Glamorous. Cutthroat. Exciting. Trivial. Inspiring. Consumerist. Fashion’s said to be many things, but what’s it really like to work in one of the world’s biggest, most lucrative trades?
It’s the pivotal moment in The Devil Wears Prada. Andy and Miranda are being chauffeured to a Parisian show, and in a rare moment of candour, the queen editrix dishes out some vital life advice to her hapless assistant: “You chose to get ahead. You want this life, those choices are necessary,” intones Miranda, in her characteristically silky, but oh-so-icy, murmur.
“But what if this isn’t what I want?” questions Andy, all naive and wide-eyed. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Andrea,” dismisses Miranda. “Everybody wants this,” she hisses. “Everybody wants to be us.”
It’s a cinematic moment that pithily captures what most of us think of the fashion industry. On the one hand, it’s populated by terrifying personages who might be creative geniuses but will just as easily cut you down with an intimidating glare. But on the other hand, it’s fashion. And Miranda’s right. From movie stars and pop icons, to art world legends and big businessmen, everyone wants a seat at the front row.
But what really lies behind the glitzy ad campaigns? And what’s really going on in the minds of those well-heeled men and women as they parade in and out of fashion shows? From The Devil Wears Prada to Coco Before Chanel and Dior and I, the movies have tried to tell their own, ostensibly true tales of the fashion world.
But inevitably, don’t they all just end up glamourising their subjects? To peel back the veil, we rounded up the usual suspects of the fashion industry (some of whom shall remain anonymous) and asked them to give us a glimpse into what goes on in their world – when the lights are off, the catwalks are empty, and all the models have gone back to their nests.
The Glamour Grind
The first thing that becomes apparent is that “effortless” is an illusion. That lissome model, emerging from the sea as if she were a nymph of Poseidon come to shore? It might look utterly spontaneous, but the truth is, one does not merely run into the sea and come out with hair looking like that (we know this all too well).
That’s the result of hair and makeup sorcery that took hours (and probably several different hair products) to create. And finally, it probably took a stylist hours to steam that gossamer dress (amongst the many, many other options) – only to have his or her Creative Director tell the model to run into the waves for the shot in the end. Ouch.
The moment she turned her back on us, she would roll her eyes at her manager.
"When I was still working as a fashion stylist, I loved doing overseas shoots. But ‘no pain, no gain’ truly applies to our line of work. I remember one shoot in Sri Lanka, where I had to steam 100 chiffon dresses with a miniature steamer – pure torture. The last day of our shoot took place on a tiny island. I was looking for a boat to take us to the island and, lo and behold, our guide informed us that we would be crossing the sea by FOOT. So the whole crew lugged camera equipment, clothes, shoes and so on (above our heads) while wading through thigh-deep water. In my head, all I was thinking was, ‘I’d better not drop the Dior dresses into the sea because I’d definitely be fired!’ The lengths we go to get good pictures!"
Alicia Tan, Editor, CLEO
"My friends see me travelling in and out often, and they think it’s so fun, that my job is so good, and so on. But they don’t realise that sometimes, it’s really touch and go. I once attended the Toronto Film Festival with Zhang Ziyi. I got there late, past midnight, went to work the next day, and by the time I was done, everything was closed! The next day, I got up early again to catch my flight back. And since the flight from Singapore to Toronto is over 20 hours, in the end, the time I spent flying was much longer than the time I stayed in Toronto itself. So, do you still think my job is fun? Of course, there are fun and interesting parts of the job, but the flying part is actually not so fun, for a lot of people.”
Clarence Lee, Makeup Artist
"[Styling] involves a lot of weightlifting, and no, you do not get to wear heels and be all glam at shoots. My worst moments include having to drag a broken luggage and carry a broken umbrella while crossing a flooded pedestrian road; and having my paper bag break in the middle of a crowded mall, with all my loaned products falling out.”
“You don’t need talent to be a model, you just need good genes.” It’s easy to think that winning the genetic lottery will put you on the fast track to fame, fortune and the good life, but nobody just wakes up to find themselves a Victoria’s Secret angel overnight. As Tyra Banks is constantly reminding us, it takes hard work to stay grounded amid the competitiveness and the constant judgments a model endures.
Plus, getting the job is just half the battle won. Crazy poses, extreme locations, sample size shoes that are too big or, worse still, too small – it’s just the tip of the iceberg. And god forbid your period comes while you’re at a shoot.
Just Business, Nothing Personal
It’s true that no matter what industry you’re in, there’s always going to be office politics. Here, we’re talking about an industry where many work on a freelance basis – and getting the first pick of the Parisian samples or landing that coveted gig often depends on having the right connections. If there’s a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it, where would you draw the line?
"A lot of people don’t get how physically and mentally demanding modelling is, and the amount of discipline it requires. You have to stand and move in ways you never would, and deal with the crazy irregular call times, and the pressure and competition. It’s all about maintaining a good balance. You can’t take it too seriously. At the end of the day, it’s just fashion. After 12 years, I now have a healthy relationship with my job as a model. But I did need a four-year break in between to really come to appreciate it. It’s so great to be able to travel the world and eat good food.”
Emi Matsushima, Model
"The most unglamorous thing that’s happened at a shoot: the model’s period came and there were no pads on set.”
"I once worked with a model who ‘wanted to be so skinny that when she stood on bubblewrap, it’d not pop’. Despite attempts to feed her, she flat out refused to eat and midway during our shoot, she fainted – either from hunger or from the three-piece wool set I’d styled her in (but I’m leaning to the former)! Turns out our photographer somehow managed to catch that moment and it was the BEST shot of the shoot. Thank you, low blood pressure?”
Bryan Goh, Former Stylist
A Case of Celebrity
And then, there are the celebs, the golden gods of TV, movies and entertainment, who naturally spill over and populate the world of fashion as well. When it comes to working with the A-list, there are tales aplenty – from the egotistical rap superstar who was so difficult to shoot for an American fashion bible, that his reality star wife had to issue countless apologies to the crew; to the supermodel who was asked for an autograph by some young fans, but ended up taking them shopping instead. We dug up a few more to add to the list.
But remember, for every harrowing industry story, there’s a positive. And in the end, people do it for the love.
"One interesting experience I had was a hissy fit with a local artiste who I’d worked with before, and was kind of friendly with. The shoot was based on her personality, so I started off by asking her what kind of hair she wanted. She said she would leave it to me, because she trusted me to do my best.
So I took out some gel, because I wanted to give her a wet and sleek look. But upon seeing the product on my hands, she jumped up and asked me what I was trying to do. I explained, but she said no. I washed my hands and came back to her to reconfirm what she really wanted. She became really annoyed and barked in a bitchy tone: “Just blow-dry.” As I started, she began to look really pissed off. I asked her if there was a problem, and she just said, “No, nothing.” So I just brushed it off.
Months later, we saw each other at a couple of events. She never said hi, like she used to before. I thought it was childish, so I always made the effort to go up to her. But eventually, I gave up because it felt pointless. A couple of years on, we both became successful in our own ways. In that time, her attitude changed so much and she became more friendly, greeting me whenever we saw each other. I’d usually just smile or say hi back, but avoid further conversation.
This is a lesson I’ve learnt. There were many people who didn’t give a hoot about me when I started out. Now, 16 years later, many of the same people are suddenly so friendly. There are different levels of sincerity and, in the end, many people are just very practical.”
Rick Yang, Hair and Makeup Artist
You think you know what celebrities are like from what you read in magazines or watch on TV, but that’s just what they want you to see. I’ve worked with a few big-time pop singers before, and there was one particular songstress who was really big in the ’90s who was sooooooo difficult. She would smile non-stop at the team and seem accommodating, but the moment she turned her back on us, she would roll her eyes and pull faces at her manager – who had to do the dirty work of telling us we couldn’t shoot her from this or that angle. What could have been a two-hour shoot, turned into a full-day nightmare.”
"I think there are people who aren’t really good at what they do, but who market and package themselves well. I’m still a strong believer in quality, so I totally respect people who have real substance and don’t social climb. [There’s no room for big egos.] After all, you might be the best here, but we are just in Singapore, after all. Compared to the world of fashion, we are only a tiny piece. So, my favorite food would be humble pie!”
Rick Yang, Hair and Makeup Artist
"It’s true, it takes a lot of sucking up and PR skills to get around the industry. I’ve heard of stylists buying lunch for marketing girls all the time.”
"In Singapore, the photographer is left with so little responsibility that it actually becomes quite easy for a photographer with very little knowledge in fashion, art and culture to get by calling themselves ‘fashion photographers’. There are way too many photographers out there who couldn’t care less, and are content with contributing zero creatively… They are basically just technicians setting up cameras and flashes, who like the idea of being a photographer. They like to be told what to do and get paid for it.”
"It’s always amazing to be at fashion weeks at least twice a year – I find Paris, though tough and a constant grind, has the most incredible shows and inspiration comes from all over – from every corner of the street down to the smallest detail at a show. Paris gives me life to learn about fashion every day. The world’s best congregate there and with all those great minds in one place, many start thinking alike. Everyone starts talking about the same shows and designers that got the whole city buzzing, and key trends and ideas come together organically. It’s what I love about fashion. I call it the je ne sais quoi.”
Kenneth Goh, Editor-in-Chief, Harper’s Bazaar