After the last strut down the glittery runways, the industry’s eyes turn to buyers’ showrooms, where one lowly worker gets an eye-opening look at how the fashion world really works.
I lied to get the job. It was my only option. After spending three hours failing every test the temp agency gave me, I was running out of ideas for how to pay next month’s rent.
But just as my miserable interview came to an end, the agent complimented me on my skirt. I told her that it was my mother’s vintage Givenchy. I saw her eyes light up for a second before they settled back into the disappointed dullness I had come to accept from all the adults around me. Her stare told me that in spite of my designer skirt, “skill-less hack” was not a good look on me. And yet, something must have sparked her interest because she asked me if I had any previous experience as a “dresser.”
I had no clue what a “dresser” was, but a preternatural conman’s confidence came over me, and I took a shot in the dark. Without hesitation I said that I had worked as an assistant in the costume department of a prominent ballet company. She didn’t need to know that this “company” was my high school’s production of “Sleeping Beauty,” or that I had been so bad at bunching up the tights that the prima ballerina finally grabbed them and told me she could do it herself.
The agent turned to her screen and murmured that there was a couture fashion house looking for a wardrobe assistant. Again the hustler inside me spoke, and assured her I would be fabulous. She printed the address and handed me the paper. As I reached out, she pulled it back and said, “You are to be invisible. Don’t wear anything radical or say anything you think is funny. Black tights and black flats. Understand?” I looked her dead in the eye, nodded, and pried the piece of paper away from her ice-cold fingers. Come hell or high water I was going to the best wardrobe assistant that place had ever seen. Once I figured out what that meant exactly.
I had come to New York looking for my big break as an actress. Originally, my plan was to show up for a few open calls, recite a couple of lines of Shakespeare and voilà! I’d be acting circles around Al Pacino on the stage of the Public Theater. But things had not gone according to plan, and now I had to make it as a wardrobe assistant — otherwise all the money I had left was for a plane ticket home.
It’s not that I didn’t like fashion; in fact, I loved it. But I chafed at the idea of buying into anything trendy. Everything I owned was secondhand, and I took great pride in what I wore because it was always inspired by something other than a fashion magazine. Some days that meant a Jane Fonda thong leotard and my mom’s old riding britches, other days a see-through diamante-encrusted muumuu with a hot pink turban. I didn’t want to look attractive; I wanted to look interesting.
For this job, though, I felt I had better play it safe. Before I went to bed that night I laid out a pair of high-waisted authentic WWII sailor pants, a silk blouse given to me by my friend’s mother, who had been a New York socialite in the seventies, and a gold paisley bolero that my grandmother had made to serve as a full-length jacket when I was five. When I walked past the mirror the next morning, I winked at myself.
I was to show up at the offices of one of the world’s best-known womenswear designers. The designer shared the same name as his brand, and his mix of street style meets high fashion had already changed the haute couture landscape. The headquarters looked exactly as I had expected: a big gay spaceship. The foyer was painted white with gold overlay and managed to be both clinical and flamboyant. No, I take it back: This wasn’t a spaceship, this was more like Liberace’s psychoanalyst’s waiting room.
Manning the bridge was a gentleman wearing a headset and talking into a handheld phone. I inched my way forward, building up the courage to introduce myself. Before I could utter a word, however, he pushed me out of the way and I stepped backward into a woman who could have been walking on stilts. She was so tall that her hip bones were easily on a par with my shoulder blades. He grabbed her and whisked her over to his side of the desk. “You were incredible last night,” he screamed. She coyly looked down and I noticed she was wearing an American Apparel unitard with a floor-length mink coat. They air kissed twice, and then she vanished through the doors behind him. I stood there wondering what to do next.
“Can I help you?” he asked with a perfectly arched eyebrow and a tone developed from years of imitating mean girls. I handed over my piece of paper. He sighed deeply and flicked his hand into the back. I didn’t move. “What are you waiting for?” he demanded. “An invitation?”
I took a deep breath, pulled my shoulders back and walked through the gold-plated doors into the world of high fashion.
* * *
My new boss sat behind a desk that was as a large as a coffin. She was approaching fifty and had the requisite pearls to cement her authority. She fingered them as she gave me the same disappointed once-over my temp agent had. Two assistants fluttered around her: One was wearing a dress with shoulder pads straight out of an episode of “Friday Night Lights”; the other was Tinkerbell on acid in a florescent pink silk jumpsuit complete with wings. These outfits were more than just clothes; they were ensembles. For the first time I noticed that my treasured silk blouse had aged beyond its original ivory color to a kind of urine yellow. I moved forward to shake everyone’s hands and I almost tripped over the frayed edge of my pant leg. This was the difference between us: They were wearing Monets and my outfit was a kindergartner’s first attempt at coloring within the lines.
With lightning speed I was ushered down another hallway and dispensed in a room that held racks and racks of couture. Suddenly on my left, what I had assumed to be a bundle of towels started moving. The boss lady clapped her hands and said, “Alright, nap time is over. You’re on my clock now.” Then, with everything but a poof, she disappeared. The bundle of towels started to quake and slowly morphed into the shape of something living. I thought maybe it was a dog that someone had taken to work for emotional support, but the terry cloth animal had legs and a torso and arms and even a head. It was the most beautiful head I had ever seen. It turned to me with a smile that could have launched a thousand Colgate commercials, dropped its bathrobe armor and revealed an even more intimidating sight: the completely naked body of a fashion model. There were mere inches that separated us, but the difference in height was so extreme that her nipple could have taken out my eye. If this was the movie version of my life, she was Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was Danny DeVito.
“I’m ready,” she said.
“Ready for what?” I asked.
She looked at me like I had just slapped her. “For you to dress me,” she replied.
This is it, I thought, I’ve made it twenty-five minutes here and now they’re all going to know I’m a fraud.
God must have heard my panicked thoughts, however, because the heavens opened up and delivered me an angel. She came skipping in on two tiny Jimmy Choo-clad feet and introduced herself as Victoria. “Or you can just call me the intern,” she said. “That’s what everyone else does.” Her voice was so full of joy it sounded like tiny bubbles were being blown out of her mouth. “It must feel like this is all happening so fast!” she exclaimed. “But you know the magic of fashion.” I did not know, but nodded anyway. “Let me explain how it works,” she said.
This was showroom. Last night had been the runway show, and while the public thinks that’s the real event, the actual business happens during the fourteen days after fashion week. Behind this closet was yet another room that held the whole season’s worth of clothes. Each day clients from all the major department stores, like Saks and Neiman Marcus, would come in and be given a tour. If they wanted to see a look on a body, it would be my job to dress the model accordingly. I was like one of the maids out of “Downton Abbey”; all I had to do was hold the dress as the model stepped into it, and then zip up the back. Not bad for $15 an hour.
It wasn’t just department stores that would be visiting showroom, however; it could also be socialites or celebrities. Victoria put her hand up to her mouth and whispered that Uma Thurman might drop by. I bent down to Victoria, the only person in the whole operation who was shorter than me, and asked, “So this is like a store, and it’s your job to convince people to buy the clothes?” She nodded. “Ok,” I said, “I got this.” She put a hand on my arm, and smiled. “Of course you do.”
I turned my attention back to the naked glamazon, when out of nowhere the model from earlier that morning appeared. The first model backed away from me and covered herself with her robe. Victoria scrambled out of the room yelling something about not knowing that she was coming but that she would get the dress immediately. It turned out the woman I had bumped into was the face and body of the fashion house, and last night she had worn the eleven o’clock number that ended the show. It also turned out she was the only person who could fit into it. The dress had acres of stiff fabric and it entered the room with little Victoria bearing all its weight beneath it.
The supermodel dropped her mink coat to the floor and my jaw followed suit. I had to stop myself from gasping. I could count each of her ribs, and her hipbones projected out from her body like additional appendages. She looked transparent, like a plastic skeleton hanging on an iron rod in the back corner of a biology class. Victoria handed me the dress to put on the model. I reached into the skirt, using my hands to form a circle so she could step into the dress. I realized that my hands could fit entirely around her waist. I had to zip very carefully in order not to let the metal snag her skin. My fingers inched their way up her back and that’s when I saw it.
Her entire back was covered in light brown hair. It was downy and when it caught the light it shimmered. I wanted to touch it, to feel the soft fur beneath my fingertips, but I knew better. This was not simply “unsightly” body hair; this was what health teachers warn about when they describe the symptoms of severe eating disorders. When a body is dangerously underweight it grows a type of hair, called “lanugo,” out of a primal instinct to maintain warmth. This woman’s thinness was not a genetic blessing, nor was it because she just happened to have the metabolism of a ten-year-old on crack. She worked for this thinness, and her body was using everything it had left to fight against it. I stepped back from her, and quietly said she was ready to go. She walked into the showroom to the deafening sound of applause.
I thought I was going to throw up.
After that one dress she came back in, had me unzip her, threw the dress over the rack and left without saying a word. The first model told me this woman only wore one dress because she was too famous to do showroom. “Not like me,” the first model said. “All I do is showroom and I’ve done it for the past ten years. No one would hire me for print or runway shows. I’m too old.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
I spent the rest of day dressing this model as though she were a toddler who couldn’t do it herself. Surely she was used to it, but I felt humiliated enough for the both of us. Most of the time she was naked, and though all I wanted to do was stare, I have never tried to make more eye contact in my life.
Finally my day was almost over. All I had left to do was hang everything back up. Victoria handed me a folder that weighed as much as a newborn and explained that this was the map to the showroom. There were pictures of each section of each rack that described how each item should hang. It had to be done exactly as detailed in the folder or else there would be hell to pay. I found out later that there was an illustrator whose sole job was to draw these pictures. She spent weeks before the show sketching the entire season.
It took me two hours and later I was chastised for having put several hangers back the wrong way. As I walked out of the building I had no idea if I could bring myself to walk back in the following morning.
I went home to my shabby apartment in Brooklyn. It was an apartment that I had previously thought was bohemian, but now I saw only dust and clutter. I shuddered remembering that hiding underneath the Afghan blanket on my sofa was a red wine stain as big as my butt. I crawled onto my fire escape, where my roommates – a dog walker and a babysitter – were sharing a Marlboro and an eight-dollar bottle of wine. I put my head in my hands and started crying.
My roommate put a hand on my back and said, “Rent’s due in a week and you haven’t worked in a month. Also, they give you free food right?” I nodded a yes between hiccups. They served a full breakfast and lunch, and then in the afternoon another temp walked around with cappuccinos and cupcakes. I wiped away my tears and resolved that she was right. It wasn’t like I was being tortured; the job wasn’t even that hard. After I got over the chaos and catty behavior it really did come down to simply zipping and unzipping.
Before I went to bed that night, my roommate poked her head into my room. “I wouldn’t try so hard,” she said. “Seriously. Just go in there wearing black tights and flats.”
For the first time in my life I did as I was told.
I was expected to come in before anyone else to make sure the showroom was in top shape before the arrival of the clients. This seemed superfluous as I had only been there a mere nine hours before this, but I did it anyway, consoling myself with thoughts of the free chocolate croissants and lattes. I spent the morning folding sweaters, every so often glancing at the Ikea-esque manual to make sure I had gotten the arm bend just right. This wasn’t all that different than my past retail jobs. In fact, if everyone here changed outfits and drank less expensive water, it wouldn’t have been all that different from a used car lot.
One of the executives came over to my section. “What do you think?” she asked. “Would you ever wear this sweater?” I looked down at the garment. The whole collection was absurd: There were jumpers made completely out of ruffles and trousers that had the tops of hosiery attached to them that were supposed to be worn with cardigans tucked in. During the runway show they had painted the models’ faces white, like a perverse mix of porcelain doll and geisha. There was a dress that had a fringe of baubles and every time the model wore it she complained that the hemline smacked against her ankles. She showed me her bruises and each day they changed color, from aubergine to olive and then finally settling into egg-yolk. The sales team had been muttering about how “un-wearable” this season was and how they would probably lose a lot of money on it.
The sweater I had been folding cost $1,200. When I looked at it, all I saw was a list of things I could do with that much money: pay rent, get my sofa reupholstered, breathe easy this month. The last thing I would have purchased would have been that sweater. The executive took my hesitation to mean that I didn’t think it was wearable. “That’s it then, no one will buy this thing. We’ll have to raise the price.” She turned to her assistant, “It’s sixty-five from now on.”
I grabbed Victoria and asked if it was really possible that they changed the price from $1,200 to $6,500. She shrugged her shoulders and said that there is a specific type of customer who buys items based completely on the price. This customer doesn’t care what the item looks like; they simply want the most expensive piece.
I walked past the buffet that had been set up for breakfast – muffins, croissants, eggs, fruit – and the opulence of the spread disgusted me. I thought of the supermodel from earlier; she had worn her fur coat even when she was inside. “I’m cold!” she whined throughout the fitting. The wealth was so abundant in this place that people were volunteering to starve.
There was a tight feeling in my chest that I kept trying to ignore. What’s the big deal? I thought. You’re only here for a week. But I still couldn’t shake the inclination to walk back to my squalid apartment and crawl into bed with my like-minded roommates who thought Club Monaco was too fancy for their own style. I put my head between my knees and tried to breathe deeply. Then I felt a hand on my back. “Do you smoke?” the thirty-one-year old model asked.
“Sometimes,” I admitted.
“Come outside and have a cigarette with me.”
We sat on the SoHo steps and I bummed a Parliament from her. “This place is crazy, right?” she asked. I nodded suspiciously. What did she want? It was obvious I didn’t belong there.
“I thought it was crazy when I first got here too. I’m actually a PhD candidate in anthropology and I’ve often thought of writing about this environment.” She flicked her ash into the gutter. “But after being here so long I’ve just gotten used to it.”
I instantly felt guilty for all the assumptions I had made about her based on knowing nothing but her waist measurement.
“I’ve worked here since I was twenty,” she continued. “No one else would hire me when I came to New York and I already owed my agency so much money.” She motioned back up the stairs, “This place really saved me.” We both took another drag of our cigarettes and she let out a sad laugh before saying, “I know I’m nothing but a walking hanger, but the two weeks I do this means I can afford to go to school and even fly to Africa at the end of the month to do my thesis work.”
She turned to face me fully. “There’s so much ugliness in this business. Believe me: I worked through heroin chic, and that was not a trend, but a reality. Still, I have to be grateful because no one has been as kind and as supportive as this company.” I nodded again, this time not in suspicion but in solidarity.
We went upstairs and I zipped her into the last look of the day: the dreaded bauble dress. She turned to me and said, “I feel like I should strap pads around my ankles to protect them. Lord knows in this place everyone would think it was genius.” I laughed and sent her out to the floor. I stood behind the door to watch her in action as she sashayed into the room. She held everyone’s attention with her grace and poise. The boss lady’s face changed as she looked at the model. It lit up with a kind of maternal pride.
“This is Jill,” she said. “She’s on her way to becoming a very important anthropologist.”