Photographer Robert Fairer on His SCAD FASH Exhibition

The photographer Robert Fairer has the late André Leon Talley to thank for his current exhibition, Backstage Pass, at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta.

For decades, London-based Fairer was the one-and-only backstage photographer at fashion week, capturing behind-the-scenes moments and bedlam in the minutes just before some of John Galliano’s, Marc Jacobs’s, and Alexander McQueen’s most iconic runway shows. But Fairer also worked closely with Talley, who was his editor for “many, many years at Vogue,” Fairer tells me, during a Zoom interview with SCAD’s director of fashion exhibitions, Rafael Gomes.

The day we meet, the late Talley had just passed, and a certain solemnity fell over Fairer’s studio. “We worked very closely on the collections, and he contributed to all the books that we’ve done as well,” Fairer said, referring to the “Unseen,” series published by Thames & Hudson for which Talley wrote forewords and essays. “He came to New York a couple of years ago when we launched both the Dior and Galliano books. We had a party in New York and although he wasn’t actually very well at that point in time, he jumped in his car from White Plains and came down. As he left, he did say, ‘Robert, you know, my doctor was saying to me, I ought to be in the hospital right now.’ That just goes to show his generosity of spirit and heart and his kindness towards me. And his belief in the work.”

Talley, who had a close relationship with SCAD, made Gomes aware of Fairer in the first place, by sending him a box filled with Fairer’s photography books. “Andre was like, ‘This is for the museum shops,’” Gomes recalled. “You can sell these books there.”

Fairer had decades of material to fill the books, which contain thousands of photographs taken over the years (he has two more upcoming: one on Karl Lagerfeld, and another on the iconic makeup artist Pat McGrath). This exhibition, which is on view through April 16, draws from photographs shot between 1998 and 2010, capturing the zeitgeist of late nineties and early aughts fashion—a peak era, for some, and especially for Fairer, who was there to capture it all.

The photographer noted there was another major figure hanging out backstage, where “most of [the photographic work] was created. Andre would be in the background going, ‘Robert, Robert! Did you get the white dress?,’” Fairer said. “‘Yes, Andre, I did!’ ‘More, more, I want more!’ He was an amazing influence to have around me.”

Here, Fairer and Gomes share some of the images from the exhibition, along with memories of backstage antics and fashion secrets.

Shalom Harlow backstage at John Galliano for Dior’s spring 2007 haute couture show, “Madame Butterfly.” Hair by Orlando Pita. Makeup by Pat McGrath.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“Shalom Harlow is on her own laughing, wondering, How on earth am I gonna get 50 kilos of dress through this tiny door?,” Fairer said of this image. “It’s a wonderful moment before the show, where I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Nobody else was there except the show caller. I can’t remember exactly what they were saying to her, but they were strategizing. It’s like giving birth onto the runway. Can you imagine? What would you do with that?”

John Galliano for Dior, fall 2004-2005. “Empress Sisi.” Hair by Orlando Pita. Makeup by Pat McGrath.

Photographed by Robert Fairer

“This became Melania Trump’s wedding dress,” Fairer said. “I’d spent time with Melania for Vogue before she got married—we went to Dior and Lacroix, all around, shopping for wedding dresses. I remember being in the Dior Couture atelier and seeing this in photographic form after the show. Eventually, that was the one that she chose.”

John Galliano for Dior, spring 2011 haute couture “Wonder Woman.” Model: Jacquetta Wheeler. Hair by Orlando Pita. Makeup by Pat McGrath.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“Pat McGrath was always traveling with 20, 30 pieces of luggage full of books at this time,” Gomes said. “Nowadays, if you need some inspiration, you just Google it. But back then, she would go to the fashion shows and sit down with the designers, and they would have a brainstorm and briefing for hair and makeup. Then she would look at all these books that she brought with her.”

John Galliano for Dior’s fall 2006-2007 haute couture show “Planet Boticelli.” Heapiece by Stephen Jones. Hair by Orlando Pita. Makeup by Pat McGrath.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

Stella Tennant at John Galliano’s spring 2002 presentation. Hair by Orlando Pita. Makeup by Val Garland.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“Beautiful Stella Tennant, who is no longer with us,” Fairer said. “We’re doing a Chanel book at the moment, and she features very heavily in that.”

“She so special, even when she was discovered in 1993,” Gomes added. “She was this aristocratic girl with a nose piercing! She ended up on all these covers and Karl Lagerfeld snatched her up.”

Backstage at John Galliano’s fall 2004-2005 show, “Mapping the World,” in Paris.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“Galliano actually printed this photograph to use in the Dior store window in Paris, years ago,” Fairer said. “All the girls got changed into their outfits and had gone up in the lift to show level. I was just left down there with all this detritus. And then, obviously, 15 minutes later, bam, it was full of 80 people again, and all the girls getting redressed.”

Anouck Lepère (left), Gerren Taylor (background center), and Elise Crombez (right) at Marc Jacobs’s spring 2004 show. Hair by Guido Palau. Makeup by Dick Page.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“Marc Jacobs’s shows were always fun, especially in the Armory in the latter days,” the photographer recalled. “Very different from Galliano and Dior, obviously—both of those shows, the clothes have so much character that the girls take from the clothing and they role play. At Marc Jacobs—it’s all cool, young, New York chicks, just hanging out, having a great time. The vibe back there was particularly relaxed.”

Mariacarla Boscono at Marc Jacobs’s fall 2004-2005 show. Hair by Guido Palau. Makeup by Dick Page.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“Mariacarla! One of my favorites. You know what? She’s had such an incredible career. I saw her a few months ago working at Fendi.”

Models backstage at Marc Jacobs’s spring 2010 show. Hair by Guido Palau. Makeup by Dick Page.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“You can see the gender-neutral diversity in the early days at Marc Jacobs,” Gomes said. “They had boys and girls in the same show, almost going into genderless fashion. It was all very unisex. He was so ahead of his time.”

Marc Jacobs spring 2008 show. Hair by Guido Palau. Makeup by Dick Page.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

Alexander McQueen’s fall 1999-2000 show, “The Overland.” Hair by Eugene Souleiman. Makeup by Val Garland.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“There was always a very, very different vibe backstage at McQueen,” Fairer recalled. “Very intense. He was a lovely person, but obviously so focused on every single detail at his shows. He was hands-on in his approach to clothing: if anything needed doing, he was running from one side of the room to the other, doing it. A house like Dior was far more, dare I say it, organized, in a way. McQueen was very focused on every single aspect of what was going on backstage.”

Backstage at Alexander McQueen’s winter 2001-2002 show, “What a Merry Go Round.” Hair by Guido Palau. Makeup by Val Garland for MAC Cosmetics.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

Hairstylist Guido Palau fashions model Amanda Laine’s coiffure at Alexander McQueen’s winter 2009-2010 show, “Horn of Plenty.”

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“The only request or demand that we had from McQueen’s PR people was: stay away from Lee, allow him to do his job,” Fairer went on. “And if you ever got too close, you just sort of put your camera down and gently turn away and let him do his stuff.”

Backstage at Alexander McQueen’s fall 2007-2008 show, “In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692.” Makeup looks by Charlotte Tilbury.

Photograph by Robert Fairer

“A typical makeup station. $10,000 worth of makeup in one square meter.”