The secret life of a fashion rookie
I LIED TO GET THE JOB.
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.’