Each year under the big top in central Manhattan, designers, models, stylists and their vast supporting cast jump through hoops amid circus-like mayhem backstage, toiling to make New York Fashion Week a sartorial - and showbiz - extravaganza. Sarah Maslin Nir reports. The fashion industry is its own world, with rituals, culture and symbols all its own. Some say its queen is Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue (parodied to perfection by Meryl Streep in the movie The Devil Wears Prada and subject of a new documentary The September Issue to be shown as part of this year's Middle East International Film Festival). Fashion designers in this analogy would be her feudal lords, seeking her approval and favour. Their livelihoods depend on whether their work makes it on to her pages, and thus, in turn, to their customers' wardrobes. But that's a tired image, simplifying fashion as a transaction between three actors: Wintour, designers and consumers.
Step past the catwalks and behind the scenes of New York Fashion Week, and it becomes clear that the fashion machine is fuelled by much more than one magazine's sunglasses-clad empress. Many cities have fashion weeks, the sartorial extravaganzas where designers from the established to the fledgling present their collections to a slew of invited industry insiders. Their live audience are the buyers, press, stylists and taste-making celebrities. But New York Fashion Week, held under crisp white tents in centre of Manhattan, is one of the top events. Though newcomers such as Dubai, which hosts a similar event in October, are gaining momentum as showcases for international talent. New York, London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks (which fall consecutively starting in September) are still the big four, marked in every insider's Smythson diary (a fashionista must-have) as the must-not-miss events.
While the chilly temperatures and back-to-school mindset of New York City says "autumn" , September's fashion week said "spring" and, like all fashion weeks, features a look ahead to the next season's collections. For the week, the grassy lawn of Bryant Park, just off Times Square, is covered with a giant tent and studded with high heels. This temple of fashion is divided into two smaller areas, each parted by a polished runway flanked by rows of chairs. Where a guest is seated is determined by his or her importance in the fashion food chain; stars and magazine editors get front row, friends of friends and hangers-on stand at the back.
Fashion shows are presented back to back, almost hourly, alternating between the two chambers. While one hall is filled with celebrities, photographers and guests as one show unfolds, crews frantically clear the neighbouring tent and set it up for the next. This is no catering-hall rearrangement of folding chairs. At Zac Posen, held off-site, the normally straight catwalk was an undulating figure of eight. At Rodarte's show, designer sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy had black sand poured on the catwalk, and Philip Lim treated guests such as Kanye West to the cloying puff of a smoke machine. Theatrical flourishes must be cobbled together in the brief moments between shows.
But the real theatrics take place backstage, well before the shows begin. Here, teams of stylists, nail technicians, hairdressers, make-up artists and a host of professions you'd never come across elsewhere (Dressers? Model wranglers?) scurry from sunrise to sunset to make even an eight-minute fashion show the most gorgeous 480 seconds the audience has experienced. It's 10.15am, 45 minutes before the Yigal AzrouŽl show is due to start on day two. Backstage is full of reined-in energy, like an athlete centring himself before the big race. Model Arthur Daniyrov, 21, lies stretched on the floor of the dressing area, chatting with a companion beneath a rack of clothes he is about to wear down the runway. Models, assistants, seamstresses and journalists step over his legs.
"It's just work," he says in a thick Russian accent, struggling for the right English words. Daniyrov has been flown in for the event, and piled into a house in this foreign land with seven other models, all strangers. "Every day is tiring," he adds, and far from glamorous. While some models party, the most the young Russian and his roommates can manage at night is a session of PlayStation. Photographers bend down to snap the recumbent Daniyrov, who continues his conversation, impervious to their attentions, or seemingly so.
Daniyrov is attracting more attention than he knows. To his left stand a trio of young women, Anna Cherry, 22, Monet Grant, 21, and Kristin Lisi, 21, tittering into their hands and sneaking peeks at the boys lining up by their clothes. Interns at the company, today they are "dressers" responsible for clothing - and disrobing - the models as they head on to the catwalk. The dressers have to be there when the models rush backstage for lightning-quick outfit changes and to make sure they return to the catwalk imperturbable and perfectly dressed.
Much hinges on the dressers' quick reflexes. Each is assigned a model and responsible for executing the clothing changes posted in minute detail on large whiteboards. They also have to remain professional in the face of near nudity. The crowd prevent things from getting too uncomfortable. Lisi insists, "You don't get a chance to be one-on-one with the goods." Cherry has a different take. "I'm just there to ogle," she laughs.
The dressers slip a lithe blonde girl into one of the show's most revealing numbers: a white bathing suit with peek-a-boo cutouts leaving little to the imagination. The French model Mathilde Frachon, 18, hunches seemingly self consciously, shivering slightly in the air-conditioning , throws on a raggedy black cover-all. As she walks past a stylist, without a word, the woman takes a lint roller to the model's bottom.
In moments she will be baring her suit to hundreds of spectators and millions of viewers who will see her image plastered in newspapers and projected into living rooms around the world. Right now she looks like an awkward teenager. Frachon heads to the make-up area. It's her first show of the day, but yesterday she has done four fittings and five shows. Nevertheless, she is chipper as make-up artists press powder on to her nose and line her eyes. Simultaneously, her thick blonde hair is hauled in four directions by a team of hairstylists, moulding her mane into the slicked-back workman-like look that all of AzrouŽl's New York models are to wear.
The model's smoky eyes and light lips have been designed by the legendary make-up artist Bobbi Brown, who sits across the room from the young model, flanked by reporters. A small team of publicists steer international journalists to Brown, who is doling out sound bites amid the mayhem. For the catwalk look, she has created what she calls a "downtown black eye, as opposed to an uptown eye". Translated from fashion-ese, that means "very, very black and a little bit deliberately messy; lots of mascara and a very clean face".
Brown muses about the similarities and differences her current vision has with past seasons. "What makes it modern," she says, is brightening up the face, as opposed to the pallid cheeks of two years ago, when "girls looked a little drugged and hungover". Frachon has sported such looks. "I prefer to look beautiful," she says, laughing, "but it's not my job to give advice." The hairstylists descend again. Yank. Brush. Her eyebrows rise with the tautness of the ponytail. "Sometimes, it's like, 'Oh no!' if the make-up is ugly, but it's two minutes to just put your dress on and you go. It's OK, it's my job."
The make-up artist, a master of her trade, shares some of her secrets for making models catwalk-ready. "Sometimes a liquid eye shadow in a girl's hair parting if she has light hair," says Brown. "Some girls have super dark eyes and nothing else works and you have to do a peachy lipstick under their eyes." The methods seemed crude, but the finished look, flawless. Suddenly interviews cease. A call goes out; the show is moments away. The journalists and guests head for the exit, eager to take their seats, where they will see the final result of the morning's action.
It's too late. The show has begun. They will only get to see the finished product on television or in tomorrow's magazines. But another backstage pageant of sorts is taking place only steps away, in a semi-secret hideaway where it is still possible to glimpse the show. For several years, American Express's "Skybox" has quietly hung in the eaves of fashion week's tents, a small platform where customers can, in a sense, bypass the exclusivity by spending a few hundred dollars on tickets to watch the shows (strictly by invitation only) from a glass-encased box. In the serene enclave, as the Skybox guests presses towards the glass that separates them from the crowds below, Frachon marches down the runway in her second AzrouŽl look, a citrus-bright frock in the vein of Hervť Lťger's bandage dresses of last season, but with the vice-like grip of Lťger's creation leavened with frothier materials.
As she and her colleagues disappear from view, the lights in the cushy Skybox bumps up. Backstage, celebrity hairstylist John Barrett strides into the room. " The whole thing about fashion, about couture, is the cut," he lectures, his English accent adding to the hauteur in his voice, "the same is true about hair." This year's hair, he says, will be a departure from the angular looks of last season, a "runway-ready" look that could go from bedhead to interview-ready in moments.
At his salon, haircuts by the master cost upwards of US$700 (Dh2,570). But while many of the high-powered, highly paid women who frequent his salon have been victims of the spiralling economy, Barrett says they still shell out for his pricey work. Thrust from the boardrooms into the ranks of the jobless, he adds the women seek to maintain their appearance for the sake of their dignity, and that interview that just might turn the tide of misfortune. Barrett offers to snip the locks of any of the Skybox guests, gratis, under one condition: he alone will decide on their new 'do. Elaine Florio, 44, an office manager at a foundation and a guest in the Skybox, steps forward. Barrett continues to lecture while his scissors flick through Florio's hair. Photographers close in to capture what has essentially become performance art. His work is, he says, "part of the fantasy, it's a theatrical experience".
Florio sits stock-still. The snipping stops. She still hasn't seen what is left of her once rangy curls. She doesn't care. "It's a fascinating world, the fashion world," she gushes, finally catching her girlish new bob in a mirror, "being on the cutting edge". The spectacle over, the newly coiffed woman heads out, through the usual throng of wannabees and hangers-on milling in the tent's foyer, vying for a spare seat at shows to which they have not been invited.
Out in the bright September sun, two young men stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the foot of the steps leading to the tent, clad in business suits. There's one difference, however. One suit is completely clear. Radek Foukal, 24, a club promoter and part-time model stands in his underwear, his white briefs and undershirt covered by a green-trimmed suit of transparent plastic, a riff on the tale of The Emperor's New Clothes. Construction worker and model Josh Delos, 19, sports a normal business suit that he explains is made of the same material. The stunt is intended to make plain that connection.
Produced in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East by a company called Bagir, the eco-friendly suits are made from recycled water bottles: 13 two-litre bottles per suit, to be exact. "I can see right through your clothes, man," shouts a passerby. Foukal is far from bashful about his revealing attire; the green message is what counts. "I'm doing something good," he says. Natasha Royt, a stylist, heads backstage as the show, of rock royalty progeny Charlotte Ronson, gears up. Ronson's famous siblings - music producer Mark and DJ Samantha - combined with Ronson's "It Girl" clothes and celebrity clientele, add up to a white-hot event.
Royt's assistants seem to be everywhere, some wearing pincushions strapped to their wrists, primed for last-minute alterations. Royt calls her dozen aides into a sporting match-like huddle. "I don't want the models to fall down," she tells the dressers. "Make sure the shoes are tight. That's 85 per cent of your job." They nod solemnly. The other 15 per cent is piloting the models so they hit the catwalk in stride. "The most depressing thing for me is if the girls get out of order," she says. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle. We have nine minutes out there to give 1,600 people a good show. If it doesn't look good, it was all for nothing."
Next to the huddle, the French model Mathilde Frachon is back for her second show of the day. Bobbi Brown's make-up creation from the first catwalk is being stripped from her face and Ronson's look applied. Models around her are being blasted with pure oxygen mini-facials and rubbed with lotions containing real gold leaf. Three manicurists, including Julie Kandalec, 28, paints nails rapidly and deftly: there is no cutting corners, she says. "Those camera lenses, you can zoom big-time."
The day before, Kandalec and a team of four had given manicures and pedicures to 35 models in 90 minutes. Today's load of 22 models seems light in comparison. Made-up from head to foot, Frachon now seems a little worse for wear. The previous show over-ran and she is receiving flak for already missing several castings and with them, much lucrative work. "I can't be everywhere at the same time," she sighs. The lack of composure is momentary. "It's always like this. We have to stay cool."
Still in her street clothes, Frachon heads to the runway to be put through the pacing by Michael Slade, an employee of Judith Rice and Associates, a company that produces fashion shows. The two duck out on to the runway, leaving behind the chaos of backstage for the vaulted main tent, bathed in bright pink light. Side-by-side, Slade and Frachon walk the length of the catwalk in the fuchsia-lit room, counting out the steps and practising the pause and turn at the end. Backstage again, Slade marks out in tape a line for the young women to stand on, placing a model's name at even intervals. His main job, he says, is "corralling" models, and occasionally, as he had to at one show, to sew one back into a dress that had split apart at the last moment.
As the models practise their walks on the catwalk, Ronson, the eponymous line's designer, heads into the rose glow to watch the proceedings. It's her only chance to see her work in action. She spends the show backstage, prepping each look as it headed out for scrutiny. The young designer sits runway-side in the nearly empty tent, scrolling through e-mails on her BlackBerry, pausing only to gaze at her work on a model strolling by. Soon the cavernous space will be filled with her collection's megawatt fans, including Nicky Hilton, the singer Estelle and a horde of paparazzi.
For designers such as Ronson, fashion week means not just the debut of a new collection, but the culmination of a season of hard work. By the time the music thumps, houselights fade and the spotlights bathe the runway, creatives have pushed themselves hard to orchestrate these pageants. All to submit themselves to the chopping block by the world's fashion elite. "It's a lot of stress. It's a lot to worry about from every kind of angle," says Ronson. "The people - who's coming, what people - stressing and dealing with everybody's kind of personalities... it kind of takes away from the clothes a lot of the time."
That said, this is New York, and in minutes it will be her moment. "It's important in that it gives you a platform to show what you've been working on," she says. "I mean, what's better and bigger than that?"