- Victoria Comstock-Kershaw
COCAINE, CHAOS AND COLOURBLOCKING: INSIDE THE INSANITY OF LONDON FASHION WEEK
It's late January and I'm hungover. Lying in bed and feeling as if a small animal has crawled into my throat and died, I feverishly scroll through my phone as I attempt to gauge the damage of last nights' activities. Did I text my ex? Call my mother? Send a nude to my lecturers? Worse, apparently. I had emailed the press office of London Fashion Week 2020 and cc'ed every accompanying show organiser, asking for a pass to the upcoming February Fashion Week. I quoted some (only mildly inflated) readership numbers, included links to my writing work and - for some unholy, drunken reason - signed off as 'yung homie Vic'. I groan and am about to put down the phone while ruminating on the pros and cons of various suicide methods when the screen lights up. 'Re: Fashion Week Request' - a response. I decide that I should at least have something to quote in my suicide letter so I open the press office e-mail. At this point my mind is mostly made up in favour of an exit bag as opposed to jumping in front of the 29 bus, but - dear God, I've done it. I have drunkenly blagged my way into a press pass for all four days of London Fashion Week, including talks, presentations and most importantly, afterparties.
Images immediately fill my mind. I can see it now - drinking champagne with Anna, laughing derisively with Naomi, what-IS-she-wearing with Kendall. The easy, beautiful glamour of Fashion Week shimmers before me like the glistening martini glasses I will undoubtedly take to carrying around. I could practically smell the canapés and expensive perfume, feel the richness of the materials and the vapidity of the conversations. Come to me, frivolous excess and fashionable hedonism, fatuous parties and flimsy high-fliers! There were no doubts in my mind of the exact sort of world I was to be graciously ushered into: beautiful people, elegant afterparties, glamorous backstages and scintillating connections. The reality, as I was about to find out, was as far from my expectations as it could possibly be.
I am almost late to my first show, having agonised for several hours over my opening outfit. But, I think smugly, I had at least made the right choice: I fit in perfectly with the girls milling around outside the Mulberry show. Yes, our outfits are as impractical as they are uncomfortable, and yes, they only look good from a very specific angle while in a very specific pose, and yes, I can barely breathe in this top - but it's fashion, dahling! It's Fashion Week! Beauty is suffering! ...right? I proudly wave my press pass and knock-off Fendi, relishing in the glamour of it all - before I am promptly told that press goes round the back. I sheepishly teeter my way to the other side of the building and as I approach a group of smoking reporters and panicked organisers, the first of many odd realities of Fashion Week hits me: the better dressed you are, the less important you are likely to be.
I am currently bottom of the barrel. The smartly-dressed girls I had first seen had nothing to do with the event, but were simply there to be photographed by the litany of parasitic street-style photographers. People with actual jobs and responsibilities were not here to teeter around in impossible heels or flash avant-garde jewellery: it may be Fashion Week, but the woman in the tomato sauce-stained cardigan is invariably more important to the prat in the fingerless gloves and CDG converse. The dresser-uppers may look pretty, but it'll be a cold day in Hell when they can tell you where the designer is from, or what the second assistant director is called, or what the inspiration for the next show was. There is a direct correlation with how shabbily you are dressed and how important you are to the entire operation: if I need information or want something done, it's a far wiser to approach the boy with the five o'clock shadow who looks like he hasn't slept since 1997 than the woman in latex thigh-highs. There's a thinly-veiled air of desperation to the people who dress up for Fashion Week, myself included: those secure enough in their position and expertise really don't need to show it in intricately put-together outfits or the latest avant-garde fashion. I shuffle awkwardly out the smoking area, incredible self-aware of the fact that my tiny useless fake handbag and heels are essentially KICK ME NEWBIE signs cellotaped to my body and make a mental note to either kill myself or dress more casually. I am not Shalom Harlow or Miranda Priestly (to my own great personal frustration) and my first five minutes here have been a harsh reminder of this truth.
It's surprisingly easy to score front-row seats, not just for this show but for all the minor to mid-range brands. Only about a dozen or so will be actually reserved for celebrities or friends of the designer, so the rest becomes a sort of free-for-all. It helps being solo here. I witness a particularly cutthroat encounter when a skinny blonde snaps at her friend to sit behind her as 'someone more aesthetically pleasing' may want to sit next to her and an organiser asks an overweight man to sit a few rows farther back. I end up in sandwiched between two fellow writers from the smoking area, who we shall call M and J. Both are young, hungover and jittery - not, as I would eventually find out, because of nerves, but because the pair have been on cocaine for the past two days and will continue to be so for the next five. J writes for a well-known UK arts and culture publication and M runs a London-based fashion Instagram with over 300,000 followers, and I shall leave their descriptions at that. Both know a great deal more about the brand and are far more knowledgable and eloquent on the subject of fashion than I am, so I am very happy to let them talk at me for a couple of minutes before the show starts. They have not made the same mistake as me: their clothes are expensive but casual with no visible brand names; they exude an intrinsic coolness that I would desperately try (and fail) to recreate over the next couple of days (I eventually end up nicking J's jacket). They tell me who is who, nodding to the important people and turning their backs on the skinny blonde, who has apparently has a crippling Vicodin addiction and is an absolute cow at parties. By the time the show starts I am confident that I've found my crew.
It is now that I am hit with the first of my let-downs. I was expecting to sit with stars in my eyes as Adonis-types floated past me in sweeping barrages of high fashion, but the unfortunate reality is that models are humans too, albeit skinnier, taller and richer. I can not captivated by the beautiful clothes or enraptured by the elegant movements of the models. Instead, I feel slightly like a jury member at the world's skinniest dog show. There's something quite sinister about having a parade of dead-eyed, sallow-cheeked twenty-somethings storm past you in clothes so tightly pinned and heavily starched that they barely move. You can pick out the weaker models quite quickly, and I can't help but feel excessively nasty as I watch a girl almost trip over and tears well up her eyes and she realises her career has died. "A good model is unnoticeable." whispers J as a second girl tramples across the smooth linoleum with the elegance of a Shoreditch crackhead. Like a Roman emperor and his advisors, my companions and I give barely perceptible nods or shakes of the head as cheekbones and ankles plod their way down the runway, muttering about the cut of this coat or the colour of this shoe. I make brief eye-contact with Mulberry executive director Thierry Andretta, who is sat opposite me and looks excessively bored. Is this really it? I wonder. I try to pay attention to the fashion - the cuts, the colours, the influences and inspirations. It's by no means a bad collection; I'm not completely illiterate when it comes to fashion. So why is this such a bizarre experience? Is the feeling of being judged while also judging? The push-and-pull of the attendee's attention and the hyper-awareness of the models? The fact that everyone is on their phones filming rather than watching the show? The bench that feels like sitting on a very durable rock?
It's hard to say, but it's a deep-seated discomfort that will become the norm for me over the next couple of days. There's an overwhelming feeling of not-quite-rightness about the entire experience, of mismatched expectations and harsh realities. Perhaps it's best summed up in the environment that follow the actual shows. Conversation is mind-bogglingly awkward and dull; nobody actually cares what you think, everyone is simply gearing themselves up to demonstrate their Central Saint Martin's rolodex of fashion-related vocabulary. Naturally, the only solution to this social monstrosity of a situation is to drink, and by God do the organisers do know this. Lashings of good champagne and punny cocktails (Burberry daiquiri, anyone?) are practically forced down your gullet the moment you enter any of the events or their after-gatherings. But once again, the reality of downing booze at 11:30AM is just not as fun as the books and movies make it seem: we're trashed by lunchtime and hungover by 3. This isn't helped by the complete and utter lack of food. I ask an organiser at the Halpern show (where I had the great delight of watching one of the most beautiful women I've seen in my life fall over twice, before getting a front-row attendee to take her shoes off for her) why there is no grub and he laughs. "Everyone here is too skinny or coked up to eat," he whispers conspiratorially as we finish consuming yet another bucket of champagne. "so they stopped bothering a few years ago."
This brings me to yet another unexpected truth of Fashion Week: everyone is on cocaine. And I mean everyone. Models, journos, influencers, organisers, security - if they have nostrils, they're on it. I'm pretty sure the only people who weren't on the stuff were the Beckham kids. I am reminded slightly of Gordon Ramsey's mini-doc about cocaine use in restaurants and of his shock at the trace presence of the drug in his staff bathrooms. I have the feeling that poor Gordon would have an aneurism here: never in my life have I felt so entirely and utterly surrounded by a narcotic, and I spent my teenage years hanging around Chelsea nightclub promoters. It started off as an unspoken, underground aspect of the event - loud sniffs during silent intervals at presentations, whispered crinkles of bank notes in bathroom stalls - but as the week goes on, people give up trying to hide it entirely. I walk into the toilets before the Tommy Hilfiger show to find two girls openly racking up lines on the sink, and the backstage security guard at another Day 4 show offers me a bump off his badge. An afterparty host in Camden greets me at the door with a rolled-up fifty and a Holy Bible covered in white powder - visitors tax, he calls it - and I watch in awe as a makeup artist backstage at the DAKS catwalk snorts a line that is, I'm pretty sure, 80% eyeshadow. It's not a good or a bad thing, it's just a thing: an ever-present, jitter-inducing, utterly insane reality of this world. "Fashion Week runs on sheer willpower and bumps of charlie", says M as I guard the bathroom door for her at the Luis de Javier afterparty. I suppose it makes sense: if you're partying all night and running around a tiny, sweaty hellhole of a workshop all day, only to be briefly released onto a runway where you must look perfect (if you're lucky), the ease and effects of a drug like coke must look like a Holy Grail. You work faster, speak louder, lose any qualms about tell people to get out of your way (or call them a 'desperate cunt of a human' if they don't, as one particularly charming organiser at the Margiela catwalk felt was appropriate).
This is where the dealers come in: they are more often than not agents or bookers whose management of the girls doesn't just stop at securing them gigs. J and M make me wait outside as they wrangle an agent into giving them a baggie backstage, and I later see the man interviewing for a very large fashion magazine. He talks gleefully about the wonderful work ethic of his team and the amazingly high energy that everyone is bring to the event. It's difficult not to laugh.
However, of all narcotics to champion Fashion Week, snow is probably most the fitting of the atmosphere. Rabid chaos is the defining vibe of most of the backstage operations: crowded, loud and my God, so sweaty. If you are not running, shouting, pushing or pulling you are the backstage equivalent of Mussolini. The only people allowed to stay still are the models, and even then I have never seen women contort their bodies in such fascinating manners in order to accommodate clothing. I can't help but watch in awe as the cocaine-fuelled ragefest of backstage sends out women who only minutes before were screaming at their fitters for getting them the wrong kind of latte, only for them to immediately transform into serene, stony-faced bastions of beauty the moment their skinny little feet hit that runway.
One girl from a Day 2 show comes back from her walk and promptly throws up into an ice-filled champagne bucket, wipes her hand on the sleeve of a gown more expensive than my monthly rent, and gets completely naked. As she stands there, we watch in equal parts fascination and shock as her booker rushes over with a small silver mirror and, in a feat of physical coordination worthy of an Olympic medal, feeds her a line of cocaine while she steps into her next dress. She sniffs and marches out. The transformation is quite extraordinary and is one of the many instants of pure, controlled chaos that played in the back of my mind over the next days. The amount of energy poured into the ultimate beauty and elegance of these events is lost of most of us: it's perhaps easier, more comfortable for us to imagine fashion as a breezy, vapid world of pretty faces and expensive clothes. The reality is so far from this that it's upsetting: it's not just the crazies that do drugs, fashion isn't always beautiful, and celebrities don't smell like roses and diamonds (I am yet to recover from the utter stench of the Love Magazine afterparty). Most of us are tired, sweaty, smelly and hungover. The rest are Anna Wintour and Lewis Hamilton.
I think it's easy to infantilise the world of fashion. It's fun to enjoy the image of pretty models and useless dandies floating about drinking champagne and comparing calf circumferences, doing work with no real weight or importance to it. But the reality is far from the champagne chicness of Devil Wears Prada or the pretentious hilarity of Zoolander: fashion is, at its' core, a cutthroat, multi-billion dollar industry filled with cutthroat, multi-billion dollar people. Fashion Week is run and attended by people just as chaotic, insane and unpleasant as any other large-scale event that involves months of planning, thousands of people and millions of pounds where everyone has something to gain and everything to lose. The severity of planning and intensity of business is overshadowed by the effervescent glitter-veil that media has draped over the industry. The champagne turns sour, the sequins get stuck in your teeth - and, I cannot stress this enough - the celebrities smell terrible.
Image Credit: MatrixImages, GHD, Dave Bennett (Getty Images), Corey Tenold, Jackie Collins Estate, DMDP Tumblr