"There’s really no one else like Russell,” Gigi Hadid said, fluttering past into a sea of camera flashes, wearing an ivory Vivienne Westwood gown. She was just one of the many runway fixtures who had crowded into the newly opened Alley Cat Amateur Theatre, hidden beneath The Beekman Hotel, all in the name of Russell James. After 18 years spent as the sole backstage photographer for Victoria’s Secret's yearly runway spectacle, James had chosen to assemble his favorite shots in a new photo book entitled “Backstage Secrets."
His subjects came out en masse to celebrate, all in varied forms of glittering evening wear paired with sky high heels. They stood in stark contrast to James himself, who opted for flip-flops, although he usually prefers to abandon shoes altogether. To Sara Sampaio, that air of ease and humor have become the photographer's signature trait. "I always know when I see his name on the call sheet that it’s going to be a fun day,” she told Vogue. "He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s always barefoot and has hilarious dad jokes, but his photos are beautiful.”
Throughout the night, guests like Hannah Ferguson and Martha Hunt thumbed through the pages of the book, looking back on the candid moments captured by James’ lens. “When you’re shooting in underwear, it’s great to have someone take that edge off,” the newly-minted Maybelline spokeswoman and Victoria’s Secret runway regular Josephine Skriver mused. “There’s never any awkwardness. It’s just like one big comedy show with him, and I think that’s why you can see the magic in his photos. He’s a free spirit, and one of the best people in the industry.”
Ed Razek, the Chief Marketing Officer of Victoria’s Secret, had the numbers to back it up. “25 years ago, we had this idea to do a fashion show for Victoria’s Secret,” Razek explained. "At the time, it wasn’t obvious that lingerie was fashion, but over the years, the one thing that has remained a constant was Russell taking photos. Last year, the show was seen by a billion and a half people in 191 countries, and on social media, there were 153 billion hits...a lot of those photos being shared were the work of Russell.”
Looking at the body of work that decorated the walls of the low-lit nightclub, and filled the 304-page tome, it’s easy to see that James is uniquely positioned to capture the mounting nerves and unbridled glee that come from taking a turn on a runway in front of the entire world. “This book only took about half an hour to put together, but 18 years to shoot,” the man of the hour joked during his chat with Vogue, stopping frequently to field congratulatory hugs. “This is really a curation of moments that I feel like reflect something intimate and personal about the subject, and I wanted to give a bit of insight into what it’s like to be back there. I watched this show blow up over the years, so some iconic moments for me have just been seeing the astonishing amount of talent deployed on one stage at the same time. No one else in the industry can pull that together—at least that I know of.”
Gigi Hadid in Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood and Olgana Paris shoes
Photo: Getty Images for Backstage Secrets by Russell James