Monday 22 January 2018

From Park Avenue to portaloos... my New York Fashion Week

It's the most glamorous week of the year - supposedly. But is New York Fashion Week really the stuff of stylish dreams? Courtney Smith braved freezing temperatures and made use of the style industry's Irish Mafia to take you backstage…

Courtney Smith at New York Fashion Week
Courtney Smith at New York Fashion Week
Courtney Smith at New York Fahsion Week
Running order at BCBGMaxAzaria at NYFW by Courtney Smith
Backstage at BCBG Max Azaria at MBFW by Courtney Smith
Courtney Smith and Homeland star Diego Klattenhoff backstage at the Todd Snyder show at NYFW
Backstage at DKNY NYFW by Courtney Smith
Backstage at DKNY NYFW by Courtney Smith
Tommy Hilfiger NYFW show invite by Courtney Smith
Olivia Palemro and husband Johannes Huebl at the Tommy Hilfiger show at NYFW
Tommy Hilfiger show at NYFW by Courtney Smith
Courtney Smith at New York Fashion Week

Courtney Smith

Looking at my Instagram feed, you'd think that mine is a life of non-stop life glamour, access-all-areas, pretty clothes and fashion shows. I wish that was true but my most recent trip to the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week (MBFW) was a little less glam and a lot more grit.

I've been a stylist and fashion writer for almost seven years now, and this was the 14th fashion week I have attended - although I actually started sneaking into London Fashion Week when I was still a student. Sometimes I am commissioned by magazines to write reviews of the collections, I've reported for an online fashion channel and occasionally brands ask to dress me for the shows as a social media collaboration. Whatever the reason, it's always exciting to be at fashion week. Here's your backstage pass to the most glamorous week of the year…

The Run-Up

About six to eight weeks prior to fashion week, online registration opens for press. You have to submit your credentials, samples of your work, details of the publications you are working for and letters from your editor confirming all this. You also have to pay a $100 (€90) registration fee and then you can wait two to three weeks for approval. This doesn't guarantee access to the shows, so, additionally, you have to email each brand requesting a ticket.

The night before I arrive is filled with anxiety because I don't know what invites are guaranteed. I could easily turn up to my hotel and find I received no show passes at all. Tickets for shows like Victoria Beckham and Alexander Wang are seriously like gold dust. Unless you are Hollywood royalty, a buyer for a big department store or working with a top fashion magazine, there is no way you are getting access… Well, unless you are Kim Kardashian.

The Event

This is the last season that the Lincoln Centre of Performing Arts will host MBFW. A lot of shows are held here; there are about four different catwalks set up in individual tents within the building (some are long and straight while others are mazes that a few models got lost on).

The bigger the brand and the budget means going to locations off-site. Top brands try to find innovative and unusual spaces to showcase their collections. In one day alone, I attended a show at the Lincoln Centre, another in a warehouse in the Meatpacking District, then to Milk Studios in Chelsea and another in the beautiful Park Avenue Armory.

Attending the shows is a lot less glamorous than you would expect; usually you're left queuing outside in sub-freezing temperatures for half-an-hour before they begin and then you are hoarded in like cattle to your seats. These are allocated by letter and number; row 1 means the coveted front row (FROW) where you could possibly be seated beside Anna Wintour. Writing for Weekend, I was usually in row 3 or 4… But in spaces where there were eight rows, that's still pretty impressive.

The new era of the super bloggers means the sought-after press are the Instagram kids like Chiara Ferragni and Aimee Song with their millions of followers. This season, the must-have celeb in your FROW was Kim Kardashian and daughter North, who seemed to take most of the attention away from the actual collections.

The Street-Style Snappers

While everyone else cried about the coldest weather in 20 years, the street-style photographers happily stood outside for hours in the -20 degree temperatures.

When you turn up at fashion week shows, you are making an invisible agreement to allow people to take your picture. Sometimes it can be invasive - like the time I was having an argument on my phone I had one guy continuously shoot me - but then, when you don't get your picture taken, you think: "Is my outfit not good enough today?"

The best street-style snappers are the ones who spot a quirky look and announce it to the world as officially cool. Scott Schuman from The Sartorialist has gone on to make a top-selling book of his favourite street-style shots. Others, like Tommy Ton, are commissioned to shoot for Vogue online. The elite of street-style photographers now sit front row at the shows.

The Irish Mafia

There is a surprisingly large number of Irish working at MBFW. Thanks to the formidable Green Isle connection, I managed to wangle gold-dust backstage passes to shows like BCBG Max Azria, Hervé Léger, Son Jung Wan and DKNY.

One Irish-born fashion producer (who prefers to stay anonymous to avoid an abundance of emails from fashion-hungry students) told me she started in the TV business and after co-producing the 'Fashion Roadkill' episode on Sex and the City, she ended up getting requests to produce fashion shows for real.


I have been backstage at many shows before (often styling them) but I thought New York would be on a higher organisational scale. It's not!

In a makeshift warehouse-style room, skinny, tired models are crammed on top of each other with a team of hair, make-up and nails people. Each model is assigned a rail and a dresser. On the rails are the looks they are wearing in the show, with photos of their fittings so the dresser knows exactly what way it needs to be worn. Once they do fittings (again) and a catwalk run-through, the clothes are removed (to be steamed again) and the models go back to hair and make-up for touch-ups.

Backstage prepping for a show usually takes about 2.5 hours, each model probably only wears two looks each but in a lot of cases, it's only even one look.

For an industry obsessed with appearance and size, the catering leaves much to be desired… doughnuts, pastries, muffins, cookies, pasta and bagels were backstage at pretty much every show. And if you really need to go to the toilet, there are portaloos in the back of the tents. Glamorous? No.

The Parties

I had these big ideas of attending parties every night, and while I managed to sway a couple of invites (thank you, Irish Mafia) like the Gainsevoort rooftop party for Essential Homme magazine - where I spotted model Gigi Hadid - and then the Opening Ceremony party, for most of the week I was in bed asleep by 10pm.

I did, however, meet some brilliant characters such as a Lady Gaga lookalike. The next day, she and her entourage were spotted being refused access to the Lincoln Centre as she tried to actually impersonate Lady Gaga… you can't blame a girl for trying!

The Shows

Fashion Week for me kicked off with BCBG Max Azria, a tiny man with a big heart and even better clothes. This collection was inspired by the Baltics; beautiful embroidered jackets, Nordic-inspired boho dresses and gladiator boots… a long way from the bodycon dresses he and his wife designed 10 years ago.

I started out backstage for the show and got some amazing close-up shots of the gorgeous designs, and even got to meet the designers. When the show began, I was in the second row behind a lady with an obnoxiously large hat making my view a little restricted - thankfully, I had already seen them up close and personal.

Next up was Todd Snyder, a menswear designer with stars like Desperate Housewives' Jesse Metcalfe and Homeland's Diego Klattenhoff (who told me he used to live with two guys from Kilkenny) sitting front row. There's always a great buzz when a big star arrives FROW and the house photographers spring to life.

A designer I'd never heard of, but who is now on my one-to-watch list, is Son Jung Wan; her incredible bright-coloured fur coats left the stylists and editors scrambling to get backstage and request the first samples for upcoming editorials.

Irish designer Zoe Jordan recently relocated her design house to New York and held a presentation instead of a catwalk show in the Standard Hotel. This is a popular new way of showing collections and it's a lot more inviting; the models stand on podiums and you are welcome to touch the fabrics, look at the details carefully and take pictures. This collection was her strongest yet; true to her own aesthetic, it had strong lines and powerful tailoring mixed with edgy jackets.

Tommy Hilfiger was, without a doubt, the most exciting show. It was held in Park Armory and boasted an American football pitch that made a catwalk complete with goalposts. Top models such as Gigi Hadid and Jourdan Dunn stomped around in beautiful tweeds and sports-inspired leather pieces to Beyoncé power tracks while the most impressive celebs like Rachel Zoe, Olivia Palermo and Rita Ora squeezed on to the FROW.

There's no burly security guards here and they happily pose for photos. I approached Johannes Huebl, husband of Olivia Palermo (who is PERFECTLY doll-like in person). I'd found out he briefly went to my secondary school so thought that would make us best friends… it didn't, but he did let me take their picture!

What I Wore

Having collaborated with DKNY last summer, I thought that wearing the brand in its home city made the most sense. The fact that it was sub-zero temperatures in NY and I was dressed head-to-toe in Spring/Summer looks was hardly ideal!

I was on a budget so I managed to squeeze everything into one suitcase - but I also packed strategically and had all my looks pre-organised. I mixed up styles from the Cara Delevingne for DKNY collection with pieces from the main line. For pictures, I shrugged off a coat for the aesthetic but, in reality, I was wearing massive coats, layers of tights and polo necks (which are set to be huge again next season). The blush pink soft tailored suit was my favourite look. I took it to the Zip Yard on South Anne St to get it tailored better to fit me and I wore the shirt cropped (yes, I nearly got frostbite!).

I got access backstage for the DKNY show and spent the first hour looking at how the make-up artists and hairstylists achieved their looks. Front-of-house, the catwalk room was dark and edgy, in the shape of a U with only three rows on each side. There was a huge screen of flashing lights and empowering words reflecting on DKNY style and asking the audience to get on social media and answer their question, "What is New York?" Throughout the show all Tweets were streamed on the screen.

Quotes like "New York to me is a place where you get inspired" appeared as the collection of colourful ensembles, chic tailoring and sporty dresses adorned with large jewels took to the catwalk. It was the typical New York 'It' girl's uniform and the stars in the FROW like Amber Le Bon and Kesha seemed to agree.

Another Bite of the Big Apple

My New York Fashion Week 2015 experience was a bitterly cold one, but thankfully it wasn't the attitudes towards me that were frosty. In fact, I found New York to be less elitist and more inviting than its international fashion week counterparts. Those New Yorkers just seem to love an Irish accent! I'm already working on a return trip… Most likely at September fashion week when New York is lovely and warm.

Irish Independent

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