Waitress Elegance

I was a production assistant at New York Fashion Week. A friend of a friend knew someone who knew the owner of a production company and that’s how I ended up lurking by the catering table with my eye on the mini croissants.

    Being a P.A. is the least glamorous thing you can do at Fashion Week. Aside from the fleeting importance you feel when you use the walkie-talkie for the first time, there is nothing unique or special about your position.

    You wake up at 5 a.m. to shower and drink a cup of coffee before getting on the train that will take you to the studio, art gallery, or tents where the show will take place. You spend the morning placing 500 chairs into rows 18 inches apart and five feet from the wall. Everything must be military straight for the client who looks at the chairs, then the runway, then the chairs again and decides that there should be 24 inches between the rows. You reposition the 500 chairs.

    Once the models, hair and makeup, P.R., photographers, reporters, bloggers, and editors arrive backstage there is not much to do except people watch. The models are elongated and beautiful aliens who tap away on their phones and look bored while stylists tease their hair. Clusters of people form around them like flies around fruit, and a makeup artist demonstrates his technique while a film crew captures it all and reporters scribble in their notebooks. Extremely tall men in slim pants are everywhere, air kissing and leaning casually against walls with cameras hanging from their wrists.

    You are wearing all black everything: sneakers, pants, a T-shirt. Everyone else is wearing caps-lock FASHION. They are engaged in a mating ritual, only the end product is not a child, but rather some intangible upward movement in the social hierarchy of People Who Are Chic and Important. In other words, they want to get as close as possible to Anna Wintour.

    People are taking their seats. The front row looks smug. There is more air kissing and posing for pictures in the middle of the runway. I am standing next to a sign marking row C. My job is to take the sign offstage with me before the show begins.

    Across from me are two women with curled hair extensions and 10 pounds of makeup. They both have on leather pants, black platform stilettos that resemble hooves, and strapless peplum tops out of which a generous amount of cleavage is threatening to escape. Their outfits are slightly different, but also exactly the same. This is FASHION.

    They ask the P.A. on their side of the runway if he will take a picture of them. They wrap their arms around each other and smile.

    There’s nothing for us to do once the show starts. We mill about the production area, or sneak off to a stairwell, or poke around the catering table hoping there are mini croissants left. It is finally quiet and relatively clear of people; everyone is over in dressing helping the models into and out of clothing. It must be a weird thing to have people touch you like that. The models are objects, clothes hangers, that have things done to them in order to present someone else’s idea of what people should be wearing. I don’t know if I could ever be comfortable with having all those hands in my personal space. But this is a moot point, since I’m 5-foot-4 and have my mother’s nose.

    Applause signals the end and now our work begins: breaking down hair and makeup, disassembling clothing racks, stacking the chairs that no longer sit in straight rows, collecting trash, ripping up the brown paper we laid down that morning to cover the dirty floor. We load the van with steamers and lights and mirrors and chair covers and ironing boards and drive to the next venue and unpack the van and set everything up for the next show.

    There was a photographer taking pictures of us stacking the chairs. I asked him what the deal was. “I work for such-and-such magazine and I’m doing a photo essay about the environment of Fashion Week.”

    “Like the backstage stuff?” I asked.

    “Yeah, the stuff that people normally wouldn’t photograph. I saw all these chairs, with the gold and the legs, and you guys in black, and thought it looked elegant.”

    I surveyed the cheap chairs that had been spray-painted gold. I looked at the legs. I looked at us, dusty and sweaty and tired. “Elegant?”