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Backstage: Behind the scenes of a fashion show

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Ten minutes. Ten minutes is the average duration of a catwalk presentation. That is the length of time in which a designer can show a collection that is meant to capture the brand's image so convincingly that its clothes will want to be worn by consumers all over the world and featured in leading editorial glossies. It is a task of both enormous pressure and colossal preparation that requires military precision in planning and execution.

Why military precision? Because anything can go wrong. One season in Paris one of the models wore a pair of shoes with a price tag still stuck to the sole. It was all the press talked about after the show, how sloppy the stylist was, and worse, it was seen on the catwalk photos that circulated the internet. Even the smallest of mistakes and spell a fashion disaster.

For the designer, the key to presenting a successful fashion show is looks: models should be dressed with outfits that are cohesive, present a vision and capture the attention of the press and buyers. A designer will usually work with a stylist who selects the looks and briefs the designer on trends and industry movements. A stylist and a designer can have a very symbiotic relationship, as seen with Nicolas Ghesquière and his stylist muse Marie-Amelie Sauvé, who have worked together since his debut at Balenciaga, or Marc Jacobs and Venetia Scott.

Up to 50 hairdressers can work being the scenes

But the stylist is just the first of many involved in a fashion show. There are also the sound engineer and technical assistants, the director of hair and make-up with anything up to 50 hairdressers and 35 makeup artists, depending on how many models are in the show and the size of the production. Then there are the people behind the planning stages, such as the casting director, the pr team who invite the media, the graphic designers who create the invitations, the sales agency who look after the buyers, the seamstresses finishing the garments, caterers, security, lighting, runners, and the list goes on.

With Paris Fashion Week well under way, we can be assured that the fashion houses have been working with a show producer who bring all the elements together and who will organise the model casting, set production, supervise hair and makeup, and basically direct all the staff that are there to implement the vision of the designer and translate this into a catwalk show. As these shows are so complex, designers tend to work with the same individuals season after season, from hair and makeup to production, and it is these industry heavyweights who put on most of the shows during fashion week. For example, makeup director Pat McGrath and her teams will easily do 10 shows during Paris Fashion Week, from Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, to Maison Martin Margiela and Stella McCartney.

Who wears what is important as the clothes themselves

Once the designer, stylist and show producer have decided on the number of looks to present - which could be anything from 24 to 70 - the casting process begins. Now is the time to decide the best models to wear the most significant looks to gauge both media and buyer interest. Opening and closing the show are the two most significant faces. It is important to understand what helps or hinders the fashion media, avoiding both looks that underwhelm or that feel too contrived. Like any production, be it the stage, a concert or a fashion show, it is important to understand your audience. If you are presenting to Anna Wintour and the buying director of Bergdorf Goodman, who are looking to plan their editorial and store buys for next season, you will present a different show then when you are aiming to sell merchandise.

Major shows, like Chanel's Metiers d'Arts, will take up to twelve months to organise, specifically with coordinating a venue, show date and theme. For the twice annual fashion weeks, 5 weeks is the minimum time to be able to execute a good presentation. Casting usually starts three weeks before a show, when the model agencies will know who will be in town. Venues will be booked anywhere between six months and five weeks, although most designers show in the same show space season after season, so these tend to be done in block bookings. The fashion council in each country will set the schedule well in advance so designers and production teams can plan accordingly.

Fashion shows are expensive

Fashion shows are expensive. Marc Jacobs thinks nothing of spending a million dollars per show and even for the average brand, it is difficult to put on a credible production for under 100,000 dollars. The more elaborate and complex the show, the higher the costs increase. The major fashion houses don't sell tickets so they must work with sponsors and their own financial resources to cover the costs. Budgets must remain flexible as there are always hidden costs and revisions. No matter how extravagant the show, the production team and planners must evaluate all of the various expenses involved in the initial stages of planning. This starts by a projection of all the anticipated expenses, and usually with the larger costs, such as venue hire, catering, written quotations should be requested. Modeling agencies usually charge a flat rate for unknown girls, and anything up to 100,000 for top models or celebrities. The more top models you see on the runway and celebrities on the front row, the bigger the budget. Balmain always has a stellar model line-up, whereas at Giorgio Armani there is more emphasis on new faces.

Front of house is as important to plan as what happens behind the scenes. For example, seating together two editors of rival publications can be detrimental with so many egos at play. Or not recognising an important journalist who forgot an invitation and can't get through security. The show producer and public relations team usually finalise the seating chart, which is one of the final preparations pre show. A run-through with the correct order of models and garments along with the timing of the music and lighting is usually done while models are in hair and makeup or a few hours before the show. For most people involved, they will have done many shows before, so there is no reason for a show not to be pulled off without a glitch.

Once the audience is seated, the lights dim, the music starts and the atmosphere is transformed into the unique vision of the brand. When the first model steps onto the catwalk the audience becomes transfixed, it is now just about the clothes. If a designer has created something that captures their attention and imagination the show will have been a resounding success.

Images: Various runway

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