Backstage bedlam isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
London-based photographer Robert Fairer’s first solo exhibition reflects just that. “Backstage Pass: Dior, Galliano, Jacobs and McQueen” makes its debut Wednesday at the SCAD Fash Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta. The artist has cultivated a career that often captured the frenetic backstage moments before, during and after runway shows. Unlike now, when behind-the-scene moments are often beamed around the globe via social media, Fairer used to have the rare and coveted post of often being the sole backstage lensman, catching leading designers, models, stylists, hair and makeup artists and other creatives in complete candidness.
The exhibition’s images were shot backstage and feature designs by Dior, John Galliano, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen between 1998 and 2010. In an interview Tuesday with his wife and longtime collaborator Vanessa, Fairer said seeing the photos that are being featured in the exhibition is almost like looking at a past life that he is still vaguely attached to, and it brings back “wonderful memories.”
Much of the work had been stowed away for years. Fairer and his wife culled through hundreds of thousands of photos. Over the past few years they have revealed some of his behind-the-scenes images in “Unseen,” a book series published by Thames & Hudson. The one for Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel years is due out in fall 2022. A huge tome about makeup artist Pat McGrath is planned for April 2023.
In recent seasons, Fairer has been working with Kim Jones at Fendi. “Thankfully, with Fendi it’s a family company to a degree. They’re in control of everything so the backstage area is as I would like it to be. We’re able to create similar backstages as I was able to in the early 2000s,” Fairer said.
Recalling his earlier freewheeling backstage days, Fairer said Sally Singer (Vogue’s former creative director who is now at Amazon) best captured that scene, calling it “a vanished world.” Starting out in the 1990s, Fairer was often one of the few photographers backstage, save for Bardo Fabiani or Roxanne Lewitt. Initially there to shoot preshow beauty, Fairer would then run to stand at the end of the catwalk to photograph the show with a pack of others. He switched tracks after it dawned on him that the behind the scenes could be shot more intimately and as more of a fashion shoot.
Around 2004 or 2005, designers started to realize the potential allure of sharing backstage imagery.
“The internet was nascent. It’s a hungry beast and it needs to be fed. The designers decided this might be a good thing. They started to invite people backstage. Magazines needed content. The internet needed content. The designers wanted exposure,” Fairer said. “Some of the designers were very good at it, getting a lot of traction with these backstage images. It turned into this organized monster in a way. It suddenly became expected. And it filled up with photographers. Often you might have 30 or 35 models in a show, and you might actually have more photographers than models” backstage.
Having all those photographers jostling for the same shot made things unwieldy and very difficult to get an image that was a little bit exclusive, Fairer said. More recently, some designers have set up step-and-repeat-type backdrops for models to take “these manicured pictures of the backstage happenings that are very controlled by the designers,” he said. “But in the early days, it was the Wild West. You’d be fighting to stay in. At any moment, you could be thrown out [if] the designers weren’t understanding what you were doing, why you wanted to do it. Why were you there? Why were you in the way? This was for hair and makeup, and designers only.”
He continued, ”They were glory days, really. They were fantastic days of [having the] freedom to roam around and virtually do what you wanted to do rather than what anybody else expected.”
The switch to a more manufactured behind-the-scenes approach has drained some of the magic and consumers are somewhat aware that it is staged, Fairer said. “It’s become so ubiquitous. You have to do something very special to stand out. The fashion has gone out of the imagery. The spontaneity isn’t there.”
He spoke of the prevalence of the standard red-carpet pose that many have adopted — one leg extended in front of the other, pointing the toe, standing further back and with the shoulders back, and hand on hip. “There’s almost been a school for models for backstage photography,” he said.
Although Fairer has not spent as much time shooting backstage as he once did, the photographer has done some work with Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, Versace and just last week with Fendi. Praising Fendi’s decision to enlist a few ’90s-era models, he said: “They are able to give of themselves a little bit. Their character shines through. Shalom [Harlow] creates these incredible elongated poses, whoever she is [trying to be] and just looks like a million dollars. For the younger generation of models coming through, I’ve just noticed it’s just stand, look at the camera, drop into that default pose and click. Your picture has been taken. You’ve fulfilled part of your contract. Now it’s time to go out on the runway and walk like a robot,” he said. “It’s become pasteurized, unromantic and a bit formulaic.”
Chanel’s most recent runway show, which featured runway models smiling and looking around and photographers positioned around the catwalk as they might have been in the ’80s or ’90s, earned high marks from Fairer. But societal changes have created a new atmosphere, too.
Recalling being the only photographer backstage at a Tom Ford show, he said, “I’ve done this for a long time. I know all the girls. The dressing room was totally off-limits. Of course, that’s due to the #MeToo movement and the various incidents that happened over the years, not necessarily backstage but just in general in the industry and in the wider world. They’re very protective of everybody’s modesty, which of course I perfectly understand. But what it does do is strip away that opportunity to create those wonderful images of a girl adjusting her dress, pulling on her boots, putting her gloves on as a final touch or being helped into an outfit by a dresser.”
With McQueen’s shows, everything was happening up to the very last second that a girl was going out onto the runway, according to Fairer. “The girls were being stitched into their dresses in the hour or hour and a half before the show. There would be a tailor station with all the sewing machines. They would be working on these elaborate, feathered, sequined or shell dresses up until the very last minute,” said Fairer, adding that shows could start a half hour or even on occasion a couple of hours late due to things happening so last minute. “McQueen would check over every single detail. He would be running across that backstage like a sprinter from one look to the next, making sure that everything was tied down absolutely perfect.”
While some might view that as disorganized, Fairer considered it “a master at work — nothing is finished until it’s on the runway.”
In Galliano’s Dior days, however, everything would have been completed “with everything done to the last meticulous detail” a couple of days before the runway show, Fairer said. “He would be dressed up in his wonderful look of the season as an astronaut or a swashbuckling pirate. He would be in the front of the runway giving words of encouragement and physical direction to the girls in how to pose, who they were, what the back story was of their dress and character, and how to use their minute on the runway to full effect. But all the tweaking and making sure the dress was perfect was already done. That’s very similar to Marc Jacobs as well. That was a very well-organized machine.”
With millions of images in his archives, Fairer and his wife are hoping to digitalize and categorize all of it so that universities, museums and foundations can use it to help spread the word, educate and share the experience. Busy with shoots and work, the couple decided they will have to bite the bullet, scale up and work hard to get that done. Some people have “sniffed around” about acquiring or investing in the photographer’s archives, a prospect that the Fairers are open to. But the McQueen portion will probably be given as a donation, Vanessa Fairer said.
“Everything else is an entirely different scenario. The McQueen is the thing that pulls at every heart string, and always will,” she said.