Tales of a Paris Fashion Week Scrub

Is fashion always glamorous?
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Lisa Czarina Michaud
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Is fashion always glamorous?
Shoes on display at a Paris showroom where I worked.

Shoes on display at a Paris showroom where I worked.

When I moved to Paris five years ago, I obtusely assumed that I would be able to secure a similar job in fashion that I had in New York. Fashion. It already sounds fancy, but really, my job was a steady freelance gig nestled somewhere between the finance and IT departments at a sought-after fashion house. 

While the other positions in the office were similar to the ones you may have seen in The Devil Wears Prada, mine was the job that, if you re-watch the film and see an extra somewhere in the background working with her headphones on, oblivious to the pandemonium taking place around her, then you’d see me. Well, not literally (my years working as an extra is an entirely different essay), but that describes the quiet job I had in the seemingly glamorous industry.

When a permanent position for a similar job opened up, one that offered — wait for it — health insurance, a clothing allowance, and happened to be located in the company’s Paris office, I figured I had just as good a shot as anyone and off to France I went!

Well . . . Ha. Ha. Ha. On me.

In Paris, the director of human resources, who tolerated an interview with me, was more interested in my family pedigree than my professional experience. (I was ill-prepared to answer questions about what my father did for a living. I awkwardly had to explain that he had died.) My liberal arts background at my school that did not offer actual grades or majors for that matter, failed to impress as she scanned my résumé looking for a fancy-pants degree at an esteemed French university.

Fast-forward five years and voilà, I’m still in Paris where my qualifications landed me a babysitting job teaching French toddlers English where twice a year I get to revisit my professional vocation when the circus comes to town: Paris Fashion Week.

Working in a Paris showroom.

Hard at work (at a different showroom).

While the jobs and fashion houses vary per season, I recall being thrilled one season when I was assigned the showroom assistant at an iconic French fashion house that I was certain was going to make my résumé just sparkle. Emails from the woman who would be my boss for the week had this central theme of declaring that the job was not going to be glamorous and to not be enchanted even if Mr. André Leon Talley himself came in to see the collection, before stating that I would need to report to the showroom at 7:30 a.m. every morning for hair and makeup. Hair and makeup? Sure, nothing glamorous to see here.

Impressed that I was going to be professionally fussed over for an entire week as I studied my overgrown eyebrows in the reflection of my laptop wondering if it would come across as Cara Delevingne–chic, another email from the boss rolled in, asking what my skirt size would be for my uniform.

My choices: small or extra small.

While technically I have a small build, being 50 percent Italian with some Mexican genes sprinkled in on pop’s side, there is nothing small or gasp, extra small, about my lower body. I was certain that my hips were not going to lie in a size small skirt that I had the foresight to guess would be a pencil cut.

But who cares? I reassured myself. It was about that season’s ready-to-wear collection, not me. At 7:30 that first morning, I arrived at the showroom that boasted breathtaking views of the Eiffel Tower, saran-wrapped in control-top tights with a pair of Spanx bicycle shorts pulled over ready to make that size small skirt my bitch. Paris Fashion Week, baby!

View from a Paris showroom.

The view from one of the showrooms I’ve worked at.

The boss whom I had been in touch with was just as sublime as I had pictured her to be, towering over me in her clunky architectural heels that propped up her long and lithe legs. With a forced smile, she shook my hand and handed me a garment bag that held my uniform. 

When I returned from the Diptyque-scented bathroom, I tried to avoid her, hoping she wouldn’t notice that I had stuffed myself into the small, stretchy pencil skirt so that it looked as if two beef Wellingtons had been strapped to each hip. The stiff, black button-down shirt with "Rhythm Nation"–like hardware of dangling chains and locks in place of actual buttons was tucked in and bunching up like a kangaroo pouch under the skirt.

There was no hiding from her as her eyes immediately darted up from her Blackberry as I tried to stealthily sashay by her while holding down the sides of the skirt that were riding up.

“Perhaps,” she stopped me, pinching together the flesh of her bottom lip with her fingers. “We can find something you will be a little more comfortable in.”

So it was confirmed: I looked terrible. And there I thought I was just being self-conscious.

My uniform was remixed from the tight skirt and Janet Jackson top to leggings, an oversized T-shirt with the brand logo splashed across the front and a black nylon hairdresser smock with metal snaps rolling down the front. Relieved, with my Spanx tucked under my arm, I passed by a cleaning woman emptying out a garbage can who was wearing the same exact outfit as mine. We gave each other knowing looks that we would be the most comfortable women in the showroom that week, as I noticed the others picking out wedgies from the cheap skirt that was riding up over their tights.

After pillaging a pain au chocolat, I headed to hair and makeup, where I walked in an Italian girl with my at-the-time long curly hair, and walked out as a 1980s Robert Palmer video girl. With my mound of hair rolled into a tight low bun that was locked and cemented by hairspray and 30 prickly little bobby pins and my face painted in shades of coral and raspberry, I passed a dozen other women wearing the same exact face as mine.

I was then shepherded to the showroom for a briefing of the collection before the clients came in for appointments. I tiptoed in as a man wearing a black leather kilt explained in his indistinct European accent, “The inspiration for the show” — he proudly pulled off a garment off the rack — “is homelessness, living on the street with blankets, being a vagabond, so poor yet so fabulous. But don’t say that to the clients, of course.”

Don’t say that to anyone, I thought embarrassed for him as I pretended to jot down notes.

The briefing continued on with more offensive talk about the homeless-chic quality of the collection where I was amazed that no one — seriously no one! — had any kind of reaction to the oxymoron that is haute couture meets poverty.

Once the meeting came to its thankful end, with the lookbook tucked under my arm, I walked into the dressing room to meet the models I would be dressing and the interns I was told I would be managing. Inside I was greeted with a row of bored-looking models stretched back like gazelles on metal folding chairs wearing nothing but mesh thongs and white lab coats, thumbing away at their phones. Bonjour? 

And in the other corner was a congregation of French interns wearing serious looks of concern as they griped on about the injustices that had apparently already taken place in a matter of the two hours we had all been there.

“Ils sont là!” the intern that I decided was the girl-boss of the group shouted to announce that the clients had arrived. That broadcast launched a whirlwind week of total chaos: executives charging into the dressing room demanding that I put together looks that replicate the show despite the shortage of accessories, or clothes for that matter; reassuring a model who had decided to go on strike that the garments were not made in a sweat shop in her country; begging another model to please take out her acid yellow belly ring that boldly read SEX, as it was showing through the sheer tops; getting a black eye when I turned around into a garment rack that had been rolled into my blind spot; being told to avoid putting Look #23 on the “fat model”; cringing when another model saw fit to recount a story about taking a laxative–induced dump in the showroom bathroom to the brand’s president; a hand-beaded gown ripping entirely in half off a model’s body and on to the floor in front of big department store buyers; overhearing the marketing director of the Paris office who with her version of the grunge-revival trend combined with her face had a striking resemblance to Eddie Vedder explain to a curious colleague that the chubby American girl speaking French in the dressing room was “no one”; being granted mere seconds to produce identical fashion show looks with delicate garments that practically had to be sewn onto the unwilling models whose interests seemed limited to smoking and texting guys; and nearly fainting from the weight of my hair that I learned with every passing hour got heavier as it yanked at my sore scalp.

It was awesome.

Every season I swear on my Marc Jacobs peep-toes that it’s my last as I limp home with sore feet feeling disgruntled and disheartened and well, cheesy. But by the time the paycheck hits my bank account and the months of real life happen in between seasons, most is forgotten, and I always end up going back for more. 

Hey, who knows? Maybe one season a collection will be inspired by the Paris Fashion Week Scrub? Klutzy and embarrassed meets haute couture. Now, that’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing.