Of all the 1960s models, none has a stronger presence, more distinctive looks or greater charisma than Veruschka. Franco Rubartelliʼs photos of her helped to create a fashion legend.
Diana Vreeland, US Vogue’s exotic, no-holds-barred editor-in-chief, gave the couple (and they were a couple, living together in a loft in Rome) carte blanche and they repaid her with some of the era’s most iconic editorial shoots, epitomizing late-sixties boho chic.
The story starts in 1963 with Veruschka’s mother approaching Dorian Leigh. Leigh was one of the great models of the 1950s and has set up her own modeling agency. Her verdict:
She looked like a deer, awkward and yet so graceful. Her mother wanted me to take Vera’s younger sister as a model. The sister was smaller, blonder, prettier, but not magnificent like Vera. The next day Charlotte March took pictures of her, and they were incredible.
But Veruschka, still using her real name – (Countess) Vera von Lehndorff – is well over six foot tall. So in spite of Dorian’s advocacy, she has a tough time breaking into modelling. Nevertheless, there’s interest from a few photographers, among them Franco Rubartelli. Like Veruschka, he has yet to make a name for himself. But he’s mesmerized by her and the attraction is mutual. They are destined to become lovers.
1964 and 1966 are the turning points in Veruschka’s modelling career. In 1964 after an abortive visit to New York, she decides to take matters into her own hands and create a new persona:
I said to myself, “You have to think of something,” … You shouldn’t just go to a photographer and show your book. Hundreds of girls do that. You have to do something so they will not forget you, so they will say, “That girl was really something different.” I had no doubts about myself. I knew I had something which was interesting and I wanted to work with that. So I said, “OK, now we have to find a way to make sure that others see it too.”
So I thought, “I’m also going to be a whole new person. And I’m going to have fun. I’m just going to invent a new person; I’m going to be Veruschka.” Veruschka was a nickname I had when I was a child. It means “little Vera.” And as I was always too tall, I thought it would be nice to say that I’m little Vera. And it was also nice to have a Russian name because I came from the East.
I decided this person has to be all in black. At that time everybody wasn’t wearing black. So I bought myself a cheap copy of a Givenchy coat — very narrow and just a little bit flared on the bottom, quite short, just covering the knee — a black velvet hat, and very soft black suede boots, which at that time people didn’t have. You could really walk like an animal in them. I thought I had to have this very beautiful walk. When I come in, it should be really very animallike.
So when I came back, I went right away to see Barbara Stone. I said to her, “You must tell all the photographers about this girl coming from the East, somewhere near Russia. Never be too clear from where exactly. She wants to travel to the States, and she wants to meet you because she likes your photographs. She’s very interested in photography. She’s really quite extraordinary. You should see her.” So of course they always said yes, because they were interested in another kind of girl.
I would arrive and say, “Hello, how are you?” And they would say, “Can we see some pictures?” And I said, “Pictures? I don’t take my pictures around with me. For what? I know how I look. I want to know what you do.” And then of course they got interested. I remember Penn saying, “Would you mind going over to Vogue?” He made the call.
My first trip to Vogue was very funny. I had seen Vreeland at Bazaar already, and she had made remarks. “Oh, you have wonderful legs,” or, “Your bone structure is wonderful,” or something. But then at Vogue she said, “Who is that girl? Put her name right on the wall. Veruschka,” she said, “Veruschka, you’re going to hear from me.”
Vreeland was after me all the time. So I called her and I said, “Listen, I would love to do a story about jewelry on the beach.” And she said, “Take everything and go,” and she would publish the whole thing. I could call up and say. “I would love to do this or that,” and she said, “Wonderful!” or often, “Maybe not,” but anyway you could talk. We were then becoming teams…
Born in Florence, Franco Rubartelli is a self-taught photographer, inspired by Swiss model Françoise Schluter, whom he meets, falls in love with and marries. His jealousy at his wife’s flourishing career prompts him to have a go at photographing his wife himself. He send the resutls to Vogue and gets the thumbs-up from Diana Vreeland. Soon the couple find themselves working for Vogue Italia but it’s not enough to save their marriage and in 1965 they part company.
Waiting in a hotel to meet a potential client, “a tall, skinny woman in a black cloak and long knee-high boots walked past and caught my attention.” No marks for guessing who she turns out to be. He asks Veruschka to drop by his studio with her portfolio, the two get on like a house on fire and the rest is history. They’re together for the better part of the next nine years.
There is no better team than Veruschka and Rubartelli. After a few shoots, Vreeland encourages Veruschka to come up with her own ideas. Taking her up on the offer, Veruschka poses in Japan’s snow country wearing a lynx coat and standing next to a sumo wrestler. In 1966 she does her first shoot wearing nothing but body paint (it will become a lifelong artistic pursuit). Most of the time she does her own make-up, hair and styling.
The most successful ones were done like that, because I was in charge of it. With the photographer we created the whole thing on the spot. We cut up the clothes even, if it looked better.
But Rubartelli remembers things a bit differently and highlights the contribution made by a third member of the team – Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, a textile designer turned stylist and designer.
Giorgio was unlike anyone else; his creativity was superior. He had been born in Florence, Italy, but had spent so much time outside of the country that he had forgotten the language a little; when he spoke, it was a funny [argot]. He was an original and very imaginative designer.
According to Rubartelli, the three would meet to develop themes and stories for shoots. The process involves many hours of thinking, sketching out ideas, doing tests, visiting museums, studying books and watching movies – sounds like fun.
For the next eight years, Veruschka and Rubartelli produce a series of editorial spreads that epitomize the free spirit of the late-60s/early-70s – fusing fantasy with glamour. It’s a partnership that calls to mind that of David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton in the early 1960s. But while Shrimpton was clearly the muse who sparked Bailey’s creativity, Veruschka plays a much more active, perhaps even the leading role in her collaboration with Rubartelli. She will go on to work with others such as Holger Trulzsch with whom she produces Veruschka: Transfigurations.
In 1966 Veruschka stars as herself in Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film set in swinging London. With a nonchalance and audacity that only she could carry off, the single line she utters in the five-minute scene in which she stars is: “Here I am.”
Blow-Up seals Veruschka’s status as a celebrity in her own right. Offers come flooding in. In 1967 she is one of the highest-paid models in the world and she appears on the cover of Life magazine. The accompanying feature is titled Bizarre, Exotic, Six Feet Veruschka – The Girl Everybody Stares At.
But success is the beginning of the end for her relationship with Rubartelli. Always possessive, he gets more and more jealous. Even as things are falling apart, he invests all his money in Stop Veruschka, a film that bombs. With a mountain of debt, he leaves Rome for Venezuala and disappears from the limelight.
And the arrival in 1972 of Grace Mirabella to replace Diana Vreeland as editor of Vogue spells the end of Veruschka’s stint as a fashion model.
Want to know more about Veruschka and Rubartelli?
As well as Veruschka’s own website and an article in Vogue, which includes a link to Rubartelli’s Instagram diary, there are various books, including an autobiography, in German (which unfortunately I can’t read). Here, to be getting on with, are my main sources…
- Michael Gross’s book, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, for a great overview of Veruschka’s career as a fashion model (the lengthy quote above comes from here)
- A.G. Nauta Couture’s article, Veruschka, the Amazonian Barbie, for a nice online summary (especially if you can’t get hold of Michael Gross’s book)
- George Gurly, The First Supermodel-Veruschka, for an account of an encounter with the model
- A.G. Nauta Couture’s article, Veruschka in perhaps the Most Epic Fashion Story, for an account of a shoot in the mountains of Japan.