The se­cret life of a fash­ion rookie


Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Words LACY WARNER

The real fash­ion week ac­tion hap­pens after the shows, when the in­dus­try’s eyes turn to buy­ers’ show­rooms – and here one lowly worker gets an eye­open­ing look at how the business of fash­ion

buy­ing re­ally works

It was my only op­tion. After spend­ing three hours fail­ing ev­ery test the temp agency gave me, I was run­ning out of ideas for how to pay next month’s rent. But just as my mis­er­able in­ter­view came to an end, the agent com­pli­mented me on my skirt. I saw her eyes light up for a sec­ond and then she asked me if I had any pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence as a ‘dresser’. I had no clue what a ‘dresser’ was, but a preter­nat­u­ral con­man’s con­fi­dence came over me, and I took a shot in the dark.

The agent turned to her screen and mur­mured that there was a cou­ture fash­ion house look­ing for a wardrobe as­sis­tant. I as­sured her I would be fab­u­lous. She printed the ad­dress and handed me the pa­per. As I reached out, she pulled it back and said, ‘You are to be in­vis­i­ble. Don’t wear any­thing rad­i­cal or say any­thing you think is funny. Black tights and black flats. Un­der­stand?’ I looked her dead in the eye, nod­ded, and pried the piece of pa­per away from her ice-cold fin­gers.

It’s not that I didn’t like fash­ion; in fact, I loved it. But I chafed at the idea of buy­ing into any­thing trendy. I was to show up at the of­fices of one of the world’s best-known wom­enswear de­sign­ers. The de­signer shared the same name as his brand, and his mix of street style meets high fash­ion had al­ready changed the haute-cou­ture land­scape.

I ar­rived to find a gen­tle­man wear­ing a head­set and talk­ing into a hand­held phone. I inched my way for­ward, build­ing up the courage to in­tro­duce my­self. Be­fore I could ut­ter a word, he pushed me out of the way and I stepped back­ward into a woman who could have been walk­ing on stilts. They air-kissed twice, and then she van­ished through the doors be­hind him. I stood there won­der­ing what to do next. ‘Can I help you?’ he asked with a per­fectly arched eye­brow. I handed over my piece of pa­per. He sighed deeply and flicked his hand into the back. I didn’t move. ‘What are you wait­ing for?’ he de­manded. ‘An invitation?’ I took a deep breath, pulled my shoul­ders back and walked through the gold-plated doors into the world of high fash­ion.

With light­ning speed I was ush­ered down another hall­way and dis­pensed in a room that held racks of cou­ture. Sud­denly on my left, what I had as­sumed to be a bun­dle of tow­els started mov­ing. The boss lady clapped her hands and said, ‘All right, nap time is over. You’re on my clock now.’ Then, she dis­ap­peared. The bun­dle of tow­els started to quake and slowly turned to me with a smile that could have launched a thou­sand tooth­paste com­mer­cials. It dropped its bathrobe ar­mour and re­vealed an even more in­tim­i­dat­ing sight: the com­pletely naked body of a fash­ion model. ‘I’m ready,’ she said. ‘Ready for what?’ I asked. She looked at me like I had just slapped her. ‘For you to dress me,’ she replied.

This was show­room. Last night had been the run­way show, and while the pub­lic thinks that’s the real event, the ac­tual business hap­pens dur­ing the 14 days after fash­ion week. Be­hind this closet was yet another room that held the whole sea­son’s worth of clothes. Each day clients from all the ma­jor depart­ment stores would come in and be given a tour. If they wanted to see a look on a body, it would be my job to dress the model ac­cord­ingly. All I had to do was hold the dress as the model stepped into it, and then zip up the back. Not bad for $15 ( about R165) an hour.

It wasn’t just depart­ment stores that would be vis­it­ing the show­room, how­ever; it could also be so­cialites or celebri­ties. Vic­to­ria, the in­tern, put her hand up to her mouth and whis­pered that Uma Thur­man might drop by. I bent down to Vic­to­ria, the only per­son in the whole op­er­a­tion who was shorter than me, and asked, ‘So this is like a store, and it’s your job to con­vince peo­ple to buy the clothes?’ She nod­ded. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘I got this.’ She put a hand on my arm and smiled. ‘Of course you do.’

I turned my at­ten­tion back to the naked glama­zon, when out of nowhere the woman from ear­lier that morn­ing ap­peared. The first model backed away from me and cov­ered her­self with her robe. Vic­to­ria scram­bled out of the room yelling some­thing about not know­ing that she was com­ing but that she would get the dress im­me­di­ately. It turned out the woman I had bumped into was the face and body of the fash­ion house, and last night she had worn the num­ber that ended the show. It also turned out she was the only per­son who could fit into it. The dress had me­tres

SHE DROPPED HER BATHROBE ar­mour and re­vealed an even more in­tim­i­dat­ing sight: THE COM­PLETELY NAKED BODY OF A FASH­ION MODEL

of stiff fab­ric and it en­tered the room with lit­tle Vic­to­ria bear­ing all its weight be­neath it.

After that one dress she came back in, had me unzip her, threw the dress over the rack and left with­out say­ing a word. The first model told me this woman only wore one dress be­cause she was too fa­mous to do show­room. ‘Not like me,’ the first model said. ‘All I do is show­room and I’ve done it for the past 10 years. No one would hire me for print or run­way shows. I’m too old.’ ‘How old are you?’ I asked. ‘31.’

I spent the rest of the day dress­ing this model as though she were a tod­dler who couldn’t do it her­self. Surely she was used to it, but I felt hu­mil­i­ated enough for the both of us. Most of the time she was naked and though all I wanted to do was stare, I have never tried to make more eye con­tact in my life.

Fi­nally my day was almost over. All I had left to do was hang ev­ery­thing back up. Vic­to­ria handed me a folder that weighed as much as a new­born and ex­plained that this was the map to the show­room. There were pic­tures of each sec­tion of each rack that de­scribed how each item should hang. It had to be done ex­actly as de­tailed in the folder or else there would be hell to pay. I found out later that there was an il­lus­tra­tor whose sole job was to draw th­ese pic­tures. She spent weeks be­fore the show sketch­ing the en­tire sea­son.

It took me two hours and, later, I was chas­tised for hav­ing put sev­eral hang­ers back the wrong way. As I walked out of the build­ing I had no idea if I could bring my­self to walk back in the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

I was ex­pected to come in be­fore any­one else to make sure the show­room was in top shape be­fore the ar­rival of the clients. I spent the morn­ing fold­ing sweaters, ev­ery so of­ten glanc­ing at the man­ual to make sure I had got­ten the arm bend just right. This wasn’t all that dif­fer­ent than my past re­tail jobs.

There were jumpers made com­pletely out of ruf­fles and trousers that had the tops of hosiery at­tached to them that were sup­posed to be worn with cardi­gans tucked in. There was a dress that had a fringe of baubles and ev­ery time the model wore it she com­plained that the hem­line smacked against her an­kles. She showed me her bruises and each day they changed colour, from aubergine to olive and then fi­nally set­tling into egg-yolk. The sales team had been mut­ter­ing about how ‘un­wear­able’ this sea­son was and how they would prob­a­bly lose a lot of money on it.

I felt a hand on my back. ‘Do you smoke?’ the 31-yearold model asked. ‘Some­times,’ I said. ‘Come out­side and have a cig­a­rette with me.’

We sat on the SoHo steps and I bummed a cig­a­rette from her. ‘ This place is crazy, right?’ she asked. I nod­ded sus­pi­ciously. What did she want? It was ob­vi­ous I didn’t be­long there. ‘I thought it was crazy when I first got here too. I’m ac­tu­ally a PhD can­di­date in anthropology and I’ve of­ten thought of writ­ing about this en­vi­ron­ment.’ She flicked her ash into the gut­ter. ‘But after be­ing here so long I’ve just got­ten used to it.’

I in­stantly felt guilty for all the as­sump­tions I had made about her based on know­ing noth­ing but her waist mea­sure­ment.

‘I’ve worked here since I was 20,’ she said. ‘No one else would hire me when I came to New York and I al­ready owed my agency so much money.’ She mo­tioned back up the stairs. ‘This place re­ally saved me.’ We both took another drag of our cig­a­rettes and she let out a sad laugh be­fore say­ing, ‘I know I’m noth­ing but a walk­ing hanger, but the two weeks I do this means I can af­ford to go to school and even fly to Africa at the end of the month to do my the­sis work.’

She turned to face me fully. ‘There’s so much ug­li­ness in this business. Be­lieve me: I worked through heroin chic, and that was not a trend, but a re­al­ity. Still, I have to be grate­ful be­cause no one has been as kind and as sup­port­ive as this company.’ I nod­ded again, this time not in sus­pi­cion but in sol­i­dar­ity.

We went up­stairs and I zipped her into the last look of the day: the dreaded bauble dress. She turned to me and said, ‘I feel like I should strap pads around my an­kles to pro­tect them. Lord knows in this place ev­ery­one would think it was ge­nius.’ I laughed and sent her out to the floor. I stood be­hind the door to watch her in ac­tion as she sashayed into the room. She held ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion with her grace and poise. The boss lady’s face changed as she looked at the model. It lit up with a kind of ma­ter­nal pride.

‘This is Jill,’ she said. ‘She’s on her way to be­com­ing a very im­por­tant an­thro­pol­o­gist.’

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