At a cocktail party in lower Manhattan on Friday to celebrate fashion photographer Steven Meisel’s new line of clothing and accessories for Zara, virtually the only name in boldface that didn’t appear was Steven Meisel.
“I would be surprised if he came,” said British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, standing outside the Howard Street event as model Kaia Gerber walked by . “He’s very shy. He lets the work speak for itself.”
James Reginato, another guest writer, said that if Mr. Maisel were a movie star, he would be Greta Garbo.
Mr. Messer’s photo spreads are known for their creative and often satirical narratives. In the 2005 Italian Vogue feature “Makeover Madness,” Linda Evangelista played a couture-clad socialite obsessed with plastic surgery.
Ms. Evangelista was one of many models at the party, which also included many editors, stylists and others in the fashion industry who had worked with Mr. Messer.
He seemed to be having a great time. In addition to collaborating with Zara, Phaidon will also publish a book this month “Linda Evangelista Photography: Steven Meisel”. On October 6, Christie’s will hold an auction titled “Madonna x Messer—The Sex Photos,” which will feature more than 40 photos from Madonna’s 1992 coffee table book “Sex.”
Mr. Meisel shot the cover of Madonna’s 1984 album “Like a Virgin” and was her primary collaborator on “Sex.” She credits him with teaching her to treat every photo shoot as “a little movie” and transforming each photo into a new character. “He was the first person to introduce me to the idea of reinvention,” Madonna once told Vogue.
Several models at the party spoke of how Mr. Messer had found a signature look for them or transformed their appearance in ways they never expected.
Karen Elson, known for her goth princess looks, wore a black trench coat designed by Mr. Messer for Zara. She said that when she met Mr. Messer in 1996, she was “a strawberry blonde.” On their second shoot for Italian Vogue, Mr. Messer tried something new.
“They shaved off my eyebrows and dyed my hair red,” Ms. Elson said. “It was the first time I saw myself, if that makes sense. Steven has an uncanny ability to make his subjects feel seen. It was like I had become who I am now, and that’s exactly what It’s the magic that he has. They call him Svengali for a reason.”
Model Joan Smalls recalled working with Mr. Meisel on a Moschino ad campaign in which he spoofed an 1980s TV show in which “all the women hated each other.”
If only she could remember the name of the show.
“‘Dynasty’?” a reporter asked.
“Yeah, that’s it. That’s exactly right,” she said. “It’s so much fun.”
Mr. Messer long ago stopped attending events where he might be photographed. But everyone in the fashion world knew his look: androgynous, with long dark hair, dressed in all black, and with a punk edge. His designs for Zara are also in line with this. “This is his uniform,” said model Karolina Kurkova, picking a black leather biker hat from the rack.
A few feet away, hairstylist Julien d’Ys was trying on a faux fur winter hat that was a cross between Dr. Zhivago and Rick Owens. Mr. d’Ys described how Mr. Meisel took him to New York in the early 1980s to meet the designer Stephen Sprouse.
Mr. Sprouse and Mr. Meisel worked together in the 1970s under designer Halston. Mr. Sprouse was a studio manager who died in 2004. Mr. Messer was a talented illustrator who was responsible for providing the Holston seamstresses with drawings that served as blueprints. But Messer told Vogue in a rare 2009 interview that he didn’t get along with his boss, who mocked him as “Pocahontas.”
After a stint at Women’s Wear Daily, Mr. Messer was brought to Condé Nast by Alexander Liberman, Condé Nast’s editorial director, and began shooting ads for many of its publications. Prada, Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton and Versace began asking him to participate in advertising campaigns. In those days, Mr. Meisel was everywhere—Mudd Club, Area, the Marc Jacobs show. The seclusion part came later, Mr. Dees said.
When the International Center of Photography held an exhibition of Mr. Messer’s work in 2009, Vogue editor Anna Wintour wrote a profile of Mr. Messer. The result was an article suggesting that one possible reason for his reclusiveness was insecurities about his weight.
Since then, Messer has only occasionally posed for American Vogue. Asked about the apparent souring of the magazine’s relationship with Mr. Messer, Wintour said in an email, “Steven is an absolutely brilliant photographer whose work defines our time and The history of Vogue, I admire him so much.”
A little after 6 p.m., Tonne Goodman, the former fashion director of Vogue, made a beeline for Ms. Evangelista, who was wearing an oversized black Meisel for Zara blazer; Her own flowing black skirt and a pair of Meisel shoes – designed motorcycle boots.
“Aren’t they wonderful?” she said.
Mr. Deese greeted Ms. Evangelista with a kiss that turned into a long hug.
“He gave me my original haircut!” Ms. Evangelista recalled a shoot early in her career when Mr. Messer was behind the camera and Mr. Deese styled her hair. “He’s the one who makes me cry.”
As Ms. Evangelista tells it, she wasn’t initially ready to change her appearance so drastically. But that’s what it’s like to work with Mr. Messer.
A reporter asked her why he seemed to have relapsed.
“But is this a revival?” Ms. Evangelista said. “I don’t know. I think he did a few things at once, and I guess the younger generation is now appreciating him and discovering him.”
“He’s a legend,” she continued. “We would all go into quiet moments and then resurface. It was like he never left. Unlike me.”