If you thought fashion week made New York chaotic, Paris is that much crazier for couture. All the ‘couture’ models (the particularly giant, emaciated ones) are in town, running around to castings like urban giraffes; museums are suddenly not for tourists, but for shows; and American celebs visit this rainy city, striking poses themselves outside the shows. I don’t get booked for shows for two reasons: one, I’m not that gangly-alien kind of tall, and two – more importantly – no matter how hard I try, I cannot learn how to walk the runway.
Measurements are only so important — many of the couture dresses hide any form or silhouette. But the walk, oh that elusive thing, is crucial. And no matter how hard I try to learn, or how many people try to teach me, I can never do it. I get horrible stage-fright. My feet get clammy and my arms look stiff and my face looks flushed and nervous.
But, as my booker told me on Thursday, when Armani requests you for a show casting, you have to go.
“Fine, but can you at least help me with my walk?”
So three bookers, all men, began teaching me, yet again, how to walk. But first, they needed to assess where I needed help, so down my agency’s hallway I went. At first, I walked like a drunk driver undergoing a field sobriety test. I wobbled down, paused, and as I wobbled back towards my bookers I saw a look of serious complexity on their faces, like, ‘What are we going to do with this one?’ So we started from scratch. They even made a line down the hallway with duct tape so that I’d stop veering off course.
From what I gathered, it’s supposed to go something like this: lean all the weight of your lower body forward, on your tiptoes, while leaning back with your upper body to balance yourself out. Put one foot directly in front of the other in a straight line. Keep shoulders back, but arms loose. Make a sexy, angry face, and don’t look like you’re thinking — at all.
It took a lot of practice, but two hours later, I felt more confident about my walk than ever. I went to the Armani casting early Friday morning. When I arrived, there were about thirty girls in front of me, all extremely tall and thin, with more models pouring into the offices every minute. But my confidence wasn’t broken. We gave our names and our cards to a man in charge and he crossed us off of a list — a list that ran about 8 pages long.
The casting was quick. Change into a pair of shoes they give you (surprisingly not that high), walk in front of the casting director, pose for a photo, leave. When my turn came, I was surprisingly not at all nervous. In fact, I was pleased to find out that there was, by the accident of two pieces of paper running the length of the floor, a line that ran down the makeshift runway. The shoes weren’t too high, and on the way back, I could see my reflection in the glass wall, which helped me adjust my walk as I went.
I wasn’t great, and I knew I wasn’t going to get booked, but I was happy that I wasn’t horrible. When I went back to the agency that evening, exhausted from my whole week and looking forward to the weekend, I said to my bookers proudly, “I didn’t suck!”
They weren’t too enthusiastic. “That’s great Dana. By the way, you have a casting tomorrow morning at 9 am.” “I’m not going,” I said jokingly, even though I was being very serious.
“It’s with Pat McGrath.”
“I’ll be there at 8:30!”
There are makeup artists, and then there is Pat McGrath. Pardon the cliché, but she’s like the Michelangelo of makeup. So even though I was so exhausted that I had planned not to move all weekend, I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to meet her, and maybe even work with her.
The casting was for a makeup trial for the Dior show, at the Dior offices. I did, in fact, arrive 20 minutes early, and was the first one there. But soon after girls started arriving. By 9 am, the lobby had about 10 girls. Then more. And more. By 9:30 (the casting was running late), about 50 girls had shown up. And this was only for a makeup trial!
We were taken in ten at a time. Pat was nowhere around, but three women (who turned out to be her assistants) were there, and they took our cards, two Polaroids of each girl, looked at our books, and asked us to have a seat until the Polaroids developed and Pat arrived. While waiting, I stealthily took some snapshots of all the models lounging about. Eventually they called out about 8 girls, myself included, and asked us to stand by the side. A few minutes later, Pat came in to choose 5 girls from the 8; three for makeup with her, and two for hair, with Orlando Pita. When I confirmed, I felt like I had won a lottery. A roomful of girls, and somehow I got chosen? I felt so lucky.
The other 40-something girls left and the team began to get organized. It was decided that I, along with another model, Alice, were to work with Orlando, which I was happy about because it meant avoiding having to endure heavy show makeup. So, while waiting for Orlando to arrive, I watched Pat work. She’s like a master architect, developing innovative ideas while overseeing the entirety of her masterpiece. It’s so impressive. She had three assistants who did the actual makeup, which allowed her to keep an objective, critical detachment towards the way the style and color scheme evolved, as well giving her the freedom to stay on top of every little organizational and artistic detail. There was also something matriarchal in the way she worked, because she genuinely cared about the well-being of everyone working under her. She took responsibility for them. At one point, while discussing the general chaos and stress of her team during shows, she even used the phrase “the welfare of my people.” I rarely come across such care in the industry, but it is very important, and certainly adds a personable element to her artistic approach.
The theme for the hair and makeup was based on the work of René Gruau, the renowned 1950’s fashion illustrator who began working with Christian Dior in 1947. Everything was to be illustrative: hard black lines varying in thickness, and bright, painterly color strokes. For reference, Pat had a Gruau book with several pages bookmarked, as well as Gruau illustrations printed out, and on top of that, about ten travel bookcases: including portfolios filled with polaroids of her work for past Dior and Galliano shows, and over a dozen other inspiration books (ranging in topics from Avedon to Marlene Deitrich to Luis Bunuel).
Orlando arrived and began to work on my hair, which he fashioned in paint-stroke-like curves over my head, never mind the actual poster paint he later put in my hair. As they worked, Pat and Orlando shared amazing stories about their chaotic jobs (including one Naomi Campbell gem from Pat). They also kept talking about showing the completed hair and makeup to ‘John.’ If this meant what I thought it meant, I wanted to brace myself. “Orlando, just to make sure, when you say John, you mean…”
“That’s what I thought. Just want to get my excitement out now so that I can be professional when we go see him.”
“Yeah good idea, because you never know, you just might impress him…”
When it was time to go down to see Galliano, I put on my heels, because, well, if you’re a model about to meet John Galliano for the first time, why wouldn’t you? Orlando, Alice, and myself went downstairs into his big studio office and there he was, smoking a cigarette, quite calm for someone in between presenting his various collections. Orlando showed the hairstyles, and when he finished, Galliano wanted to see if/how the hair moved when we walked. Oh no! Practicing at my agency was one thing, and even the Armani casting wasn’t so scary. But walking exclusively for Galliano, in a room with only 4 other people? How the hell did this happen? I let the other girl go first. She clearly knew what she was doing, despite only joining my agency last week. Then it was my turn. I could feel my face get hot and my feet get clammy. I forgot everything I had learned. I tried my best, but he was not impressed. At all. He did give me a friendly, sympathetic smile.
So that was my rendez-vous with the Greats – three of the most creative and successful people at the center of this industry, of which I barely touch the surface. They were all friendly, despite their fame and despite the stress of the work. We worked together again on Sunday, which was similar, but increasingly hectic as the hours dwindled away. All the Dior “petites mains” were there, doing fittings on the real runway models. By 9pm, when Pat and Orlando finished and I was free to go, only a third of the models had shown up for their fittings, and some of the dresses weren’t even there yet. It was clear that they were going to be working all night.
I’m still happy that I’m not doing the shows. I don’t think I’d be able to handle the stress, or my own nerves. But being close to it all, even if I was just on the periphery, was really exciting. I felt part of something not only big, but grand.