Ever dreamed of planting yourself backstage amidst the chaos of the world’s biggest runway shows? Celebrated English photographer Matt Lever has enjoyed such access since 1999, setting up base in California, and travelling the world to capture behind-the-scenes photographs in Paris, New York, Milan and beyond. BEHIND THE RUNWAY is a selection of Lever’s most prized photographs, with all the pandemonium and panic that happens right before models take to the stage.
Equipped with an astounding amount of gear for each show, Lever has spent the last 17 years proudly creating a deep archive of intimate, never-before-seen images of the world’s top models from Naomi to Cara to Giselle. BEHIND THE RUNWAY contributors include Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Karlie Kloss and Andre Leon Tally, with an introduction from Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes and foreword from revered Stylist and Editor in Chief of LOVE Magazine, Katie Grand.
We asked Matt Lever about his experiences and process behind the book, which to date, is his crowning glory.
‘With the click of a shutter, Matt has captured a treasury of hidden fashion moments, and opened them up to the world’ – Suzy Menkes, Vogue International Editor
TGW: Do you remember your first backstage assignment in ’99? What was your first lesson?
ML: God, that was a long time ago! To make sure you had film in the camera. There was always a joke backstage about the ‘never-ending roll of film’, which meant that the film never ran out, because there wasn’t any in the camera. Fortunately this never happened to me. It’s such a stressful environment, the daftest things can happen. I think another lesson was that you also have to constantly be aware of your surroundings, as things are moving so fast. You can get in the way pretty quickly if you’re not careful.
‘You have to constantly be aware of your surroundings, as things are moving so fast. You can get in the way pretty quickly if you’re not careful.’
TGW: What do you typically pack when you head to a show?
ML: You really have to take a back up for every part of your kit. We are pretty brutal with our gear because it gets used so much. I usually need to have my 4 x flashguns repaired after every season, because they get melted.
I usually take…
- 2 x camera bodies
- a Nikon D3 AND Nikon D4.
- 4 x lenses – a 100mm/Macro lens, a 24mm-70mm zoom, a 24mm-120mm zoom and a 50mm.
- 2 x Nikon SB900 flashguns. I use the SB900 as you can override the overheating cut off (you can’t on the SB910). There is nothing worse than your flash stopping because the overheating cut off has kicked in. The reason that the flash is overheating is because you are using it so much, so the last thing you want it to do is cut off!
- 2 x Quantum 2X2 turbo battery packs
- 2 off camera flash shoe cords
- 3 Quantum to flash cords.
- A spare camera battery for each camera.
- 8 x spare AAA batteries for the flashguns
- About 10 x 32GB CF cards.
TGW: What are your best tactics when photographing backstage during those hectic times?
ML: You really have to be looking everywhere. When it is really hectic, there are a million things happening at once. You also have to predict what is going to happen as you can miss things very quickly. You literally have seconds to see something, compose it, and get your exposures correct. Sometimes it’s best to just slow right down for a second and take a look around.
‘You literally have seconds to see something, compose it, and get your exposures correct.’
TGW: How did the BEHIND THE RUNWAY introduction by Suzy Menkes come about?
ML: I really wanted to get the viewpoint of great fashion writers, as they would be able to put in to words what I was trying express with images. I am a terrible writer, so I enlisted the best writers possible. I really wanted this to be a great book, so it was important to try and get the best people involved. I collared Suzy outside a show in Milan. She was very helpful, but also in an incredible rush. So I grabbed her again in Paris, and it all stemmed from there.
TGW: Tell us about your friendship/work relationship with Katie Grand?
ML: The foreword was actually written by Katie Grand, and it was amazing of her to do that for me. I have known Katie for quite a while now. I had to photograph her for an Elle story about 10 or 15 years ago. I can’t say that we have ever really worked together, but she has always been incredibly sweet to me. I live in San Francisco so I don’t really get to work with people in London that much.
TGW: We saw on Instagram that you were recently in Milan taking backstage photos at Gucci, which we (Tinks and I) are utterly obsessed with. What can you tell us about Alessandro Michele’s backstage scene?
ML: It was very controlled. We were allowed to shoot the models against a pink background. Sometimes it would be nicer to have more freedom than we get. I think in the film days we were given more as there were a lot less photographers backstage. We all tend to miss those days. So I would say it was controlled chaos, as things got a little crazy, the closer to show time that we got. They brought the models out in groups for us to shoot, and the time we were getting with each group got shorter and shorter, until in the end they basically brought the girls out and took them away again in about five seconds. Literally, FIVE seconds!!!
‘In the film days we were given more freedom as there were a lot less photographers backstage. We all tend to miss those days.’
TGW: Do many people eat backstage at a major fashion show?
ML: There is pretty much always some form of catering backstage. People do eat, but you are usually in such a hurry that you just get to shove something down. Some days you are doing so many shows that you don’t really get to eat anything at all, until the evening. On those days the adrenalin usually carries you through. It’s not great to be eating a whole pizza at 11pm, though. I’m a veggie as well, so this can make eating backstage a bit tricky as there isn’t usually a great veggie selection. It’s always a bummer to get to a show, starving, to see trays of meat sandwiches.
TGW: Who is your favourite person to photograph?
ML: I always loved shooting Lily Donaldson and Bette Franke, as they both brought a lot to the image and were always fun. I love photographing my wife and kids as well, but I guess that’s a pretty lame answer.
TGW: Who has the most wicked sense of humour?
ML: Joan Smalls is hilarious, and of course Bette and Lily.
TGW: Do you enjoy a relaxed, familiar relationship with some of the models (meaning they’ll ham it up for you)?
ML: Some of them, definitely. I think there has to be a good connection between the photographer and model to get a good image. This usually comes from having a good friendship with them. I think once a model gets to know you, they work better with you. Some of them are amazing, and you feel like you have a great relationship with them.
‘I think there has to be a good connection between the photographer and model to get a good image… Once a model gets to know you, they work better with you.’
TGW: Candid photography would have to be my favourite kind of image, capturing a moment to tell a story. Is it your favourite style? If not, what is?
ML: I think the candid ones tell the best story as you are getting true scenarios and emotions. I think you really have to shoot these images without flash too, as it gives a photograph more atmosphere – a certain ‘fly on the wall’ quality.
TGW: Do you take photographs on your days off?
ML: It all depends. Sometimes I won’t head out with the intention of taking a photo, but the cameras on phones are so good now, that I usually end up seeing something that I want to shoot. I do love how photography changes the way you see the world.
‘I do love how photography changes the way you see the world.’
TGW: Is there any kind of planning that you must do in preparation for a show?
ML: Not really. You can’t really plan for a show, shooting-wise, as they are so unpredictable. Though I do get all of my equipment serviced to make sure that it is all ready. We are so brutal with our gear. You are constantly seeing people’s equipment fail.
TGW: Are you given a brief, or do you roam and gather inspiration as it comes?
ML: I’ve been doing it so long now that I don’t really have a brief anymore. You really just react to things as they happen. You do have to think pretty quickly. Sometimes you will see a situation that will make a great shot, but you are set up for something else. By this I mean that maybe the available light is hitting the model in a beautiful way, but you are set up to take a shot with flash. So, you have to change all your settings, turn off the flash, change the colour temperature, ISO, shutter speed and aperture, all in a few seconds, so you don’t miss the moment.
TGW: Your menswear images are astounding – is menswear included in your book?
ML: Thank you very much. That is a lovely thing for you to say. Unfortunately they are not in this book as it is really just about womenswear. I am hoping to use them in another project that I am working on though.
TGW: What does your Lowepro sponsorship allow you to do?
ML: Lowepro have been amazing in giving me bags to carry my gear around in. So if there is ever a problem with the bag, I can just send it in and they send me a new one. As I mentioned before, we are very hard on our gear. I think our gear probably goes through much more than a normal years worth of use in 1 month of fashion shows, maybe more.
‘I think our gear probably goes through much more than a normal years worth of use, in one month of fashion shows. Maybe more.’
TGW: What has been your proudest career moment?
ML: I think the book is my proudest career moment – it has been so much work to get here, and because of the people who have been involved in it – people who I really admire and respect have helped in so many ways. Everyone who has written something for the book has been so helpful, which has been very humbling, as they are all people who I have an incredible amount of respect for. The book has also been getting such great feedback from everyone who has seen it. That has been pretty amazing. So I would say the book, and also the first spread that I had in Elle UK – that was a pretty great moment as well.
TGW: Does California feel like home these days, or do you still feel that pull back to the UK?
ML: That’s always weird, as I call both places home. It can get a little confusing. I love California, but I am staunchly English. I’m very proud of where I’m from but really love where I live. San Francisco is such a beautiful place, and pretty relaxed. I love riding around it on my scooter. I do love all the different architecture of London though, and of course the English countryside. So I guess I’m pretty lucky that I don’t really have to make a hard decision about that. I get the best of both worlds. I think it would be a very hard choice if I had to make it. I wish they would hurry up and invent time travel so I could nip back and forth between the two places and not have to take an 11 hour plane journey every time.
BEHIND THE RUNWAY is a collection of Matt Lever‘s favourite backstage photographs and it beautifully captures the pandemonium, high tension and wacky antics that take place moments before ‘First Looks’ are called. It is available now.
Pictured at top: Cara Delevingne backstage at Fendi AutumnWinter 2014
All images supplied with thanks by Cecilia at Midas PR UK. Special thanks to Ali Kilmer for my virtual introduction to Matt Lever. May we gather ’round the Dunkirk together in California (again) some day.