One fashion insider and one fashion gatecrasher share the stuff the mags don't tell you.
Welcome to planet fashion, darling. It's fun, it's glamorous, but best leave your carbs and your principles at the door. I'll show you round. This is backstage, the dirty, noisy and sweaty coalface of the industry. This is what it's all about. The component parts of a catwalk show.
Part One: Model Casting.
The first time I attended a model casting I nearly cried. Incredible-looking teenage girls stood in their knickers while a group of well-groomed, well-dressed, well-older, well-scary fashionistas passed judgement. Loudly. "Fat hips". "Weird nose". "Odd knees." Like a nightmarish scene from a teen film where the mean girls humiliate the plucky and strikingly attractive star. The models didn't even flinch. This was just part of their job. If they did internalise the list of imperceptible flaws, they showed no outward sign of it. They shrugged, put their clothes back on and went to the next casting.
It was a slap in the face for me. I felt like my own principles had been stripped bare and laid open for scrutiny. I'd long ago resolved any issue I had with being a feminist and enjoying fashion. If anyone tells me I shouldn't be overly interested in clothes, I highlight that by giving me a prescribed view of how to dress they're not too different to those who tell women to cover up or they're asking to be raped. We don't constantly analyse what men wear. Their political beliefs are not called into question because they don branded suits or too much hair gel. My body belongs to me. I make the rules. I choose how to decorate it. I can want social, political and economic equality for women and still have an interest in accessories. What the model casting highlighted was the difficulty in being a feminist and working in the fashion industry. It doesn't get easier.
Part Two: Nakedness.
As soon as you walk backstage you're confronted with bodies. Boobs, butt cheeks, tiny "nude" thongs made from postage stamps and dental floss, not much pubic hair. Like a Spencer Tunick art installation, there are waves of flesh. There are no changing rooms. No time for hiding behind towels. No time for being body conscious. If you're a model you simply strip off and pull the next outfit on. Your body is your business, your goods. You are wrenched, prodded and touched by many hands. Backstage is not a closed set, models will be naked next to everyone: stylists, designers, bloggers, magazine editors, TV camera crew, men, women, people who've wandered in off the street. It doesn't matter, because models are meat. A commodity. The ruthless nakedness of backstage is the natural conclusion of an industry where the wares are human bodies. Remind you of anything else, the oldest profession, perhaps? Help! I'm a feminist...get me out of here!
Part Three: Fat.
There is none. Anywhere. Not on the models, the glam squad, the magazine editors, the black-clad PRs with their headsets. According to the British Fashion Council the fashion industry "provides opportunities to minority groups to a greater extent than most other creative industries". Queer? Immigrant? Woman? Come on in, all are welcome in fashion, as long as you look the part.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule. You do get soft padding. You do see people who are, gasp, a size twelve or above. But you can't help but feel the thinness when you arrive at a show. You see it as you draw close to Somerset House. The crowd literally shrinks. Everybody is that bit smaller, that bit bonier, than they are outside the industry. To paraphrase Orwell, all fashionistas are thin, but some fashionistas are thinner than others.
Part Four: Women.
Women are everywhere at London Fashion Week. Go to a men's show and the audience and backstage is still heavily female. Women run, staff, market, advertise, write about and buy from the fashion industry. There are an abundance of strong, successful female role models. Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of US Vogue is ranked number 51 on the Forbes' Most Powerful Women list. Designer Diane Von Furstenberg is higher at number 33. The UK fashion industry contributes £21 billion to the UK economy. It supports 86,000 jobs. The fashion industry is not inconsequential fluff, and women govern it. Go girls! We run the world! Women rule! Hang on a minute...
We're talking about the same female dominated industry that is accused of creating body image issues among women? The same female dominated industry that sends impossibly thin models down the catwalk? The same female dominated industry that insists, on a conscious or subconscious level, that those who have an interest in fashion maintain a certain dress size? The same female dominated industry that allows young girls to be stripped, prodded, and judged? We are doing this to ourselves. The fashion industry is a giant collective self-harming club for women. This no longer sounds like fun.
Part Five: Smoke and Mirrors.
It's not until you work in fashion that you realise how much of it's fake. I'm not talking about the egos or the knock off handbags; I'm talking about the vision. What fashion presents to the world.
Models are, for want of a nicer phrase, genetic freaks. They're unusually tall, unusually thin, unusually photogenic freaks. They are giant childwomen who happen to make clothes look great. Backstage, make up artists and hairdressers often work two or more at a time on one model. I'm much older and much more worn, yet professional make up makes me look amazing. Imagine what it could do for someone who already looks like Claudia Schiffer?
Then there is the staging. Catwalk lighting is planned weeks in advance. It not only showcases the detail and exquisite craftsmanship of the clothes it highlights the models. A runway show is a performance. Theatre. An illusion. How utterly wonderful everyone and everything looks, it makes you want to rush out and buy the collection immediately. Clever.
The whole picture:
No matter which way I look at the questionable aspects of the fashion industry, they always seem to be driven by money. The sale of luxury goods relies on them being aspirational. See a coat in a magazine on a normal ladybro, and you can buy the coat and be satisfied you look as good as the normal ladybro. See a coat in a magazine on an incredibly beautiful childwoman, move the goalposts a bit; add in professional hair and make up, a tiny waist, and most importantly, retouch, and you create an impossible fantasy. Your coat will never look as good as it does on the beautiful childwoman.
The beautiful childwomen are everywhere; magazines, billboards, adverts, the TV, films. It is the Beauty Myth Naomi Woolf wrote about years ago, before she disappeared up her own vagina. The Beauty Myth states society has created an unattainable normative value of beauty to which women are expected to conform. Women then strive for and punish themselves for never being the beautiful childwomen. As we strive we buy; the coat, bags, shoes, make up, shampoo, plastic surgery, anything and everything that may one day make us look like the beautiful childwoman. But the beautiful childwomen doesn't exist.
We're no longer talking about the minutia of catwalk shows, or appreciating the cut of a garment, or enjoying a celebrated art form, we're talking about greedy, manipulative commerce. That's not fashion, that's a giant con trick.
Disclaimer: I don’t actually work in fashion. In fact, I tend to loathe the entire industry. I’ve just been lucky enough to find a loophole in the system, meaning that for two weeks a year I get to drink gallons of champagne for free and half creepily hit on potentially underage male models. It’s also taught me a few things about the oh-so-wonderful world of high fashun, which I will now happily share with you plebs (hur, hur):
Part One: The Booze
There’s just so much of it – and by ‘so much’ I don’t simply mean ‘a lot’ – I’m talking about quantities that no one should ever have to face. It all starts at 9am on the first day with the opening champagne reception, and only stops when…well, who knows? I normally wake up in* (*next to) my bed eight days later, buried under about a ton of badly designed business cards and nursing an apocalyptic headache. And I’m barely exaggerating: thanks to the weird hierarchy of what’s hot and what’s not, most designers and PR companies feel like they have to turn any catwalk/salon show/presentation into a massive bubble fest. An embassy that shall remain nameless even greeted all the journalists attending their showcase with a bottle of wine to take home, on top of all the cocktails provided on the night.
Part Two: The People
(also known as: the other reason behind the booze)
Growing up, I’d always felt a bit bad about how practically everyone would relentlessly make fun of the fashion industry. Sure, some of the journalists seemed quite overenthusiastically daft, but it was unfair to make sweeping generalisations. Turns out I was wrong: apart from the occasional bright designer and hack-who-got-there-by-mistake, the fashion world seems to be entirely comprised of pretentious idiots. In my few seasons of investigation, I managed to stumble upon a model trying a diet to lose weight from his nose, a blogger stating unironically that Jesus was the new black, a (British) photographer who’d ‘heard of Tony Blair but [wasn’t] quite sure who he was’…I could go on. However, the real, ugly truth is that some of these people probably aren’t half as thick as they seem: out of Somerset House, they could even be very decent human beings. They just happen to work in an industry where being a pathetically empty headed tosser is the social norm.
Seeing as this is a piece about Fashion Week written for a feminist website, you probably have a vague idea of where I’m about to take this – and I won’t disappoint. Whilst there have been an awful lot of fairly popular and sometimes successful campaigns to get ‘normal’ women on the pages of magazines, the often scary skinniness of catwalk models has gone fairly unnoticed. Now, don’t get me wrong – I know that some girls do happen to genuinely be very tall and very thin by nature, but they are a minority compared to the legions of frail and blatantly underfed teenagers I’ve seen on so many shows. The real problem though is that they are only the tip of the iceberg: far from being the only victims of the body fascism of a handful of ruthless fashion editors, they just happen to be the ones we see the most. As someone who’s been to countless brunches, lunches and dinners, I can assure you that the Great War On Carbs is all but a cliché. Anyone who’s even remotely important in this microcosm would rather be caught dead than be seen eating more than a few mouthfuls per ‘meal’. The toilets of Somerset House are perhaps the most sinister example: they almost always smell of vomit.
If, like me, you ever decide to go on an observational field trip at Fashion Week, chances are that you’ll get very annoyed very quickly at most things you see. Giving up would be too simple, since it does take quite a lot of effort to become an infiltrator, so you might as well just entertain yourself. An ongoing study, conducted by me and whomever I can bring along, has shown that the most fun is to be had in trying to get blacklisted from as many places as possible. So far, the successful experiments we’ve conducted have been: ‘trying to eat all the canapés on one tray before anyone else gets any’, ‘steal two bottle of liqueur from behind the bar and drink them obnoxiously whilst jumping on a couch’, ‘creepily follow Vivienne Westwood around without actually saying anything’, and ‘asking Philip Green why he doesn’t pay his taxes at one of the Topshop shows’. And finally, the most effective tactic: ‘get intensely bored at a cocktail reception, drink copious amounts of champagne, decide to engage in a canapé fight with the +1, realise that a half eaten slice of ham has ended up on someone's Alexander McQueen coat, pretend it wasn’t you, and swiftly leave the place as the +1 tells you, between two fits of laughter, that your hat is covered in cheese’. In other words: don't take it too seriously. It's just fashion.
(note: as much as I would like to put my real name at the bottom of this piece, I think that doing so would probably result in being stilettoed to death by Anna Wintour sooner rather than later, and I’m not sure I’d be ready to die for feminism quite yet)