Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Tales from a first timer at London Fashion Week

Walking into Somerset House at the start of my first ever fashion week, I could suddenly understand just how The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen feels on entering the Capitol. 

This similarly plutocratic world is one where style reigns supreme. In a different context, one curiously or particularly fashionable person merely stands out from the crowd, but throw hundreds of such people together in front of a whitewashed background, and the result is jarring. You could be forgiven, in fact, for thinking you had actually stepped off the Strand and into a fictional Utopia - one where everyone wears Mac lipstick and Adidas trainers (until next season, anyway). 

A twist of fate and a well-connected friend meant that for one week only, I was working as the assistant to one of the biggest fashion journalists in the world. Of course I joked that my Devil Wears Prada moment had arrived - but I hadn't realised quite how near the mark the film that famously lampoons the fashion industry had been. Before I get myself into too much trouble, I should point out that my boss for the week wasn't quite Meryl's Miranda Priestley. But it turns out that in many ways, the world that Anne Hathaway and co. send up is every bit as sycophantic and ludicrous as Hollywood would have you believe.

Normally, my experience of fashion week extends no further than how it does for most of us - with the blurry photos that tend to swarm social media feeds at seasonal intervals. But last week, travelling around with the editor, this was my Instagram feed writ large. I was given what for even the majority of attendees is an unparalleled level of access - backstage, front row, VIP press areas, drinks receptions - and all, of course darling, via a chauffeured Mercedes.

The Mercedes turned out be perhaps the most integral element of the fashion week experience, since rather than sticking to one convenient space, designer houses put on shows across the capital - everywhere from the Serpentine to the Tate Modern - and for fashionistas, the tube just won't do. Before a show, the roads surrounding each venue become gridlocked with a sea of BMWs and Bentleys, all chauffeur-driven and at the beck and call of top fashion journalists, bloggers and tabloid favourites. Were the world's fashion weeks to end, the Ozone layer would be breathing a sigh of relief.

Being late isn't too much of a problem, though, because the fashion industry takes the whole 'fashionably late' thing very seriously. Not one show I went to started on time - although we still somehow ended up with zero time to eat lunch or take a toilet break. In fact, by the end of the week, my notoriously weak bladder being unable to withstand much more abuse, I took to avoiding liquids full stop.

Occasionally, the editor would request to go backstage, and fawning PRs would lead her behind the scenes to where there's a heady scent of Elnett and sweet and salty Propercorn. Here, models stand around in their underwear while comparatively dwarfish makeup artists do last minute tweaks, and people wearing headsets bark orders at whoever's listening. On one occasion, a model had gone missing at the last minute, and a loud search had been taken up in the echoing corridors of the V&A. "Probably off sticking things up her nose", the editor observed wryly.

Outside, the fashion elite gather in hierarchic order - the front row, or 'frow' for those in the know, is where the top glossy editors are seated, alongside the darlings of British fashion - all your Alexa Chungs and Cara Delevingnes. Photoshop is supposed to have given us a skewed idea of celebrities' real life appearance, but seen in the flesh, the likes of Kendall Jenner and Daisy Lowe are arresting; their skin glows luminously - I suppose in the way you'd expect for someone with a facialist on speed dial - their makeup is immaculate, their bodies statuesque, and their presence generally intimidating. Only momentarily, though, because they'll soon be lost from view in the swarm of photographers and selfie hopefuls.

I was surprised, too, by just how fleeting these fashion shows are. The longest by far at around 60 separate looks is the Burberry show - a media circus that takes place at Kensington, this year attended by Kate Moss and man of the moment Sam Smith, soundtracked by a live band which the editor had erm...few kind words for.

Millions must be pumped into each individual show - but it's likely to be over in all of 15 minutes. In fact, the number of column inches fashion magazines manage to fill on a show is fairly astonishing once you see that most people merely watch the catwalk through the screen of their iPhone 6s, presumably on the hunt for a prime Instagram snap (which I've found you inexplicably become obsessed with). For most of the biggest editors, the purpose of turning up seems to be more a matter of being seen, than seeing anything for yourself.

And seen they will be - because photographers are everywhere. A mob of mainly Italian and almost exclusively male photographers will be assembled at the end of each runway. Occasionally tasked with obtaining an SD card with images of each look from a show, I found that these guys - though fairly intimidating en masse with their long lenses and loud voices - are all pretty affable. And funny too - while the fashionistas appear desensitised to the downright bizarre nature of fashion week, the photographers take pleasure in pointing it out. At the start of the Erdem show, where a lullaby was being played in a dimly lit recreation of a bedroom scene, loud snores came from the photographers' pit, and as the music continued to play on a loop, heavily accented cries to "Make it stop!".

Outside, the photos continue as 'street style' photographers fall over themselves to take pictures of the streams of eccentrically dressed women coming and going from shows. Falling quite literally, I should add, and not worrying too much about getting run over either. The effortless chic of those street-style Instagram snaps we see so often belies just how much effort goes into capturing them - I saw women leaping in the air to be snapped mid-stride, and a well-known fashion editor being quite literally chased down Regents Street. Had I been labouring under any illusion of being well-dressed before Fashion Week, my completely undocumented exits from the same venues would have quickly banished such a thought.

I didn't go into this week quite so cynical. Many people are befuddled by fashion - with the slavish acceptance and prompt disregard for trends and styles as the gods of fashion decree what's in and out appearing bizarre and nonsensical. But I've always been one to defend it. My earliest memory is one of looking down at my favourite pair of bright purple boots, and I've always felt that (not to get too Gok Wan about it) clothes have a truly transformative power.

And yet fully submerged in the fashion industry, I felt like Harry Potter under water without his gillyweed. Some of the clothes were beautiful, some of the people I met were lovely, but at the same time, lots of the collections felt merely as if they'd been done before, and I was yelled at for lost Internet connections and working from a laptop that was in Italian (for reasons I won't bore you with), with little sleep and nothing in the way of sustenance.

Hats off to to anyone who can hack it - but my fashion baptism of fire has left me cold.