The city of lights. Parisians flit up and down streets in their bright red scarves and gray peacoats, pushing rolling sculptures in charge of bussing the capital’s next generation. An embodiment of the gothic beauty hiding behind the gray stone of Paris’ buildings, Parisians are stiff, melancholic beings. But boy, do they love shiny and luxuriant things.
Enter Haute Couture.
Conceived as a way to project allure and unattainable mythicism upon brand names, Haute Couture now sits as a staple in the fashion week circuit. Fantastic in presentation, the magic of Haute Couture is lent even more prestige from the history hidden within the hosting venue’s walls. Picture tufts of tulle floating like clouds down a hall of the grandiose Palais Garnier. Or mosaics revolving around some waterfall motif hand-stitched to bodices marching through a fantasy realm in the Grand Palais.
These shows ooze elitism and thus attract an air of mysterious wonder by onlookers that cannot see beyond what is shared through the internet.
This is my cue to waltz in to do my part in piercing this illusion. From a model’s perspective.
My goal is not to discredit the insane effort that goes in to creating these shows. The seamstresses create real works of art that are achieved through immense endurance and patience. Haute Couture is no joke when discussing the art of the matter. No, this is more so in regards to how these shows are cast.
Haute Couture is a very exclusive club for the modeling world. Only the tallest, slimmest girls have a fighting chance at securing a show during this week. If fashion is selling a fantasy, Haute Couture is in a realm of its own.
Here is where I enter the story. After a stint living in Athens and racking up accolades, my agency thought it best I give the fashion week circuit a go. Next thing I knew, I was launched over the Atlantic and settling in to my new Parisian home.
The apartment, old and cramped with too many girls to count, was an easy adjustment. Although the bathrooms were limited to one sole toilet and shower, having other girls around lessened the loneliness factor.
I fixed myself into a bunk and met the girl I would be rooming with: a 16 year old Belarusian with a startlingly visible spine and pelvis. I paid no mind to this. Being an aspiring model meant taking risks, I understood. Was I not also participating in this same behavior sometimes? Even at a lesser extent, the mindset was just as dangerous.
The following day began with an introduction at my Parisian agency. I followed closely behind my new Canadian friend, a novice model herself, and went through the expected motions. Pictures were taken, cheeks were kissed and a tape measure was fished from some drawer.
Chest, great, waist, even better. Hips? “Oh, Karlie. This will not do.” My agent tutted, showing me the number the two ends of the tape met. 90 centimeters. My heart hurt for a moment as I locked eyes with a very disappointed man squeezing at the tape in feeble attempts to produce the desired number.
I was not alone with this criticism. Girls are all expected to whittle themselves down to 88 centimeters. Although some of us are built that way naturally, others take extremes to achieve that number. I began to obsess over it myself for a while.
Another redeeming feature of living with a bunch of models is the existence of quiet camaraderie. Venting was always sympathetically received and helped strengthen bonds between the girls. I met and bonded strongly to one of my greatest friends during these times.
The season’s first casting had me in a nervous stupor. I was still agonizing over my hip size and felt disadvantaged because of it. “Try not to think about it, they are blowing the measurement thing out of proportion.” I recited this over and over as I sat amongst the young and beautiful hopefuls waiting for their shot in front of the casting directors.
Every girl that went in either immediately returned through the same door or lingered long afterwards. Stalling was good, immediate ejection bad. When it was my time, I was dealt the first blow. Walk back and forth, one nod and then a thank you. They bid me a farewell. I left trying to keep my composure.
Rejection is the norm in this industry. The best thing one can do is to not take it personally. This is easier said than done. I would feel the sting of rejection a hundred times before I was used to it.
Castings all followed a similar pattern. The more prestigious the brand, the longer girls were forced to wait around. Hours could tick by without much protest. I learned to bring books with me to keep myself from plunging into certain insanity. Mulling over that impending first impression did little to bolster spirits. Word of advice for aspiring models: do not let modeling overtake every thought. In fact, think about it as little as possible, especially at castings.
Haute Couture was especially brutal. Rejection was swift, far more quick to deal than the amount of waiting it took to actually see the director. Often, a girl parading around in a half-finished piece would be in the midst of praise whilst you were meeting with the team. This nearly always spelled total ignorance to your presence as the casting directors “Ooed and Ahhed” over the other girl. One glance to be polite, sometimes not even a “thank you.” Adieu!
I never harbored resentment for the girls in the gowns. Often times, not even they could count on confirmation. Fittings were just as rough as the initial go-sees themselves. These dresses, so fragile and delicately made, took hours to fit to models’ bodies. The slightest differences in shape had to be accounted for. Girls spent hours near naked, waiting to hear those words.
“See you at the show.”
Those words were never promised. A girl could try on seven outfits and then be bid a disappointed farewell. None of these visits were paid for. This time gobbled up by the brands was consumed free of charge. The rule of being at the bottom of the fashion food chain dictated that.
The week dragged on revealing little success to any of the model first-timers. That’s another thing many workers in the biz leave out when busy with recruitment. Networking is just as important as possessing the proper features. Know the director, befriend him, and your chances of success are far higher.
Some girls did score smaller gigs. That first experience in a Paris fashion show is always exciting. The money, too. Haute Couture holds the shows that actually pay. Thousands of dollars per appearance on a catwalk can seem surreal to first-timers. In actuality, models will make about thirty percent of what is promised and even those profits will be filtered through the expensive debts girls accrue through their agencies.
The successful girls sometimes barely break even. Glamour does not pay in the ways people think.
Glamour also has a way of fading when models are forced to wander about an exposed backstage nearly nude amidst photographers hungry for images. Though this is an issue that is being addressed in certain shows, the majority do little to protect these minors from these environments. When girls are little more than mannequins, their rights can oft be ignored. Dreams of success keep the girls mum about the blatant abuse of power.
Nothing is easier to manipulate, to take advantage of, to use so objectively, than a naive and young foreign girl with big dreams.
The fashion industry knows this all too well.
Though the fantasy of Haute Couture is well preserved in the culture that presents it, behind the scenes, Haute Couture is real and, for the girls at the bottom of the food chain, quite a mess.
Catch you later, readers. Bisous.
Brilliant and articulate writing. Made me feel like i was seeing it through my own eye’s even though ive never seen the world you describe in all its harsh reality. Amazing to be able to turn your experiences into such beautiful words 🙏