Brutal Brilliance: Inside the Magic of Alexander McQueen

Posted on 21 Feb 2017

As Vogue's backstage photographer, Robert Fairer had unprecedented, intimate access to the fashion designers at work. On the occasion of the publication of 'Alexander McQueen: Unseen', a unique collection of photographs shot at McQueen's most celebrated shows over a period of 16 years, he talks about the designer's genius and how technology has changed behind-the-scenes forever.

The Natural Dis-tinction, Un-natural Selection show, 2008, was inspired by Darwin’s 'On the Origin of Species'. Carapaces of hard enamel flowers and fractured crystals encrust bell jar dresses. McQueen wears a rabbit suit to take his bow. [Credit: © Robert Fairer]

What was it about McQueen’s shows that particularly fascinated you?

The McQueen shows were a wonderful and exciting moment. All the teams and collaborators were connected to the art world and music scene that we all felt engaged with at that time in London fashion.

How were the early days of working backstage at fashion shows?

The world that I entered in 1993/94 was a world for only the very privileged. You had to ask before you took a photograph and if you didn’t look right, you didn’t even have access behind the scenes or into a show. It was hallowed ground backstage – a mix of the really great top models and original supermodels. Beyond the teams of essential crew, unallocated access was for their boyfriends and family only. There were the most legendary hair and make-up stylists, their assistants and the designer with their team, plus a few security guards at the door, all run by the in-house PR who knew you by name and face. In fact, everybody just knew each other.

Was the fashion show dynamic very different before the digital revolution?

There were no computers, it was fax and telex, no internet, no cameras on phones and no feeding frenzy of press. Just a fashion corps of intelligent, well-educated, seasoned and mainly male photographers, perfectly placed at the end and sides of the runway – dedicated men waiting enthusiastically for the girls to walk out on to the catwalk to present a new collection to the fashion elite. The whole affair was by invitation only.

How did the photographic process differ in those days?

Taking photographs pre the digital age was expensive and you had to understand film speed and lighting. Your film had to be taken to a laboratory to be processed by professionals; you would wait up to 24 hours to get the film back as 35mm transparencies or printed on a contact sheet. I remember in the late 1990s photographers started uploading their best shots on to a computer at the end of a runway show to send direct to their newspapers and thinking how odd it all was. It seemed to reduce my perceived value of image making – so sudden and instantaneous.

Bellmer La Poupée, 1996: Debra Shaw wears a fringed net dress, her arms and legs shackled to a metal frame. [Credit: © Robert Fairer]

McQueen used the female body in ways that were unfamiliar in the world of fashion, for example at Bellmer La Poupée, with the cage. Was this disturbing?

I never found this particular moment at Bellmer disturbing – it is part of the McQueen sensationalism. So many of the girls that I knew really enjoyed the theatrics and the opportunity to wear his great clothes. Debra Shaw, who wore the cage outfit you mention, sent me a message the other day saying how honoured she felt. I know it was uncomfortable and brave to take on the challenge of getting down and then up the steps, but in the quest to create stand-alone fashion imagery, this was part of the McQueen goal. He was literally saying even then: I can make girls walk on water. Utter self-belief.

Katy England said that McQueen needed “strong, ballsy girls” as models – ones who could carry off the clothes. Why was this so important to McQueen?

I think Katy England said “strong and ballsy” because many women have a style of their own, a need for self-expression. I think this should be celebrated after so much oppression for so many women for so long historically. This was a theme in the shows Joan and In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem 1692. He liked warrior women.

Was there a feeling of camaraderie among the models?

The girls need good friends to back them up when they are tired or hungry and travelling as a pack. Paris and McQueen are at the end of the collections, something to be excited about and always unusual. After so many clothing changes, make-up and hairstyles, a chance to be dressed in an incredible new form or shape by Lee was a very uplifting experience. His teams rarely changed and Sarah Burton has been a mainstay since the Nineties. A McQueen show was like a homecoming.

Were McQueen’s shows hard to stage?

The actual locations for many shows were often unusual and in the case of Lee, he liked to create sets that were involved – so there had to be major organisation. This is often overlooked: the precision of Lee and his set designers and production collaborators. He broke every rule and raised the bar to an unattainable point very early on in his career, with little money. So much was done on a wing and a prayer. But it never stopped him. If he had an idea, he just did it.

Markie Robson-Scott