Olivia responded to an Instagram post from her favorite designer label asking for help during New York Fashion Week. She was hired and spent a week running errands for stylists and fitting models into garments before they walked the runway. This is her story about what it was like behind the scenes at one of the world’s most important fashion weeks.
Have you ever had a dream come true, only to realize it’s not what you wanted after all?
Last year, I worked with my all-time favorite designer label. The whole thing happened completely out of the blue. I didn’t have a connection or an “in” with the fashion industry (believe me, I tried for years), but somehow I found myself in the thick of New York Fashion Week, working side-by-side with designers, stylists, and models.
It all began when I replied to a “Help Wanted at NYFW” post on the label’s Instagram — which to this day, I can’t believe worked. For years, I dreamed of living in Manhattan and working for a designer label or high-fashion magazine. My applications for jobs in the industry were repeatedly rejected and I had given up hope. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, I was given an opportunity. I was going to work at NYFW.
A week before the show, I packed up my most impressive outfits and took the bus into Manhattan. I was determined to make an impression upon the designer’s team. I needed to secure a job long-term. My friend told me, “This will be your big break.” This was my chance — maybe my only chance!
With the pressure of my lifelong dream weighing upon my shoulders, I arrived at the showroom eager to prove myself in the days leading up to the show. When the elevator doors slid open, I stepped out and found myself surrounded by voluminous gowns adorned with lace and embroidery. I was starstruck by the clothes themselves.
When I stepped in further, I was greeted by the team members who ran the show. A few minutes later, the elevator doors opened again and one of the lead designers and founders of the label stepped out. She floated by in a breeze of blonde hair and expensive perfume.
Before I could get out a word, I was thrown into a frenzy of dressing and undressing models who arrived every 15 minutes for their fittings. Their beauty was otherworldly and unlike women I had ever seen before.
Some models came in visibly nervous and confused while others came in confident and casual. In the makeshift dressing room (a storage closet) I helped them get in and out of complicated layered outfits that the stylist put together. If a zipper wouldn’t go up on the size 00 garment, a look of panic would come over their faces. They grasped at their thighs, complaining about not making it to the gym that day despite walking 10 miles as they went from casting to casting. When I offered them crackers after more than three hours of constant changing, they’d refuse and say: “I ate too many carbs today already.”
The designers would poke and prod at the models, asking them to put on painful thigh-high lace-up boots only to tell take them off and then put them back on again. The models smiled cheerfully in front of the designers but in the dressing room, they complained and scowled. Between zipping up and down dresses, the models all expressed the same sentiment: “Being a model is not as glamorous as it looks.”
“Can you walk for us?” the casting director would ask the models as the label’s designers and collection stylist watched on with stony faces. The models created their own mini-catwalk in the studio, hair blowing back as they strutted. Then an awkward moment would follow as the table of judges made no expression or comment. They smiled tightly at the models before excusing them. The models tried to cram in lasting impressions before they left with a bubbly “goodbye!”, hoping it was enough to stand out from the rest.
When I wasn’t dressing models, I was running errands Devil-Wears-Prada style. I hit the streets for miles at a time. I was all over Manhattan every day, picking up and dropping off items to be tailored, altered, and washed.
The less-exciting coffee run errands essentially funded the entire oat milk industry with the sheer amount of iced lattes that were ordered daily. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when I had to take a 30-minute Uber ride to purchase a “special” salad for the collection’s stylist because the place everyone else ordered from ran out of couscous. I even had to go on a personal errand for one of the designers who left his ID at a dive-bar in Brooklyn the night before.
Despite being a high-caliber fashion label, the collection was actually put together very last-minute. The designers casually requested garments to be cut in half or sleeves to be added the night before the show. I could see the frustration and stress bubbling in the show manager’s eyes as she instructed me to rush to midtown to beg their tailor to add collars and ruffles in a matter of hours. “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she told me.
As looks were finalized, I pinned photographs of them onto a large board in the order of the runway lineup. The most interesting part was watching the stylist’s process as she put together strange outfit combinations. Her choices were unconventional, unexpected, and perfect. She would put short skirts on top of long dresses, creating new silhouettes and shapes. She put long coats underneath bustiers and ribbons around necks. She was a styling genius, but glared daggers if you tried to talk to her. Her assistant buzzed around the showroom, sucking down the vapors of her e-cigarette to calm her nerves when no one was looking.
An entire crew of hair and makeup artists came in to do test runs while videographers came in to do interviews for different fashion publications. Models came in for final fittings up until 10 p.m. and seamstresses worked on last-minute adjustments into the wee hours of the morning. As the looks were finished and signed off on, I packed them away in black garment bags to be sent to the show’s venue. After days of taking the garments on and off models, I knew every single piece like a friend. Each look was imprinted in my brain.
The designers left early and the rest of us stayed until 2 a.m. My bones ached, my feet throbbed. I wondered how long I had to stay in order to prove myself. “How could they be so understaffed?” I thought. When we were finally released, I wearily made my way back to where I was staying for a two-and-a-half hour nap. My alarm went off at 6 a.m. and I peeled my eyes open, solely motivated by the fact that my lifelong dream was going to come true that day.
When I arrived at the venue, the air was buzzing with excitement and energy. Models sat with metal clips in their hair while makeup artists brushed rosy hues on their eyelids and cheeks. It was exactly how I pictured it.
After the models rehearsed their walk, they were ready to be dressed. I instructed the show’s dressers on how to get the models into their looks. People with headsets frantically rushed in to alert us that it was time for the models to lineup backstage. Photographers swarmed the entire area. I squeezed my way backstage as mini-photoshoots happened all around me. The models talked and posed together, their faces switching from casual to ferocious within seconds of a camera lens popping up.
Once the music began, they were off. The team watched them go one-by-one on the flatscreen TV backstage. It was incredible to see the items that I had become so familiar with going down an actual NYFW runway. Garments that I had handled all week were soon to be in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and worn by Margot Robbie, Emily Blunt, Meghan Markle, and Emma Stone on red carpets and on talk shows. I felt proud to be a part of the process, even if it was just for one week.
And just like that, it was over. The models quickly unchanged and the garments were back in their bags. All the work, stress, and pains of the past week had led up to seven minutes. The models hugged me goodbye and asked if they’d see me next time. I shrugged because I didn’t know how I felt about the whole experience. It was everything I expected —- yet somehow disappointing.
For the next year, I ended up working with the designer label three more times for photoshoots and fashion shows. Every time I worked for them, my eyes were opened to an industry that exists within its own universe. It is a parallel reality where the wealthy create $3,000+ garments in the hopes that other wealthy people will buy it, continuing a cycle of excess and consumption. Conversations among these industry professionals revolved around the vacations they went on, the workout classes they took, and the celebrities they mutually knew.
I loved the creative process, but I couldn’t get past the lifestyle and behavior of those in the industry. The designers and stylists I had looked up to treated those “below” them like servants, like they were entitled to the labor of others when they were really depending upon their charity.
The final straw was when they asked me to babysit during a photoshoot that I was excited to learn from assisting on — one I had helped prepare and execute for days leading up. They pulled me out of the shoot, handed me $20 and told me to buy their kid ice cream and to go to a playground. After proving myself to them for a year, I was still just somebody to run their errands.
After dreaming of working in the fashion industry my whole life, I left the studio for the last time thinking, “I’m never doing that again.” As I looked out the window of the bus leaving NYC, I wondered what I was going to do with my life. “What’s my dream now? Who am I without this dream?” It was painful, but I knew I had that experience for a reason.
I was finally able to let go of a dream that could never fulfill me, which was actually the gift of freedom to go seek out one that would.