In this wired world, anyone can see Paris’s défilés de mode (fashion shows) mere hours after the catwalk has been cleared and the last model gone home to rub her stiletto-tortured heels. Numerous newspapers, magazines and blogs feature reviews of the biggest shows, while the web site Style.com also uploads images of each and every outfit from the major collections.
If you peruse these sites for an hour, you’ll certainly get an idea of what’s coming down the fashion pike, but you may also log off with the feeling that your wardrobe is outdated and that everyone, besides you, is relentlessly, effortlessly chic. And there you’d be wrong.
Your foreign correspondent is lucky enough to attend some of these events, and happy to tell you that all is not what it seems. My friends and family often remark that my life must be glamorous, but what, I reply, is so glamorous about waiting an hour to see a couture show in which a few Swarovski crystal-encrusted gowns cost as much as my yearly salary?
Don’t get me wrong, I am always pleased to be there, and I am not the only member of the working class at les défilés. Other journalists, photographers, bloggers, musicians, DJs, lighting technicians, hairdressers, makeup artists, public relations assistants, ushers and even those men and women who actually sew and embroider each gorgeous piece of clothing make, apart from a few exceptions, modest livings. It may surprise you to know that a “new face” (an unknown model) is paid $1,500 to $5,000 per show, and that her agency will take 20 percent. It’s not a bad living, but it’s not the millions people imagine when they see her coming down the runway.
Another fantasy: the red-carpet entrance. Remember that scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” in which caustic magazine editor Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, arrives at a show by limousine and is instantly surrounded by paparazzi? The real-life queen of the American fashion world, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, does not draw that much attention. Yes, there are photographers hanging around the venues waiting to capture a known face, but they are not paparazzi. They are there by invitation, and they are much more interested in snapping a film, television or music star than a fashion editor, no matter how powerful she may be.
Occasionally, when everyone shows up at a défilé at the same time, a star gets lost in the crowd, especially if they’re not wearing something that screams, “Look, I’m famous!” like a gold lamé mini-dress at 11 a.m. Of course, celebrities are always accompanied by their “handlers” — public relations professionals who have no problem shoving people aside to get their clients to the front of the line — but sometimes even they are stopped and asked to present invitations because the P.R. people who work the doors are French and don’t always recognize the foreign star du jour.
While all of this is going on, the rest of us — reporters, fashion buyers and the international rich — are standing in line, waving our invitations in front of our overheated faces and checking one another out while pretending not to. I like to observe the crowd and guess where people are from by their outfits. Usually, the Japanese are the most creative dressers, the Germans creak around in black leather, the Americans are clothed head to toe in the latest New York trend and the French are low-key, determined to dress in a nonchalant manner to show that fashion week, to them, is no big deal. There are many fashion victims, especially among the wealthy patrons. I have dubbed them “Botox on heels,” and often wish that they would read Chandler Burr’s excellent The Emperor of Scent, in which the book’s subject, Luca Turin, observes:
“Chic is, first, when you don’t have to prove you have money, either because you have a lot and it doesn’t matter or because you don’t have any and it doesn’t matter. Chic is not aspirational.”
Aspirations abound at les défilés and, if one has too much cash and not enough confidence, it can result in unsightly jumbles of designer logos and surgical blunders. Occasionally, though, I do spy someone who embodies Turin’s definition of chic. It is always a delight to see such a person, and it reminds me of how creative and fun fashion can be. (Note: Scott Shuman, The Sartorialist, makes his living searching for such folk. If you like street fashion, his blog is for you.)
Twenty minutes after le défilé is scheduled to begin, the doors open and we are at last directed to our seats, which may be gold-painted rental chairs or the plush velvet cushions of a historic theater, but more often than not are hard benches: bleacher seats. Depending on where you rank on the fashion totem pole, you are directed to the first, second, third or fourth row. Or you’re asked to stand. The first row is inevitably made up of celebrities, royalty, noted socialites, the editors in chief of top newspapers and fashion magazines and head buyers from luxury department stores. Behind them are the rest of us.
The scene is chaotic as people greet colleagues, find their places and ask those around them to scoot down (the more crowded the show is, the more scooting is required) and it is during this period that I marvel at the photographers, who are given a small space at the foot of the runway and must arrange themselves into a human pyramid in order to fit into it.
Another 15 minutes pass, during which news teams and photographers troll the front rows, looking for famous faces. Some of the famous faces are unrecognizable to most foreigners — they belong to a French socialite or a Saudi princess — but if a photographer has stopped to take someone’s picture, you can be assured that, somewhere in the world, people care who they are and what they’re wearing.
After everyone has been seated and the gaps filled (producers of fashion shows do not like to see holes in the audience; this is how I twice scored a coveted front-row seat), the show begins.
Normally, it is fast-paced: twenty minutes of music and fashion and, sometimes, true artistry. When it’s bad, the show is boring, with too many repetitions, wooden models and ill-chosen music, and when it’s good it’s a terrific theatrical performance, with costumes that dazzle.
First-time attendees often remark that the models are odd-looking up close: unnaturally tall and skinny, with prominent noses and hammerhead eyes. From the sidelines these girls — for many of them are still girls — resemble giraffe-sized storks, their spindly legs leading the way while their torsos hang back. Yet once you get home and see the pictures the photographers have taken of them from the foot of the catwalk, you understand why they were hired. Head on, they are ravishing, and their lanky proportions showcase the clothes perfectly.
Most of the major défilés end with a final parade of all of the models, so viewers can observe the entire collection at once. The designer comes out for a bow, and then everybody dashes for the exit. I have seen top editors sprint, in three-inch heels, for the door, bent on getting to the next show, which is often across town. Fortunately, they have cars waiting for them out front, as do the models, who have already changed into jeans and T-shirts and look significantly lovelier than they did from the bleachers. Me, I’m going to another show too, but I’m taking le métro.