October 1, 2023

Owl Puss

Find Yourself

Interview with Ellen von Unwerth, Honey Birdette

Iconic fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth interviews with Hypebae, offering an insider look at Honey Birdette‘s latest lingerie campaign.

If there’s one issue the fashion industry — specifically the world of lingerie — holds, is placing the male gaze as priority. The result is often a misunderstanding of what women truly find sexy and beauty standards that women could never achieve. German model-turned-iconic-fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth experienced this firsthand, which enlightens her work and encapsulates a vision that many dream to achieve.

Since her early campaign with Claudia Schiffer for Guess Jeans, which she rightfully admits is “so iconic,” von Unwerth’s passion and artistry tells the true story of womanhood — not the male gaze’s interpretation. Simply put, the manner in which von Unwerth captures femininity results in a timeless photo that no other could replicate, making the Honey Birdette ”On the Run” campaign one for the books.

Created after two glasses of champagne between two best friends, Honey Birdette is a staple lingerie house offering a range of luxury for sex-positive femmes. Whether considered “everyday” lingerie or a  ”harder style” that might help you lean into your villain era, it takes pride in giving customers the choice to best align with their version of sexy, global director of product and marketing, Francesca Anderson told Hypebae. ”We find these pieces stand alone as fashion accessory or as functional bondage pieces. We love to empower women in whatever they choose to wear.”

fashion photography ellen von Unwerth

Its latest campaign, “On the Run,” shot by von Unwerth, commands attention with BDSM influences. For example, the cleverly named “Mistress T Black” set exudes the essence of a bondage-loving dominatrix. The new, and former, collections meet the wearer where she feels most comfortable, matched with a seductive, interchangeable lingerie set that adapts to your flowing sensual state. Most recently, the brand featured nonbinary model Jake DuPree and received immense backlash. Similar to von Unwerth’s unapologetic stance, HB refused to assimilate to the industry’s heterormativity.

As a result, Honey Birdette believes “On the Run” was an effortless merging of brands. “Ellen is perfect for our campaign as she always has a vision and tells a story,” Anderson shared. “We love how she brings this to life in her photos and always puts the women at the centre of the story which aligns with our brand values of ensuring she is always the centre of her story.”fashion photography ellen von Unwerth

With over ten years of experience as an international model under her belt, von Unwerth has worked with industry icons such as Helmut Newton to Guy Bourdin. In her experience, the industry has always succumbed to one pervasive issue and the remainder of her career is destined to setting a new standard.

Continue reading for a behind-the-scenes look at von Unwerth’s new standard, and how she most recently brought it to life through Honey Birdette.

fashion photography ellen von Unwerth

You frequently discuss your transition from model to photographer, and how it allows you to capture a unique perspective. How does this currently influence your work and the most recent HB campaign?

When I started taking the pictures, I wanted exactly the opposite: highlighting people’s personalities, expressiveness, self-worth and beauty. The idea was for the world to see them differently – through my eyes. I wanted the life to absolutely burst out of the pictures.

This is always my goal when I photograph people. I want them to feel they can be themselves and have fun in the process. In the most recent HB campaign, I wrote a little story before the shooting that gave everyone the direction and inspiration. This way it is almost like a movie scenario that gives models a way to be seen as human beings and real characters part of an action, and not objects.

fashion photography ellen von Unwerth

The movement of models is a signature you love and prefer as it feels more organic. This signature is visible in this collection as models interact with each other and genuinely enjoy the lingerie, as it elevates them. Do you have a favorite shot from this collection lookbook that emulates this?

It’s always difficult for me to choose an image, because there are so many different scenes and stories. If I had to choose my favorite scene, I love the series with the very cool cars, featuring these three bad ass girls, powerful and determined, ready to take on the desert.

Throughout the course of your career, you’ve become synonymous with capturing sex appeal without objectification, something many male photographers struggle with. What are some of your favorite ways you’ve challenged the idea of “sexy?”

I don’t like the girls to do sexy poses for the camera, I like them to play a role to get into a character and show personality. They don’t try to seduce the camera but get a grip on the spectator in a different way.

If you could describe the essence of “On the Run” in one word or sentence, what would it be?

It is my way of seeing women. I almost see them as my friend on a playdate. I come up with stories where we are playing dress up, or down and mostly the girls love it and feel very liberated in front of my camera. They love to show their womanhood and sensuality and of course, I always push it a bit.

What is your favorite aspect of photographing the current generation of womanhood?

Every time I photograph somebody I learn about the person and about where society is at. The new generation is very open about diversity, creativity and beauty. It is refreshing and keeps inspiring me.

You’ve also previously shared that at times, you give models roles to play, and Honey Birdette’s “On the Run” taps many different styles of BDSM, which also involve role-play. Are there specific guidelines you’ve created, follow when doing a photoshoot that involves overt sexuality? For example, intimacy coordinators provide actors with intimacy tips on set.

Honey Birdette is a very sexy client with lots of cool bondage lingerie. Actually taking the girls out in the desert and showing them as independent women doing a road trip, taking over a gas station, meeting a gorgeous hunk and having fun with him, showed them in a more empowered way than being in a bedroom laying on a bed.

I always love a bit of a dominatrix and where there is one there is also a victim too. I always find role play quite fascinating, it was very big in the 20th [century] in Berlin which was my favourite period and people are now more into it again. There’s also never-ending ways to put it in a new form.

fashion photography ellen von Unwerth

In essence, your art redefines what it means to be feminine and sexy – offering a more natural approach. How do you help models let loose and exude more natural energy onset?

It’s always about the casting. You need to find the right muses who are into the project and it doesn’t need much time to warm them up. Sometimes I am flushing how far they go, but it is always interesting to capture the right moments.

What helps you ignore the opinions of naysayers who may deem your work “provocative?”

Freedom is an immensely important asset that as an artist, you have to hold onto. You can not please everybody and I rather do pictures that evoke an emotion instead of doing a pretty picture which people forget in a second. I believe it’s important to stay true to what you want to do. And equally to your style. Trends come and go. You have to listen to your heart and pursue what sees you, even if it isn’t to everyone’s taste.

fashion photography ellen von Unwerth

Do you have any advice for women redefining their idea of womanhood?

The best is to really listen to yourself. Don’t listen to what social media is telling you. There are too many opinions and the beauty standard is that everybody looks the same with pumped up lips and cheek bones. Just find out who and what inspires you, what you love and find your way. Be proud of who you are.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.