Just metres away from the fashion fantasies played out on the catwalk is a parallel universe of chaos.
Behind the seams: backstage at a major fashion show
If you think watching a fashion show is a surreal experience, try going backstage. I did, and it made me feel like Alice shortly after she had fallen down the rabbit hole. In stark contrast to the lavish locations and fashion fantasies played out on the catwalk, the twilight world beyond can actually resemble a warren, crudely lit by dangling light bulbs and poky tunnels leading to rooms constructed from plywood.
My first backstage experience was at a prêt-à-porter Dior show in Paris staged in a vast marquee. The sprawling auditorium and mirror-covered catwalk gave no indication of the makeshift area behind it. This was a parallel universe. Here was the Dior designer, John Galliano and supermodels galore, along with crazy creatures from what seemed like another world. These included seemingly multi-armed hairdressers wielding dangerously hot hair tools, and a scrum of burly photographers with huge Nikon lenses taking pictures of semi-clad models.
The chaos, the heat, the noise was like nothing I could have imagined. Not that I was given much of a chance to take in my surroundings. Once my allocated 15 minutes with the make-up artist Pat McGrath were up, I was shooed away by a PR supremo holding a stopwatch just like the white rabbit in the Wonderland tale. Despite my prior intentions, I didn't get anywhere near any clothes or the designer himself.
Upon finding my seat in the auditorium, the madness I had just experienced melted away like a dream. To ensure catwalk myths remain unbroken, fashion reporters like myself, however intrepid, must accept backstage territory is out of bounds. Besides, after that first experience, it seemed more like a nightmare I wanted no part of. When, during last London Fashion Week in February 2010, I mentioned this to Anna-Marie Solowij, a Vogue beauty director who spends half her life backstage, she seemed concerned I'd written off "her world".
Shortly afterwards I was walking to the Christopher Kane fashion show in London's Covent Garden, when a little green side door popped open and a hand appeared bidding me below ground. Within seconds I had a "VIP access all areas" band tied around my wrist by Solowij and found myself in the labyrinthine cellars beneath what had once been the old flower market. Here various Topshop-sponsored shows had pitched up during London Fashion Week.
Curiouser and curiouser. I followed my friend down a corridor into the hairdressing quarter only to find the hairstylist, Paul Hanlon, holding court to a crowd of beauty writers scribbling into notebooks, demonstrating how to create "boyish cows licks" on a model's hair. Another corridor led me to a room with just one long trestle table groaning with nibbles. "Where are the models?" I asked. "There's a light check going on," Solowij told me. This is where the models are instructed how fast - or slow - to walk and given the precise spot to stop and turn around, which is usually after the eighth step. Engineers then ensure the light is flattering on their faces and clothes.
Minutes later a stream of tall, slim, alien-looking girls filed past talking (in Russian?), closely followed by a stampede of photographers. Almost immediately the flashbulb frenzy began. "We're outta here," Solowij said. And we were. She explained that fashion show costs are often met by make-up and hair giants such as L'Oreal or Tigi, which is why the rugby scrum of photographers is allowed in pre-show. The association of the beauty companies is great for prestige.
We found ourselves in a main area, which looked like a sports locker room with benches. Until recently this had been deserted, but now rails of clothes had appeared each with a photo of a model on it. There were dressers; women with needles between their teeth who busily attended to last minute alterations and would later be in charge of changing models into their various outfits. Then I spotted the dresses. Luxurious, soft black leather and lace shifts embroidered with pretty florals and twinkly starburst crystals. There were also mini kilts and soft woollen matching boleros, so exquisitely made, I risked blowing my cover and let out a shriek.
"These were handmade two weeks ago by a little old lady called 'Nettie' from the Isle of Lewis," confided a friendly, pretty face, clearly happy to talk kilts. It was Tammy Kane, sister and business partner of Christopher, who then introduced me to her brother, the Scottish superstar fashion designer who was designing for Donatella Versace before he had even graduated from Central St Martins. (He also designs the Versus range).
"I wanted the flowers to be ironic," said the 28-year-old about the tiny purple embroidered thistles native to his homeland. "Embroidery on black leather looks gorgeous. Sick, tough, unconventional, different?" Then he got called away and Tammy stepped in to talk me through the rest of the collection. "We'd decided to go for black leather when we saw a documentary about Elvis and Priscilla, his then future wife, so she became the inspiration."
Bonding over a plastic cup of water; talking calmly about the designs to the very people responsible for them and I know I will be writing about again and again. It was another "Alice" moment. "Some shows are very calm," Solowij confided. "It's got a lot to do with the designer." I heard the Kanes owed much of their success to being not only creative, but also organised. Standing in the eye of the storm, reality then beckoned. From somewhere not too far away I heard the restless fashion crowd baying in their seats.
Then cries of "first outfits" from the fierce Scottish casting director, Russell Marsh - the same man responsible for discovering most models in the super-league, such as Sasha Pivovarova. With five minutes to go, Marsh called a powwow. The models gathered in a circle with their arms linked and whispered what could have been a prayer. Then it was line-up time. An assistant hairdresser went wild with a can of hairspray and a make-up artist hurriedly redid lips.
Three minutes. My heart was racing. What must the models have felt like? The designer ran down the line giving each girl's hand a friendly squeeze. "GO," yelled Marsh shoving the first girl onto the runway so hard her five-inch heels nearly snapped. I took my place in limbo land: hidden offstage where I could watch models make their entrance and exit and actually see the "hole" between the two fashion worlds.
Cue the music, the models and all too soon? it's a wrap. Or is it? Suddenly from the hole between the two worlds, a madding crowd of jostling well-wishers stream in and descend on Kane. He is air kissed, congratulated and clucked over by journalists, and endless TV crews, shining bright lights in his face. For just a moment I saw him lose concentration spying his precious collection being zipped into clear plastic bags and wheeled away. All that work. And it starts all over again in London on Friday.