FM: Robert, how did you end up shooting the shows backstage?
RF: Whilst studying for a bilingual business degree outside Paris, France, around 1987 and briefly working in the tech industry, my focus moved to my true passion for photography. I would escape most weekends to the city, where I was offered forays into the fashion world with my girlfriend and later wife Vanessa, her mother June, who had womenswear boutiques in England.
Several times a year they would come to Paris to the Prêt-à-Porter,
to buy French clothing visit the houses to see their collections.
Rather than watching the runway shows they were invited to, I found myself photographing them, exploring and escaping to behind the scenes and slowly developing friendships with designers and artists we met over the years when we later lived there.
In 1991 after graduating French business school, a career change was inevitable and I was accepted to study Photography at The London College of Printing after a very boring and uneventful year of working for a tech company in London.
Once out of the rat race and into the world of cameras, freedom to roam, travel and being self-employed; I was further inspired and driven by the success of my YBA (Young British Artist) friends in London with the beginning of a zeitgeist era and renewed interest in the British fashion and Art scene. If out and about it was impossible not to be sucked into the new energy around London and its photography, new and rebellious fashion designers.
My past guaranteed access to the inimitable 1980s fashion shows in London and Paris had helped me access many emerging designers. McQueen, Chalayan to name a few.
My first published work was reportage work at graduate fashion week and LFW, then a year later at all the European women’s wear shows, finally New York too. I was quite literally an overnight success.
Because Vanessa and I had always had a strong desire for creative freedom and to work for ourselves, we were able to establish my work and the photography business with a clear idea of where we wanted to go and which magazine titles and editors we wanted to be important to- Liz Tilberis at Harper’s Bazaar, Terry Jones at i-D and Anna Wintour, Andre Leon Talley at American Vogue. Isabella Blow was still at British Vogue and would meet me with Plum Sykes- they published my first 3 photographs in Vogue from Herve Legere backstage.
After quick editorial success at Cosmopolitan and Elle, I was noticed and rewarded with the much-treasured contracts we had dreamed of years earlier at Harper’s Bazaar USA in 1997 and finally American Vogue in 2001.
For more than 17 years I became the expected face of backstage photography and during this time covered more collections behind the scenes in New York, London, Milan, and Paris than any other photographer. I was unbelievably fortunate the early years were at the time of a supermodel and fashion zeitgeist at full throttle.
My ability to capture the clothing and create fashion imagery in the juxtaposition of a gilded or broken backstage landscape, stemmed from my hidden talent of seeing beauty in all things and in all backdrops.
My stamina and eye for style and detail as seen through my lens certainly helped my editors forecast the next big model and fashion moment in the early days, months ahead of any trend, when the average time for any catwalk news report from a Paris show was 4-6 months.
All these elements fused together a highly exciting and exceptionally privileged career spent amongst the models, designer hair and make-up artists of an exceedingly special moment in time, in history.
My task with Vanessa now is to leave a well organised and well published archive that survives into this century and beyond. The imagery is too important to be lost and too be beautiful to not be seen.
FM: What is so special about being a backstage photographer?
RF: I experienced direct access to a very rarefied and unseen world – an unfiltered gathering of energy, talent, beauty. We were uniquely privileged to see and experience the designers undiluted vision as it unfolded. I’m not sure that this is still the case today with the advent of the social media platforms…the images seem to be on the internet for public consumption before the show has even started! There are no more surprises and we are losing the ability to linger in the moment and reflect on what we have seen.
FM: Could you name the elements that make a collection more interesting than another, to be shot backstage?
RF: Like a bouquet of the most fragrant French Bourbon roses …hair and makeup, models, a narrative they can play with, and a sublime venue or set, wrapped in textile artistry and amazing music. When the models love the clothes and how they feel in them then the scene is complete. The audience is briefly transported to the designer’s fantasy. Dior, Galliano, McQueen, Versace, Marc Jacobs, Chanel have all perfected the art
FM: When did you start shooting the Galliano for Dior collections?
Matahari at Bagatelle, 1997 in the Bois de Boulogne, the first chapter in my book – Galliano’s second show for Dior.
I had already photographed many Galliano and Givenchy shows, nothing could have prepared us for Galliano’s creative artistry at Dior Haute Couture.
FM: What did you experience backstage then?
RF: Before the Millennium, relatively early days for backstage photography, the environment was freer, intimate and all-embracing; a ground-breaking moment in fashion at Dior post Gianfranco Ferré. There was beauty and excess wherever I pointed my camera – a true Aladdin’s cave!
FM: How would you describe Galliano’s work, how he differs from other designers? Why do you consider it photogenic?
RF: Fashion Theatre at its zenith. Galliano’s signature individual clothing gave each model an outfit created specifically for her combined with a role to play – be it Marchesa Casati, Mata Hari.
His shows were full of drama, beauty and the unexpected –Jeremy Healy’s soundtracks along with Michael Howells set designs brought it all together to create a fantasy of fashion.
FM: Why is backstage photography important and how do you value it now, while the pandemic has changed the whole system of fashion?
RF: In the 1990’s there really only were a few people with cameras working backstage consistently. Backstage imagery was a new genre.
I think this early photography has great value as it was edited, considered, with very few images actually published in select magazines. It benefitted the designer and the houses because it showed the complete, undiluted vision of the designer with an element of control maintaining the fantasy and allowing viewers a privileged glimpse into a rarefied world.
Apart from the advertising campaigns, this is one of the few occasions that the designers were in control of the whole look.
In recent years the internet’s insatiable appetite for content has taken hold and backstage has been blown wide open. It has now become an expected part of the fashion marketing mix for designers in an effort to keep up. Backstage areas have been turned into Instagram opportunities. The floodgates have been opened and the beauty and artistry has been washed away. The pandemic has only confirmed what all fashion insiders already knew, that the fashion show cycle was due a reset.
FM: What can one learn from fashion?
RF: A love of life and a love for yourself.
People really do feel better when they look good.
We recognize each other and express ourselves by the clothing we wear- who we are, where we are from… it’s about identity and tribes… the youth of today relate to Palace, Supreme, Off White and sell their clothes on Depop… searching for interesting vintage pieces … that represent what they believe in.
Looking ahead, clothing will continue to reflect the society that we live in, the history of our times and where people instinctively feel they need to move next.
Our dress is dictated to us by the climate we live in be it environmental, cultural, financial. The future looks very interesting….
Robert Fairer 15th February 2021
Robert Fairer was born in London in the swinging sixties. Growing up several paces from the Kings Road he was never far from the changing face of fashion. Influenced by the music and fashion scene, he started photographing the international womenswear collections in the mid 1990’s, it was a buzzy beautiful time..the beginning of the supermodels and theatrical show production never before seen. Everyone was an individual and every moment was a high. Robert was as integral to the then exclusive backstage arena as the designers, models and stars of hair and make-up. Commissioned for assignments at Elle, Harpers Bazaar USA and then American Vogue for over a decade, Robert uniquely captured the fashion landscape in his instinctively glamorous style nurtured by his outstanding editors: Sally Singer, Andre Leon Talley, Hamish Bowles, Sarah Mower and his Editor in Chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour. His behind the scenes photographic collection is currently being curated and archived for publication by his long time collaborator and wife Vanessa. Great projects lie ahead and once published, they will define his rare creative approach to exquisitely light and capture the highly provocative energy that was fashion backstage at its zenith.