Having had a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings of fashion for decades and captured many of the more offhanded moments, photographer Robert Fairer is all for buying vintage fashion, preserving artistry and showing the industry’s glamour and its grind.
In a recent interview, Fairer and his wife Vanessa, who oversees the business side of things, spoke enthusiastically about his involvement with a new Alexander McQueen exhibition; his latest book, “Karl Lagerfeld Unseen,” and other current fashion-related issues. While his latest Thames & Hudson-published title has heightened resonance in light of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring Costume Institute spring exhibition, “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” the idea was hatched four years ago.
Reached en route to Australia last week, the U.K.-based photographer was traveling for the opening of the “Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse” exhibition at the NGV in Melbourne. One gallery in the show is dedicated to 40 of his life-size images. The Fairers were introduced to the NGV by Clarissa Esguerra, the associate curator of fashion and textiles at LACMA, where a small installation of the lensman’s work was featured in the Los Angeles museum’s spring show.
Some of Fairer’s imagery of John Galliano’s “Madame Butterfly” couture collection can be found in the upcoming “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” show in Tokyo. Fairer also hopes to have his work featured in the “India in Fashion” exhibition that Hamish Bowles is involved with at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Center that is opening in Mumbai next year.
But getting back to Lagerfeld. Fittings before Chanel shows tended to be “fast and faultless,” Fairer recalled. “He might occasionally ask other people for an opinion. But [generally] he would reach and grab the jewelry and it would be on the girl before you knew it. I don’t think he really ever worried about making a bad decision. I think [he thought], ‘A decision is a decision and you stand by it. That’s it. It’s done.’”
The artistry and craftmanship that are highlighted hammers home the need and ever-increasing appreciation for vintage, the Fairers said. “At the moment, the message is so clear: It’s buy vintage. Look at [the dress worn recently by] Kate Middleton at the Earthshot Awards in Boston. She rented a dress for under $100,” Vanessa Fairer said.
Gucci and Saint Laurent are among the designer houses that have seen great success by mining their archives, she said. The fact that celebrities are also turning to vintage for key appearances reinforces how dominant vintage is now with consumers. The Princess of Wales’ choice of a vintage Chanel jacket to wear to a Boston Celtics game last week in the U.S. “says a lot about style, dressing appropriately, inspiration, and legacy and heritage pieces. [These are] things you get from your mother or your grandmother, if you’re lucky. This philosophy of curating and collecting keys into everything that we’re doing,” Vanessa Fairer said. “Look at Marc Jacobs. In the last year or two, he’s been wearing an awful lot of Chanel.”
Emphasizing the need to wake up to “the wastefulness and ghastliness” of overconsumption, Vanessa Fairer noted the investment shopping that was prevalent in the ’50s, when women would buy a core assortment of a hat, a bag, a good pair of shoes, a suit, a coat and a few other quality pieces that were meant to last a lifetime. “That’s what the Karl Lagerfeld-Chanel philosophy is ever about — buying something once, and buying well.”
Robert Fairer can’t seem to fathom how on average people wear an item of clothing seven times, referring to a 2015 study of 2,000 consumers by the British nonprofit Barnado’s. Nor is he on board with some shopper’s belief that something is old after wearing it once or twice. “I can’t believe that. My clothes…anyway…let’s not go into that,” he said.
Fairer started shooting the global designer collections in the mid-’90s through assignments from Elle and the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar. U.S. Vogue later cued him up as the magazine’s exclusive backstage photographer for more than a decade. The book spans some of the Chanel collections from 1994 through 2007.
The designer’s exactitude is evident in glimpses of a Rue Cambon shoot for Caro Sieber’s wedding gown that required 38 yards of silk and 11 fittings. The final section, “A Day at the Atelier: Couture, Diet Coke and Coupette,” highlights the handwork and finishing touches. “It’s never one person, is it, any of this? It’s a village,” Vanessa Fairer said.
Beyond a means of connection, the Fairers spoke of how Instagram informs and can even be a tutorial for the next generation of creatives. “It’s knowledge, knowledge, knowledge,” Vanessa Fairer said. “It’s quite an instructional Instagram feed also,” Robert Fairer said.
While smartphone-sized images serve their purposes, wallpaper-type sized prints do too, as they can make fashion exciting and relevant, according to the couple. “With the McQueen [ones], you can do that all day. The backgrounds are so grubby with people smoking and Coke cans and filth on the floor. The kids today would find that really interesting, because people think fashion is glamorous and it’s really not,” Vanessa Fairer said, citing art school, packing clothing, textile bleaching, embroidery and other labor-intensive tasks as examples.
The couple is also keen to have Fairer’s books published as paperbacks to make them easier to flip through and to make them more appealing to younger readers. His previous titles were about McQueen as well as John Galliano’s time at Dior. With millions of images in their archives, the couple is looking into which museums some of those photos might go to. “The more we work in that regard the greater, hopefully, the legacy will be,” Vanessa Fairer said. Her husband added, “We are both caretakers in a way. We are looking to share it with the institutions if we can.”
The plan is to slowly start gifting and “then hopefully, people will wake up to the fact there is this incredible collection. Rob is so prolific. There is so much work — it has to go somewhere,” Vanessa Fairer said.