Grazia’s Charlie Gowans- Eglinton uncovers the trials and tribulations of the fashion industry’s assistants who’ve seen it all...
If I asked you to visualise a fashion shoot, what would you see? Champagne, flashing lights, wind machines and ballgowns? Well, that’s all there, I guess – bar the champagne. Budgets are tighter these days...
While I now work as a writer at Grazia, I’ve paid my dues assisting on hundreds of shoots. I started with second assisting (essentially making the tea and steaming the clothes), and worked my way up to first. I have made brilliant friends, and these stories are theirs, too – though if I told you who they were, I’d have to kill you...
And while, yes, there is occasionally a pineapple cut into the shape of a swan with cranberries for eyes on the set, or a week shooting on a Caribbean beach, sometimes you find yourself lying on a bunk bed in a B&B in Norwich wondering if you ly needed that degree after all.
One thing you have to accept from day one is that models really are like a different species. The sooner you get this into your head, the better. Trust me, if you've spent the day applying talc to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, then wrapping her in latex, you're going to go home feeling pretty bummed out. You must remind yourself that she is not like you. You are different. It’s like comparing a pug to a whippet.
Celebrities tend to fall into three camps. Firstly, the super-humans; the perfectly formed people – I’m looking at you, J-Lo. Very occasionally there are the ones just like us (well, me) – wobbly bits, cellulite, one breast a bit bigger than the other. And in the middle are those who’ve had a little help – I’ve seen some amazing boob jobs in my time, though seeing disasters up close is deterrent enough for anyone. In most, a life of being dressed by others does tend to breed a certain professionalism – we’re all here to work, after all. But when you’re dealing with the rich and famous, sadly, not everyone is so professional...
Case in point, the Dame who refused to get out of bed for a shoot and lay flat on her back, growling, until her maid came to dress her. Or the actress (C-list, at best) who shut herself in the dressing room, took off the gorgeous Prada dress intended for the cover, and emerged in a striped top, knickers and a baker-boy cap, exclaiming, ‘Don’t you think this is more Vogue?’ She wasn’t actually being shot for Vogue, so this went down like a lead balloon. The day went further downhill when she burst into song at the lunch table, forcing the entire crew into stunned silence until her own staff erupted into deafening applause and we were all forced to join in.
So what’s a day in the life of a stylist really like? Without a doubt, the worst part of dressing a celebrity, or a model,is putting their shoes on for them – your thumbs become shoehorns. Bear in mind sample shoes only come in two sizes – 37 or 40 – so any tootsies that are bigger are getting squooshed in by yours truly. This also means most models have scabby, bruised feet from stomping down catwalks in stilettos two sizes too small.
Once you’ve washed your hands and got the star styled, you’re probably starving. Well, good luck with that. One not-so-popular stylist strongly discourages her assistants from eating on set. (When working under her, I was also banned from using my name, and was known only as The Assistant.) I remember cowering behind rails of clothes, shovelling bread rolls, discarded off catering tables, into my face.
When you are permitted to eat, you’re obliged to stick to the celebrity or model’s diet du jour. If not, you risk your vegan, macrobiotic star locking themselves in their motorhome because there was chicken or the wrong kind of quinoa on the table. And don’t get me started on drinks. Who knew water could prove such a minefield – from the model convinced refrigerated water would make her sick to the one who didn’t trust plastic, and carried her personal water around in a glass jar?
Being evicted from the dressing room is a rarity, but it happens. I certainly wished I wasn’t in the room when a young, slightly grubby, egotistical male model stripped off in front of me before pointing out he’d forgotten to put boxers on that morning. And I’m sure there’s a fine-jewellery security guard out there who was pretty glad he was in the room when a model came on set starkers to ask if I wanted her to put on pants under her swimsuit.
Still, this was probably a shade less awkward than the day spent on set with a singer who was promoting an album that had been completely gazumped by Beyoncé’s surprise release the day before. She spent the entire shoot re-listening to it and demanding we all find fault with it.
The clothes are fabulous, of course. So fabulous that one Hollywood star, when asked if she’d like to keep a pair of shoes after a shoot, demanded more, and made us load up the boot of her car. And with great clothes comes great responsibility. Nothing will match the terror I felt when a loaned diamond ring fell off an It-girl’s finger into a metal-caged box in a park. Unless, of course, you count that time an American male-model-turned-actor texted to ask if he’d left his hash pipe in the pocket of a sample jacket. He had, and it was brought through customs by an 18-year-old assistant on her first time out of the country.
At the end of the day, people have quirks, and by polling my friends in the industry, I’ve heard some corkers. Like the ’90s boybander who will only wear blue, the heiress who changes the pitch of her voice in public, the supermodel who will only let her big toenails be painted – never the others – and the photographer who didn’t shower because he had a theory the body cleansed itself. One superstar turned up with her regular hairdresser in tow; he was in his thirties, in skinny jeans and the same trainers as said A-lister. Oh, and with the same bouncy, highlighted, blonde waves she’s famous for. I can only assume he practises on himself. I suppose he’s just doing his job – as we all are. And, looking back, it’s been none too shabby. Because for every bleeding thumb and shoe hurled to the head (yes, really), there’s a day spent making great pictures with a brilliant crew, standing on top of a mountain – or at the base of Snowdon. Oh, and did I mention that the clothes aren’t too bad, either?