May Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Fashion | Life Style | Published 10 years ago

In my close to 20 years of working in the Pakistani fashion industry, as a fashion journalist, backstage fashion dresser/stylist (dressing and undressing both male and female models — sometimes not a pretty sight!) and some times Fashion Week coordinator, but fortunately never a model (too short and intelligent for that gig), I have seen my fair share of backstage “goings-on” — I’m not going to use the word “drama,” so as not to alarm the reader or shatter their fantasy about the industry. Not yet, anyway.

Over the years, and since the onset of the now ubiquitous Fashion Weeks, the size of fashion show productions has scaled grand proportions with preparations beginning weeks in advance, and special teams being hired to specifically manage the backstage areas. Along with this assembly-line growth, one has also seen the burgeoning of egos and self-created fashion personae; an ineluctable uppity-ness, for want of a better word, that categorically rears its ugly head at fashion venues.

For outsiders, the Fashion Weeks may look like one big party, an endless parade of beautiful clothes on beautiful people. But, behind the glamorous photographs plastered in magazines lies the truth — long stressful days leading up to the main event: A runway show that lasts all of 10 minutes.

But even with the lead time, there is always a mad dash as the show date approaches. And things get tense.

“We start work at 9 am and don’t leave until 9 pm, and we do not have weekends off for one month before the show,” says one designer. “Who wouldn’t be sensitive in this situation?” And forget holidays. “Designers, patternmakers and tailors all work on weekends,” she adds.

The day of the show is when the activity reaches its peak — and it is not helped by last-minute changes. “We cannot finish work if the creative director changes his mind a day before the show,” one junior designer complains. As the clock ticks down to show time, the madness heightens. “Tailors are sewing right till the show opens,” he says. “We prepare for the show for three months, but it happens all the time. I don’t know why.”

“Backstage, it’s insanity at a fashion show,” shares a popular backstage manager. “You’d be surprised by how many outfits you see on the runway that are held together by safety-pins or taped to the model — anything to just get it down the runway in one piece!”

Despite the herculean efforts of Fashion Week backstage teams to organise the make-up stations and racks for each show — averaging eight designers a day for three days, each showing around 18-30 outfits using 15 models (superegos) — things often don’t go as planned.

Designers are pulled in a million different directions in the days leading up to Fashion Week, but that’s nothing compared to the issue of the paltry number of models who are shared for different shows. That over-scheduling leads to problems. “We know it is the busiest time for models, but models do not come on time, especially the senior ones who often feel they don’t need to practice, especially for single-file shows,” complains a leading choreographer. “Sometimes they do not even show up for fittings. It’s a constant negotiation,” the choreographer adds. “It’s like dealing with a three-year-old who won’t wear matching shoes.”

There is a hierarchy in place during Fashion Weeks, with the designers entrusting their entire work to the show producer who, in many cases, also choreographs the production and works closely with the backstage managing team, who then manage the line-up of models and send them out. When there are gaps between sequencing and the model does not come out on time, one winces, knowing that there will be much finger-pointing and blaming. The perfectionist choreographer will censure the backstage team, who will in turn fault the model, who in turn might guilt-trip her personal dresser. Or often, the model in front of her.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Pakistani fashion industry is the dearth of female models (male models are a dime a dozen), with the result that changeover between outfits is intense and often the leading cause of the infamous panic and chaos that ensues backstage.

Something happens to ‘nice’ girls when they enter the fashion industry to become models, especially during fashion shows. This transmogrification oftentimes boils down to their backgrounds and, in most cases, their lack of education. They throw diva-like airs, but are often put in their place by senior models — you know, the ones who have been trundling on for close to two decades and should know better and hang up their stilettos!

Insecurity abounds backstage if a fresh and pretty new girl is garnering a lot of attention from designers or, God forbid, she is a visitor from another country. There was the case of the popular black model Sonja Wanda, who was invited from England to participate in the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week several seasons ago.  She was shocked and disheartened to hear catty Lahori models, in an effort to belittle her, snicker that “Black is the new black” when the stunner was being favoured by designers for their segments of the shows. There was also the tale of a senior Pakistani model who, just minutes before show-time, stubbornly sat cross-armed on a head-stylist’s make-up chair with her hair and make-up completely done just to spite a visiting model from London whose hair and make-up had not even begun, in order to show whose turf the visiting model was stepping on. “London sai ayee hai tau apnay aap ko kiya samajhti hai?!” (“Who does she think she is just because she has come from London?!”) Later, the senior model, in cahoots with the choreographer and her cronies (including the popular make-up artist used at most Fashion Weeks), had the UK model kicked out of the Fashion Week.

Senior models are also notorious for bullying designers into bestowing them their best outfits and, in some cases when the designer does not comply, surreptitiously swapping outfits of their own accord which oftentimes causes problems in sequencing, much to the chagrin of the designer. Fledgling newbie models sometimes make a fuss about not wanting to wear sleeveless or mini-dresses and the designer is often left with no choice but to give a youthful outfit to a matronly-looking older model.

Make-up artists and, of course, designers are often peeved when models, again the more senior ones, do their own make-up, not merely touch-ups but oftentimes changing lipstick colours and eye shades because they feel the make-up does not suit them, thus altering the uniform “look” decided by the designer and make-up artist. Perhaps a ruse to stand out? Absolutely!

Models have also been known to be abusive to hair-stylists who are hurrying to change a model’s look for a new segment. On one occasion, a model even slapped a member of a styling team for tugging her hair too hard!

It’s not only female models who throw diva-like tantrums these days. One hirsute and long-haired male model, after winning a couple of awards, suddenly saw himself as “a brand” unto himself, thus inciting the chagrin of a leading photographer/hair and make-up artist/model scout/Svengali who went on a Facebook crusade against the clueless model. During a menswear fashion show segment, the model was assigned to the aforementioned stylist, but made endless excuses and ended up having his grooming completed from a rival make-up artist’s team. If that wasn’t bad enough, the model began bad-mouthing the veteran to the rival make-up artist’s minions, which was overheard by fashion hangers-on who, to earn brownie points, tattle-taled directly to the senior men’s stylist. Harsh words, abuse and accusations were hurled and the ensuing brooding look of the model on-ramp had little to do with the show.  Rather than opening the segment — a highly coveted honour (known as the ‘First Face’ in fashion lingo) — as had been planned originally, he was moved to somewhere in the middle.

Insiya Syed, a photographer for Reuters who has shot backstage images for the news agency at various Fashion Week venues, says: “One thing is for sure: backstage is where you really find all the fashion. It’s where all the gossip happens, where the chaos begins and ends, and is the source of all the mad rushing and pushing around.”

And that’s the irrefutable truth…

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2014 issue.