The scene backstage is hectic, hot, anticipatory, and a mess. Male models' clothing racks are intermingled with the female ones, everyone is undressing right here, bare feet on industrial gray carpet. Music, or rather the beat of the music, thumps through a heavy black curtain that separates us from lights and action. Some girls wear nude-colored G-strings, which to me is more shocking than being naked: Those lacy bits cutting into buttocks look painful and somehow indecent, like exposed tampon strings. I can feel the male models' eyes on us, although to be fair, more than half of them are too busy watching each other or themselves.
The makeup artists and their assistants run through us with last minute touch-ups: Powder is brushed across shiny noses, lips are dabbed with color, hair is given a last Elnett spritz, the spray coating our cheeks and entering our mouths, noses, and eyes instead of settling on our actual hair.
Hearts beat faster, feet are shoved into shoes too small, too big, the dress won't zip up, a broken pin has jabbed tender flesh and drawn blood, but there is no time, a breast has escaped a tank top, one tugs at the unfamiliar clothes, everybody line up now! The music gets louder, the beat pumps our blood. There goes the first one, the brave one, the chosen one, and there we follow like lemmings. The lights blind. Walk. Smile. Turn. The next one wont be so scary.
The show is Enrico Coveri. You've never heard of the designer? The line folded sometime in the mid-1980s; I sincerely hope I played no role in its disappearance. It was my first show. I was 17 years old. My walk consisted of blindly navigating the runway, the bright lights, the models that were so much more sophisticated and worldly than I, and all without my coke bottom-size glasses. The mere fact that I didn't fall off the runway into someone's lap was, in my book, a triumph.
In 1982, the shows were conducted mostly in the showrooms of the designers and were walked by special show models. Many were ethnic, some were a tad too short, some had powerful noses, but the thing they all had in common was the walk.
Perhaps walking isn't even the right word. They floated, shimmied, twirled down the catwalk as if they had liquid bones. Even the ugliest outfit took on some glamour if worn by one of them. I had a serious disadvantage: besides being hopelessly clumsy and half blind without my glasses, I also--gasp!--didn't like clothes. Matching shoes and bags and scarves and crap seemed like a waste of time to me. I'd rather be reading. (Yes, I know I was in the wrong biz, believe me--had they paid me the same amount for cataloging books, you'd never have to hear me whine.)
Only a very few models did both print and runway, most famously Iman and Jerry Hall. The audience consisted of store buyers, stylists, and agents: Not a famous face in sight. Why designers decided to start using us print girls to shuffle down their runways must be a testament to the power of the supermodels; it certainly wasn't Claudia's Germanic clomp, my own graceless grinning, or the rather unremarkable meandering of my peers.
Flash-forward to Donna Karan, mid-1980s. I am now well-known and one of the more important girls in the show. Donna's clothing is magnificent: all black body stockings, body-hugging wraps and skirts, complemented by chunky gold jewelry. Linda is in the bathroom scrubbing her makeup off because she thinks she can do her own better. Naomi, tall and gangly, is so fawning and friendly I feel I ought to know who she is. Were we best friends and it just slipped my mind? Cindy and her best friend Gail are giggling in a corner with half of their makeup on, and I try to pretend I don't mind being alone and aloof. Christian curls and side-sweeps my waist-long hair à la Veronica Lake. When we are all in line for the stage, the obligatory glances and sighs begin: "Oh, you got such a great outfit! You got four outfits? I only got two!" With the exception of these verbal little jabs, the competition between the girls--despite wishful reports to the contrary--is minimal. Donna's showroom is too small for a stage; we are booked for the whole day and will show in three shows distributed throughout the day. We walk through three white rooms bright with daylight, smiling at familiar faces in the metal folding chairs.
The Oscar de la Renta show has a much different feel; there is a lit stage and the audience is invisible to us. Applause, when it comes, can't be helped but to be taken personally. I grin like an idiot every time I hear it, although I understand the applause is for my clothes and not for me. Still, when I don't get it, I try a little harder, as if that will make my clothes better. The whole job is over within two hours and we move on to the next designer.
During the nineties, just in time for my semi-retirement from modeling, the shows become spectacles. Celebrities sit on the sidelines, dressed to the nines. Being seen at the right show, being interviewed at the right show becomes all the rage. Every model backstage has a film crew following her and documenting the fun. I hear there is champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. I am fat and breastfeeding my son. Oh, well.
Despite my former glory, this season, when asked to blog about the shows--and hence deciding I must watch some--I can't get myself invited to anything. Someone offers me a ticket for the Ralph Lauren show. The hitch? It's in someone else's name, and so I have to go and pretend I am that person. How's that for a fall from grace? No need to feel sorry for me; the last time I watched the shows I was reporting for the new Style TV network (10 years ago?) and found the experience profoundly dull. The models clomping down the runway looked bored, if not downright depressed. They all sported dark eyes, pale unsmiling faces, and long matted locks as if they were taking a constitutional walk in an asylum yard. In fact, the models looked so miserable it made me actually focus on the clothing. After the decade of supermodels loving themselves down the runways, the focus was back on clothing, where it belonged.
This year, I get my fashion update from The Wendy Williams Show. Cutouts, ruffles, wrist cuffs, and neutrals are in. I pick up my current great book, The Last One In, and debate whether I should purchase that bright yellow cardigan I saw on sale.
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