Glitz And Glam Of Runway Shows: A Peak Behind The Curtains9 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
What really goes behind the fashion weeks‘ curtains? What are the various elements that makes this global phenomenon the show that it is? What does it take to turn the rough sketches of a designer into a 10-minute stunning production that could cost $300,000? And, who are the people who get things done and make the runway show of every designer look flawless?
The Runway Theme
Besides the design process of a new collection, the first and the most exhaustive part of a runway show is working on a theme and getting a team together for it. It is intertwined with a designer’s collection so the work behind selecting the theme and drawing a sketch of the set starts as early as six months before the event.
It is understandable to assume that only big productions of designers like Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs and Fenty require the work to start six months prior to the event. But that is far from being true. A young designer Shanel Campbell who debuted her first collection at the New York Fashion Week last year advised, “I would say get your team together before you focus on the clothing. I did it the other way around. I started the team building a month before the show but it should be at least five or four months just so you have peace of mind. Or no less than three.”
In recent times, most designers use the theme as a tool to make a bold statement through their clothes and the other elements of a fashion show. This helps to determine a brand’s narrative and the message that a designer wants to convey to its viewers, be it the A-listers sitting in the front row or the consumers scrolling through Instagram.
Take, for instance, Zendaya and Tommy Hilfiger’s latest collaboration, which was presented at the 2019 NYFW.
The runway looked like a block party that brought alive the 70s fashion with live music and retro cars. But the underlying theme was an ode to the African-American community, women empowerment, inclusive fashion, and diversity.
On the other hand, Prabal Gurung decided to make a political statement with his ‘Who Gets To Be American’ runway show.
But runway themes are not always about heavy statements. It can be a simple nugget of inspiration, which is neatly pulled out from the archives stored in a designer’s brain. It is then layered with a healthy dose of entertainment, extravagance and glamour. A great example of this is Hilfiger’s 2016 Spring show where he created a mini tropical island. Hilfiger’s set designer Randall Peacock explained how the inspiration for the Spring runway show came from a bar.
“…that all started with Tommy having this reference of this particular bar that he had been going to for ages, probably 20 years. And he really, really loved Basil’s Bar in the Caribbean where he has a house and wanted to reproduce that easiness, that feeling… I think Tommy had a lot of nice associations with it and felt like it tied in well with the collection. So, we start with something like that and then we start to refine it, like what’s actually doable,” shared Peacock while talking about how fashion week prep looks like at the initial stages.
Producing The Runway
After locking down the theme and designs, the team starts working towards turning the sketches into reality. This usually starts approximately three months before the show.
At this stage, the set designer, the venue manager, and the production manager along with the sound and light team assess which part of the idea would help to create a transportive experience in the most feasible manner.
Event Director, Dario Calmese asserts, “What I don’t think people realize [about fashion shows] is how many decisions one has to make—from the casting to the lighting to the music, even down to the color of the benches you’re sitting on is intentional. My job is to ensure that entire experience is cohesive, brand-aligned, and supports what you see on the runway.”
Here the collaborative effort of each department gets tested. The hair stylists and make-up artists accompany the designers to try different looks before jotting down ‘how-to’ reference guides of the final looks. No one can escape the last minute frenzy of fixing the hair accessories or changing the colour of eye makeup. But skimping on the prep work is a strict no-no. In the words of a lead makeup artist for Maybelline New York, Grace Lee, prepping for NYFW is “like preparing for the Olympics”.
While the beauty department works on the looks, the music and lights departments work on the mood. The right mix of songs and sounds help to bind the entire collection together and set the mood for the viewers.
According to DJ and music producer Michel Gaubert, the work on runway soundtrack starts two months before the show and in some cases, a few days before the show. He stated how a designer’s ideas and the look of the venue play an important role in selecting the piece of music that would help to set the mood. For instance, for Chanel’s show at an art gallery, Gaubert used Picasso Baby and mixed it with 70s avant-garde music.
The same set of rules applies to staging and lighting. Depending on the budget and the theme, the correct lighting can transform a runway show into a rock concert, a boat party or a live theatrical performance.
However, with a growing emphasis on sustainable fashion and green runway, the production teams have now started embracing greener options when it comes to staging and lighting.
As someone who has produced shows for Tom Ford, Chanel and Prada, Keith Baptista talked about how brands are trying to reduce the carbon footprint of a fashion show. He asserted, “We use green generators at events, and for lighting, we’ve gone heavily into LED, which is low-energy but still high-impact. And a lot of brands like Chanel, Gucci, and H&M have made corporate decisions to be more conscious, which helps us be more effective…. It’s been a dramatic difference over the past two or three years, where brands are stepping up and engaging in that way.”
Backstage With Models
The light, music, make-up, hair and dress rehearsals are incomplete without the right set of models. A designer spends a sizeable portion of his/her budget on models. As per Vogue Business’ estimates, the cost of hiring models ranges from $40,000 to $60,000.
The casting calls and auditions start months before the shows begin just like the production work. But the busiest time for fashion week models starts from the very first day. They are also the ones that have to stay steady and calm in the midst of backstage chaos because they are the face of the collection. For a model, an 18-hour work day during the fashion weeks is not unheard of.
“My call time to arrive at the location of the show is usually 2 hours before the parade begins. During fashion week I have more than one show in a day, sometimes 3 or 4, so this means running around to multiple locations with hair and makeup done differently for every show! Only 2 hours time for hair and makeup means that everyone is working against the clock. There is a lot of pushing and prodding and hair pulling,” a model wrote while documenting her fashion week experience.
To capture the fluidity of a catwalk, behind the scenes chaos and all the action on the streets and the red carpet, fashion week photographers relentlessly interact with the models, designers, and the audience through their lenses without directly interacting with anyone.
Celebrated fashion week photographer Andrew Walker puts it succinctly by saying, “It’s not glamorous at all; it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of waiting around. A lot depends on what I’m shooting: backstage, front row celebrities, sponsorships or after parties. Each type of coverage requires a different mindset and different equipment, and each scenario creates different perks and challenges.”
According to Walker, backstage photography is creative but shooting front row celebrities is a bit chaotic.
Another freelance photographer, Alyssa Greenberg shared the lessons she learned while working at NYFW, which includes getting as many pictures of Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour as possible and that photographers should create moments if they can’t find them.
Manicuring The Front Row
At the opposite end of photographers, we have public relations managers who have to directly interact with the front row celebrities, designers and the members of the press.
From inviting the who’s who sitting in the front row to managing the A-listers walking hand-in-hand with the designers on the ramp, from looking at the feed of the social media influencers snapchatting snippets of the show to exchanging stories with editors backstage, the PR team has to stay on its toes until the last story is published, printed and streamed.
“While everyone sees the finished product once the models walk down the runway, there are many long hours and countless intricacies behind the scenes that not everyone is aware of. The work that my team does for Fashion Week takes a lot of flexibility and even more organization to make it all work,” stated Lindsey Adams, a PR manager.
The job of the PR team during the fashion week goes beyond facilitating interviews, communicating with editors & bloggers and proofreading RSVP lists. Their backstage duties can also include checking supplies required for the events, cleaning brushes, and helping models.
But the backstage excitement doesn’t end here. After the runway shows and presentations wrap up, the night comes alive with after-parties with complete catering. These parties are a separate event on their own where the guest list becomes even more exclusive than the front row and celebrities turn into models for an unofficial fashion week.
In the old traditional fashion world, the retail business of fashion week didn’t kick-start immediately after the show, nor did the collection reviews reach the pages of magazines and newspapers the very next day. But in this digital world of ‘See Now, Buy Now’ and Instagram, fashion week reviews get uploaded within a few hours of it going live and customers can buy the clothes featured on the runway as the last model walks away. Technology has definitely changed the view of the behind the scenes look of fashion weeks across the world. But the juxtaposition of glamour and chaos hasn’t changed.