. Her lifelong love of horses started as a child and endured as an abiding passion throughout her life. An animal activist, environmentalist and voracious book reader, she lived quietly on a ranch in Santa Barbara, California. A single mother, she described her teenage son Jonah as her “source of happiness”.

Of her chequered yet incredible career, she said: “I never sold my soul.” No longer an ingenue, Patitz continued to make occasional catwalk appearances, one of her last being for the Italian fashion house Etro.

The Peter Lindbergh Foundation, posting on Twitter, remembered Patitz for her “kindness, inner beauty and outstanding intelligence”. Fellow model Crawford, her friend and confidante, said on Instagram: “I found her soft spoken, sensitive, kind, inquisitive and who could ever forget those piercing eyes?”

Of all the reflections on Patitz’s facial features, perhaps that of Harper’s Bazaar is the most incisive: “Indeed, Patitz’s features almost confuse. Like Garbo or the Mona Lisa, the inexplicable gifts of line and luminescence defy definition.”

Tatjana Patitz, model, born 25 March 1966, died 11 January 2023