Behind One of the World's Biggest Fashion Events
A model loses her shoe moments before stepping out on the catwalk - chaos ensues. In the flurry of hours of preparation, black heeled booties have been misplaced. And while the wardrobe crisis is masked from the rows of poised attendees lining the runway, the incident is far more indicative of the reality of fashion week - messy and chaotic.
To New Yorkers, the second week of September means one thing - fashion week. While the city is temporarily invaded by models, photographers, and the stylish elite, what goes into actually putting on a show?
The glossy front pages of Daily Front Row or Vogue would have readers believe fashion shows are an endless parade of elegance, excitement and picture-perfect moments. But for industry insiders like Anna Reece, there’s another side to the story.
For Reece, assistant to the producer at FTL Moda - a fashion production company based in New York - there is a whole other world behind the runway.
“I think people would be surprised about the entire backstage in general. I think people imagine like a spa or some really extravagant situation...but this isn’t the case even for the huge shows,” Reece explained. “It’s a creative madhouse.”
As the FTL Moda 2018 fashion show, comprised of four different designers, began, Reece was the one calling the shots. And although she’s worked shows before, running a fashion show from backstage was a singular experience - one that was both stressful and rewarding.
“This year was the first time that I was in charge of calling the show - this means lining up the designers and models and telling them when to walk to begin the show,” said Reece. “I just use the nervous energy as productive energy...I rely heavily on my team around me for support, and them on me. Since this was my first show with so much responsibility, I really had a hard time navigating my own stress..but in the end the show was beautiful with only minor and common issues.”
To most fashion week attendees, a runway show may look perfectly coordinated - each model trapses down the runway along with the beat of a song, perfectly orchestrated by the DJ just off-stage. But for Olivia Bolling, a volunteer at FTL Moda, those fleeting moments took hours of planning and effort.
“My duties began at 9 a.m. and lasted throughout the night,” Bolling explained. “My time was filled with running errands, ordering calls, and assisting the models, photographers, and FTL Moda employees as much as I could. The exciting day was filled with many ‘hurry up and wait’ moments all in anticipation of the show.”
The astounding amount of people it takes to have a runway show run may surprise the average onlooker. Still, volunteers like Bolling may very well be the backbone of the operation - having to navigate stressful situations as they come leading up to the big reveal.
Bolling herself faced several crises - from hair mishaps to a lack of pizza to feed models.
“Even in times of high stress, like when an entire lineup of models had their hair wetted and slicked back on accident, there was never a moment when any situation was too much to handle,” she says. “Despite the high intensity environment, the men and women who helped run the show were gracious to help in whatever situation they could, like when I had to try to find some pizza for the models and the woman who was running the show took me to the back room and gave me an entire pizza from her team for our girls.”
The frenzy of teamwork - whether it be sending volunteers sprinting to hair and makeup to fix a problem, or having them lug cases of coconut water to the front of house - seems to be the only thing keeping the operation afloat.
But the backstage madness seems to culminate in a gratifying result. Reece claimed as much.
“Everyone is running around trying to accomplish their personal tasks - makeup artists doing last minute touch ups, models having to go to the bathroom or asking questions about the walk, photographers everywhere trying to capture [behind the scenes] images, designers making sure their looks are exactly as they want it, producers making sure the music is precise and that the runway is not obstructed and all of the necessary VIPs are present so they can begin the show...this list could go on,” said Reece. “It’s really amazing and this kind of built up energy creates the most beautiful result … once the show finishes.”
And for others, like freelance photographer Jessica Mathews, capturing the “beautiful result” - and all that goes into it - is the job itself.
After dipping her toe into fashion photography three years ago for FTL Moda, Mathews’ photos got picked up by fashionweekonline.com - and the rest was history.
Mathews explained the stress that goes into shooting an event like a fashion show - and how it is a unique challenge to photographers.
“Any event that requires getting specific moments on camera is more nerve-racking. You only have one shot to get it right. You hope you didn't accidentally change your settings, and that your lens stayed in focus,” Mathews explained via email. “But even fashion is a little more high-stress … Half of the people are running around stressing out and the other half are taking selfies.”
Seemingly contrary to Reece’s and Bolling’s teamwork experiences, Mathews stated that there is an almost every-man-for-himself feel for photographers on the runway.
“There were a lot of other photographers there, and I'm not used to fighting for a spot. I usually like to do my own thing and get the angle no one else is paying attention to. With a runway show, you only have so many places you can stand, so you're fighting for space,” Mathews said. “Still, I like shooting fashion, because I'm crazy about the subtle details--designers live for those details, so it makes taking beautiful photos easy.”
But while some of the hectic atmosphere may be visible to the public, Bolling claims the majority of the preparation happens way before the lights first come up on the catwalk.
“The backstage of the show is the climax of an entire month's work,” said Bolling. “When I was assisting the run of show it was so incredible to realize the amount of work and care that goes into each decision - everything from lighting to music is timed out. All aspects, even the color of a girls shoes, can change the dynamic of the runway line.”
And while the months of preparation tend to help the show run more smoothly, Reece, Mathews and Boiling all seem to agree that there are hiccups no planning can prepare for.
Whether it be a hair snafu or a missing shoe moments before showtime, fashion week seems to remain an imperfect science. For Bolling, the glass facade of what fashion shows are supposed to look like came crashing down - but, maybe for the better.
“Seeing so many moving parts operating for one show made me appreciate clear communication and direction. I went into the day with the idealized notion of a glamorous high fashion experience, but getting to actually work the day made me appreciate and understand hard work required to stage such a production as a fashion show,” she explains.
But, how do these industry insiders recommend getting involved in fashion?
For Reece - who seemingly joined the industry by chance - networking and taking a chance is what can make all the difference.
The lucky Reece all but ran into a designer of shoe brand J.J. Gray, with whom, after direct messaging on Instagram, Reece became good friends. And while not all of us may be lucky enough to slide into the fashion scene like Reece slid into a DM, networking and taking a chance are integral to getting a start.
Still, Reece claimed that you need to have a good head on your shoulders if you aspire to work a fashion show.
“It’s an incredible experience. But you need to be okay with stressful situations and being able to turn problems into solutions,” Reece said.
As a volunteer, Bolling agreed.
“I learned that multiple things will go wrong in a show; regardless of how many calls or plans [are] written out, the best way to be of service is to listen carefully, think critically, and when a situation arises, constructively help in whatever way that you can,” Bolling advises.
Even though photographers and volunteers alike were drained, Reece, Bolling and Mathews seemed eager to get back into the chaos come next fashion week.
“I love working on such a high intensity project and seeing it through start to finish. The joy you feel once it’s over and all of your hard work is out there for everyone to see..that’s amazing and so fulfilling,” Reece explained.
When all is said and done, the chaos of fashion week overall seemed to be worth it to those working it - even if things weren’t always as expected. As for Mathews, shooting backstage is always a surprise.
“Honestly, I was expecting more naked people,” she said.