In a pre-coronavirus world, hundreds of editors, clients, stylists and celebrities would have converged on Paris this weekend, clacking over the cobblestones in their kitten heels for the couture shows. Those singular displays of fashion art — handmade clothes custom-ordered by the very few — represent equal parts creative laboratory, artisanal expertise and visual extravaganza. For many, they are also a major employment opportunity.
You may see models in gowns on Instagram, and hear of the famous names responsible for the updos and cat eyes, but making that perfect 20 minutes happen also demands an army of independent contractors, largely unknown. And, now that the shows have gone digital, largely unemployed.
Here, a scattering of these men and women describe their lives in the absence of shows. They are but a fraction of the lighting technicians, manicurists, photographers, caterers, florists, drivers, security guards, seamstresses, dressers and musicians whose labor creates the dream.
These interviews have been edited.
Yesmin O’Brien, 53, hairstylist
“I’ve worked with the hairstylist Sam McKnight as part of his freelancer team for 13 years. Usually I’m a director for a group of hair salons in and around London, but whenever Sam has been booked for a fashion show, then off I go to that city, be it for cruise, couture or ready-to-wear.
There are probably around 40 stylists on Sam’s backstage team at a fashion show. We come from all over the world to work in Paris for couture. Often, for the biggest shows, you work in pairs on one model with a stylist and a ‘watcher,’ who makes sure the look is absolutely perfect and to the specifications of Sam or the brand.
Until you reach the very top, you don’t do it to make money. You do it for career experience with Sam and out of love for the theater of fashion and being a part of it all. It is only after you establish yourself over many years that you make any cash.
But for me it has been worth it for the experiences I’ve had. I still pinch myself. We do all the Chanel couture shows, of course, which are always very special. And last July, for the Fendi couture show in Rome that paid tribute to Karl Lagerfeld, we color-coordinated wigs to each of the clothes for the finale, which just looked spectacular. But this year, there is nothing at all.
I’ve been trying to use the time to think creatively about possible hair pieces and ideas, but I really miss the atmosphere.”
Jacques Negrit, 56, security guard
“Fashion weeks in Paris make up 60 percent of my annual income, so not having couture this season is a big loss. Don’t forget, it is not just the shows — it is the presentations, fittings, private celebrity work and cocktail parties, too.
I’ve been a security guard at fashion weeks in Paris for 20 years and built my business around it. I have almost 200 freelance guys working on my books during couture week. Security is hard work — you’ll be up at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., securing the set and backstage, planning the entrance and exit strategies for huge crowds in very short spaces of time and often with a number of shows taking place all over town.
In what would have been couture, I’ll be thinking about what might happen in terms of physical shows in September. For whatever events take place, security — and maintenance of new safety regulations — will be more important than ever before. Whatever happens, we will do what we always do: Get the job done.”
Luc Deperrois, 40, florist, Stéphane Chapelle
“I have worked with Stéphane for 20 years. We are known for our large, extravagant bouquets. We usually work with around 10 to 12 people, although during show time, that usually goes up to 25 to 30. Fashion weeks together are a huge part of our year. Maybe 40 to 45 percent of our annual business if you put all six together.
For us, couture week is very intense. We could be doing the flowers in Mademoiselle Chanel’s apartment in the morning, then for the Lutetia hotel, then a dinner for a brand. Or Chanel calls and says they want 100 bouquets of flowers delivered to clients who are coming to their show in the next 24 hours. And maybe they want only white roses one season. Or another brand wants only pink roses. I will normally start my day at 4 a.m. at the market, buying the flowers.
Now it’s all mostly stopped, though. There are some orders — enough to keep our staff, but not for anyone extra. I am hoping that because so much of fashion is on Instagram now, there will be a need for flowers to animate the sets and the looks, to bring some humanity to the digital world. And that in September, life will begin again.”
Eny Whitehead, 38, makeup artist
How long have you been doing makeup?
I started in 2003. Then, in 2005, I got very lucky and met Pat McGrath, and she brought me along to do the makeup for a Galliano show. It was so creative, such an exciting time. Then I started doing shows for Milan and Paris fashion weeks, and that led to me getting an agent.
How big a part of your business are the shows?
I do ad campaigns and magazine shoots, but the shows are such a big thing here in Paris. Because it’s not just the catwalks, it’s also all the V.I.P.s that fly in for them. During couture, I might have three clients call me in a single day to do their makeup to go to a show, or an event after a show, and then the next day I will be backstage for the couture.
I also get last-minute calls to fill in for other makeup artists, and then I just hop on my scooter, and the next thing, I am on the other side of Paris, getting Cindy Bruna, the French model, ready for an after-party, or Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian-French actress. I generally work with Peter Philips now during show time. In January, we did Dior and Viktor & Rolf.
How does this compare to your normal professional life?
My work is generally up and down — I don’t work every day, but during shows I do. For some shows, I might have to arrive at 5 a.m. to get the models ready, and then that night, I might have to get a private client ready for a dinner. The only other time that’s remotely comparable, where I might have four jobs in one day, is the Cannes Film Festival.
But what is it like now?
For three months, everything stopped. I was lucky, because as a self-employed person, I qualified for the government assistance. They gave everyone 1,500 euros [about $1,700] if they had lost 70 percent of their income, and I lost 100 percent.
Ad campaigns that were postponed during lockdown are happening, and since no one can fly in, they are asking local teams. And we are lucky, in that clients have not used the excuse of Covid to lower the rates. I had an option on a video that one of the brands was going to do instead of a couture show, but it didn’t work out.
The problem with the videos is they involve very small teams. They really only need one artist, or maybe one and an assistant, whereas a show like Dior might use up to 40 makeup artists. So it’s a big loss for my income. And also my creativity.
What do you mean, creativity?
What I miss most, I think, is watching the creative process of a show, because that inspires me a lot, especially when it comes to trends for the next season. And I miss my colleagues.
“Normally, I should already be in Paris by now,” the impassive Ms. Depass, a Jamaica-born model discovered as a high school student in Jamaica five years ago said from her family home in Kingston. After her breakout season in Europe, Ms. Depass appeared on the runways of Armani Privé and Valentino (she was one of 64 Black models in Pierpaolo Piccioli’s memorable spring 2019 show) and has walked for labels as unalike as Hermès, Prada and Off-White.
“Since I first started working, I’ve never experienced this downtime, and I find I’m really missing work — missing traveling for jobs, exploring the world. I think about losing the momentum. You don’t want to be away for two long, By the time you come back, your clients are looking for a new sensation.”
Jacques-André Henriquez, 64, founder, Névé cleaning company
“I had a cleaning company with my wife for 20 years, but at the end of last year we split up, and I founded an eco-cleaning company. We are responsible for cleaning the whole venue wherever a show is held: floors, windows, walls. Everything. And because so many shows are in strange, industrial places, or building sites under construction, it can be very dirty, very dusty and very complicated.
With my wife, we used to do Chanel in the Grand Palais, and we would start two weeks before the show, with two people cleaning. On the day of the show we would have up to 12.
In January, for my first season on my own, we did Dior, YSL, where the whole set was an enormous white rug — I made about 80,000 [about $90,000] euros that season, and I was budgeting 120,000 to 150,000 euros for men’s and couture in July, assuming we would do seven or eight shows in each week.
We are still getting a little work because some brands are doing photography or video, and also because everyone is very scared about safety, but it is much, much less. So now I am planning for only 15,000 to 20,000 euros this season. I feel lucky because I only have one person on staff. Otherwise we would really be in trouble.”
Nicolas Ouchenir, calligrapher
You help create invitations for some of the biggest shows. But this summer, there are no shows.
It’s a nightmare. Because it’s not even the shows — you have all the parties and all the buyers’ presents, and all the events.
Normally how many invitations do you address in one day?
It depends on the material, the papers — or I can have the leather used by Rick Owens, and that’s super-hard, or the glass used at Margiela. So it depends, but you can have something like 2,000 in one day. I have around 60,000 by fashion week.
Are you worried?
We are waiting for the buyers. If we do not have any buyers, fashion shows cannot be done. At the same time, all the communications directors for the maisons are super-confident. They call and tell me: ‘You’re part of the family.’ That’s why I’m still positive.
Alexis Bourin, 30, freelance technical director, Bureau Betak
“Basically, my job is to oversee the technical jobs — lighting, video, audio, safety — and make sure everything is going well during the preparation so we can deliver on time.
This was supposed to be my year. I quit school when I was 17 — I came from nothing, and now I’m producing some of the biggest shows in Paris for the best agency in the world. My producer and I were supposed to have three shows for couture and six or seven for men’s ready-to-wear. From March to October, I’ll have lost around 100,000 euros [about $112,500].
During lockdown, I trained myself to do 3-D lighting design. You want to progress and train yourself, but at the same time, you’re losing all of your jobs. As a freelancer, the government gave me 1,000 euros. That’s not even my rent, you know?
I think it’s never going to go back to normal. It’s great to be optimistic, but let’s be honest: The economy is going to decide. It’s not going to be us.”
Acielle Tanbetova, 41, the photographer behind Style du Monde
“Normally, I would be shooting backstage for American Vogue, and between the shows I’d shoot street style.
Last year, I was traveling nonstop, shooting from one fashion week to another. So it’s very strange to be at home right now. I took this time for myself and to study, to improve myself, to reflect. I’m still licensing my pictures to publications, like British Vogue or Glamour Germany.
I’ve been invited to Copenhagen Fashion Week in August, so that will be my first fashion week since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. I think it will be an interesting test case for how these kinds of events can be organized in a safe and practical way. And I wonder what kind of outfits there will be — more simple and practical? Will everyone be wearing masks?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about where I am now,” said Romaine Dixon, one of the true breakout stars of recent years. Discovered after a friend dared him to send his photo to a modeling agency, Mr. Dixon rocketed to the front ranks of models, walking in Kim Jones’s first show for Dior Men and then a full roster of other major labels.
A billboard several stories high featuring his image now covers a facade of the Printemps department store in Paris, but Mr. Dixon has not seen it in person. That he may never do so weighs on him, as he said while driving through his hometown, Kingston, Jamaica.
“I haven’t done any work since the quarantine started. I haven’t done any Zoom shoots. It’s a real blow to my social media profile. Because I have savings, I’ll be all right for some time. But I need to get back to work.”
Charly Lavado, 33, freelance patternmaker and dressmaker
“For the past eight years I have worked part-time for Dior couture in Paris. Usually, I will work in the atelier for four to five months of the year, with two full months before the January shows and then two full months in the run-up to the shows in July. This year, I am doing nothing at all.
It has been a big shock. After lockdown was declared in March, Dior (and all the French fashion houses) canceled all temporary contracts for the foreseeable future, and there was no clarity on whether there would be a summer couture show or even a collection.
Usually, this time of year would be so busy. I would pattern-cut at least three looks for the collection and complete at least one of those dresses myself. In January, I made a mousseline green plissé gown that looked simple, but every stitch was so technically challenging. I am not complaining, though. I love what I do.
I still remember walking into the Dior atelier for the very first time. It was like a dream come true. Some people dream of Chanel, others of Givenchy, but not me. It was always Dior. Some of my friends have been working at Chanel on a very reduced couture collection and on client orders made in January. Now, all those pieces are ready for fittings. But none of the clients are able to travel.
I have some money saved, but I am taking stock now. I have always loved the flexibility of being a freelancer. I have turned down studio jobs and fixed contracts at other houses as generally you don’t make as much money.
But if things don’t change in another few months, I may have to reconsider — if there are even jobs.
Philippe Cerceau, 60, lighting designer
“After the clothes themselves, lighting is the most important thing at a fashion show. With bad lighting, the audience can’t see any of the beautiful details or the finish of a collection. You can also get bad photographs. I’ve been designing lighting for shows for 25 years, and nowadays fashion-week work makes up about two thirds of the income for my business, Clair Obscur.
The first couture show I did was for Giorgio Armani — it was his first couture show. too. In January, my clients for couture were Dior, Valentino, Elie Saab and Viktor & Rolf. For July, there are none.
The last few months have been so quiet, so I painted my house instead. We’ve started to get some inbound now for the September shows in Paris, but it is still early days.”
Sandrine Jolly, 40, construction, Jaulin
“We work in the shadow of the industry — with the fashion show production agency, to create the temporary installations. We do the furniture and layout and the decoration of the space: the backstage, the carpet, the fabric on the wall, the construction of benches.
We should be really busy in June and July — last July, we had 20 to 25 shows — but we’re not. It’s a very bad situation because we love fashion shows.”