Backstage is where the magic happens!

We ask the fashion industry’s most influential set designers, stylists, make-up artists, hairdressers, photographers and PRs to share the secret to a great dynamic on set. What makes a show memorable? What do they talk to the models about? And how do...

by Anders Christian Madsen
27 February 2014, 10:05am

What shows do you work on?
We handle about 30 shows during one season between New York, London, Milan and Paris. Our clients include Narciso Rodriguez, Altuzarra, Dries Van Noten, Dior and Versace.
Do you remember any particularly challenging shows?
The Maison Martin Margiela White show for spring/summer 90 defied every rule that was ever written for a fashion show. At the time I was his in-house PR in Paris. It stays with me to this day, and it's one of the most magnificent, exhausting, groundbreaking and formative shows I have ever worked on. Several years later, at a McQueen show in New York, we were showing on a pier jutting out on the Hudson River at the exact time a hurricane was supposed to hit the West Side the hardest. Everyone was urging us to cancel, and phone calls were coming in from everyone, screaming that I would be held responsible if anyone died. But production and PR all decided to go with the designer, who would have none of it and thought it was all bullshit, and embraced the chaos. He was right. It rained a bit and that was it. The show wasn't even late.
Are there any unwritten PR laws at the shows?
A couple of things: for the guests, please don't bring your cousin from out of town who has always wanted to see a fashion show. Please stop screaming at the PR when a show is late. You're wasting your time and screaming at the wrong people. We too want the show to start, but ninety-nine percent of the time it's out of our control. For the backstage crew, please stop screaming at the PR when there are photographers taking pictures. Having media care about what we're doing is what we're all here for. And for the PRs, brace yourselves: everyone will be screaming at you. Stay cool and see if there is anything you can do to calm everyone down.

What shows do you work on?
Michael Kors, Rodarte, Diane Von Fürstenberg, Lacoste, Jason Wu, Derek Lam, The Row, Mary Katrantzou, Peter Pilotto, Chalayan, Viktor & Rolf, Anthony Vaccarello, Vionnet, Berluti, H&M and Dior, which we've worked on for 15 years.
What role do you play in a fashion show?
Personally, I see myself as a creative director or show designer. The production credit goes to my team. My role is to understand the needs of the designer or the brand, and to help translate them into ideas, which I then build, together with my team.
What is it like working with Raf Simons on the Dior shows?
The more we get to know each other, the more we talk about the things Raf loves. For each collection, we talk about what he's dreaming of - he has very precise ideas, not only in terms of what he's doing, but also how he wants it presented - and we go back and forth together until we get to a concept and a format for what would create the best emotion, and the best way to present his collection.
Which of your shows stand out to you as the most epic?
It was a particularly tense moment when the first girl walked in to the flower room at Raf Simons' Dior couture show last year. Also my first show with Hussein Chalayan with the naked girls in the yashmaks was a very controversial one. I do cherish the moments of flying angels at Victoria's Secret. I can remember some shivering from my first times directing John Galliano's exits, too.
What were John Galliano's most amazing exits?
The one in the horse-carriage for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mr Dior, and I guess the astronaut was an epic one for me as well. Once in a men's show I had John walking out between jumping balls of real fire. It was so scary. I was trembling during his entire walk!

What shows do you work on?
Chloé, Kenzo, Topshop Unique, Chalayan, Peter Pilotto, Anthony Vaccarello, J.W. Anderson, Mary Katrantzou, Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, Erdem, Damir Doma and Dior Homme.
What's your philosophy when it comes to the backstage environment?
My process is always very calm. I'm not a screamer. I don't believe that you get the best out of people by yelling in their ear every two seconds. If something isn't going right, there are always ways to fix it without making a team member feel like the worst hairdresser on the planet. It's also very important to let someone know when they have done something great, and I always believe in saying "please" and "thank you". I've discovered that this is how I get the best from my team.
What's the most stressful situation you've dealt with?
When I did three back-to-back shows in one day. I had to have three different teams, working on each show, while I was on the back of a motorbike zipping in between each one to make sure it was running smoothly. Of course, they all went amazingly well, and the models looked fantastic, but my stress levels were tested that day. Thankfully I have an amazing team, and I know a great bar that does the best margaritas for when it's all done!
Is there anything you always bring with you backstage?
PG tips teabags, Rescue Remedy, and a secret stash of cigarettes for when I just need a moment! 


What are your favourite shows you've worked on?
It's virtually impossible to choose. Whether it's the Versailles show for John Galliano at Dior or his Palais Garnier show, each show has its own atmosphere, excitement and enchantment, from tempo and mood to colours and music.
What shows have been particularly memorable?
The Diorient Express show - ploughing a steam train, belching blue smoke, through a wall, with Pocahontas strapped to the front of the engine. My brief was "Elizabeth I meets Pocahontas on holiday!" And the first night of Howard Goodall's Eternal Light, which I designed for the Rambert Dance Company. The audience wept tears at the end. It was such an emotional piece.
Of the shows you've done for Galliano, which one stands out the most?
The Pleasure Dome. It was a giant 30s film set, straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
What kind of backstage atmosphere do you like to work in? 
Efficiency. Enjoyment. Focus. It produces the best work. 

What shows do you work on?
Last season I worked on around 20 shows in New York, London and Paris. I love working with Gareth Pugh and Vivienne Westwood because the journey to the show look is so creative with so many fabulous people having their own input.
What's your process like backstage?
My nail team always work alongside hair or make-up; we do not have our own space and time with the models. These days I do more overseeing than scrabbling on the floor doing nails. Often the nails have been pre-made so I make sure everyone has what they need. Quite often the models need different and specific nails, so I always keep tight control of it, and if there's something particularly complicated, I do it myself. I always do the line-up until the end of the show, as if anything is going to go wrong, it will be then and I like to be on hand in case of a disaster.
What's the most extreme nail design you've done for a show?
All the ones I did for Lee McQueen. Givenchy [show] had a 12-inch spiral nail, and his last show - which featured more than 50 models - had nails that got longer as the show went on. Models have a problem with very long nails and I prefer not to use glue, so keeping them on until they walked was a challenge.

What shows do you work on?
My company, Catwalking, covers approximately 500 shows each season for ready-to-wear men's and couture, and I cover around 40 percent of those. I have a great team of talented photographers, which enables me to pick and choose the shows I'd like to do.
What's your procedure for each show?
Each show has its own peculiarities, but generally speaking we photographers arrive as early as possible to stake out our working position and find out as much as we can about the show's production and lighting. Protecting my spot is the first priority when I get through the door, then I need to discover if the spot will work with the show's choreography, where the models will walk etc. Leaving the show is much more stressful. There are deadlines to meet, but by that time I'm stuck in the middle of the pack and not everyone is in as much hurry as me to get out - the journalists are standing around chatting about what they just saw, invariably in the exits.
Can you explain the hierarchy in the photographers' pit?
I suppose there did used to be an unspoken hierarchy. Those of us who have been around for many years do look out for each other as much as possible, and hire help to stake out and mind the spots ahead of our arrival - the so-called markers and box sitters.
How far have you gone for the perfect picture?
I've gaffa-taped myself to a pillar at a Jean Paul Gaultier show in '95, as no podium was provided for the photographers to work on, and the catwalk was really high up. We were all frantically running around trying to find somewhere to shoot from, without a nuisance pillar getting in the way. It suddenly came to me that the pillar had the best spot in the house. There was a small ledge at the right height for me to stand on, but there was no way I could perch up there for more than an hour or keep still long enough to work, so I got some of the other photographers to gaffa-tape me up there right on the front of the pillar. I suppose I would still be there today had they not been so charitable in helping me back down after!

What shows have you worked on?
Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Hermès, H&M, Valentino, Gareth Pugh, Givenchy, Gucci, Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent, Maison Martin Margiela, Chloé and Matthew Williamson.
What has been your most memorable experience to date?
The Sonia Rykiel for H&M show rates as one of the most extravagant. It involved filling the Grand Palais in Paris with a fantastical version of the city. The show itself was mounted on moving floats, which consisted of a giant horse's head, a huge chandelier and dozens of cycling models for the finale.
What's the secret to a great collaboration between a designer and a set designer?
It always works best for me when the designer is open to ideas rather than giving me something fixed that they want. That isn't a collaboration, that's becoming a technician, and it's not very creative. Thankfully, I'm usually asked to do something because the designer is looking to hand over that side of things to me and have me spin a story around their collection.
What's the most extreme set design you've done for a show?
It was many years ago; the Untitled show for McQueen back in 97 presented some real challenges. There was tons of water along with hundreds of lights - the two together can get a little scary. We winged it, basically, but the brilliant technicians from ICI and Hamar Acrylic were involved and the wonderful lighting designer, Steve Chivers, made it all work out in the end - no models were electrocuted.

What shows do you work on?
Last season villa eugénie worked on 17 shows including Prabal Gurung, Thom Browne, Y-3, Fendi, Dries Van Noten, Lanvin, Kenzo, Sonia Rykiel, and Chanel.
What's your creative process like?
Thanks to my fantastic team, I have the chance to work on every project we produce. My role as a show producer is to translate the idea behind a collection, from the venue to the scenography. In between, we work on the show concept, through research and creation. I also follow every step of the production: light, sound, décor and security, and show the models how to walk with the right energy and attitude.
What do you want to achieve with your shows?
As a scenographer my role is to translate the designer's dream. You could say that I'm a conductor. We only work with people we feel chemistry with. We don't see it as a business; it's a passion. If we don't feel that chemistry, we won't do it. We work with our hearts.
Do you have any rules when you're working on a show?
At villa eugénie the only rule is: "nothing is impossible - the sky is not the limit."
What's the most elaborate production you've ever done?
Every single show is a challenge, whether it's an art exhibition, a fashion show, a fragrance launch or a museum opening. We organised a flash mob for Moncler Grenoble in Grand Central Station in New York. It took us six months just to get the location. Just seconds before the show started, it was so packed with commuters that we didn't know if we would be able to have the performers dancing. Then it all happened like magic and I'm still thrilled!

What shows do you work on?
I do between 18 and 20 shows a season, which normally include Belstaff, Narciso Rodriguez, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Vera Wang, Altuzarra, Helmut Lang, Proenza Schouler, Giles, Jonathan Saunders, J.W. Anderson, Marni, Sportmax, Trussardi, Costume National, Isabel Marant, Dries Van Noten, Maison Martin Margiela and Balenciaga.
What's your creative process when you're working on a show?
I was very fortunate to do four men's shows and two women's shows for Alexander McQueen, and that process was really amazing. Months before he would send me pictures, drawings or colour palettes. You'd have so much time to think about ideas. I could pop over to his studio and he'd be like, "I like this a bit more or maybe focus a bit more on that." His world and fantasy were so extreme that it was more like watching a theatrical show.
What sort of crises have you been faced with backstage?
Last season in New York, we had a crazy situation where 15 girls came in from the Alexander Wang show with so much gel in their hair you couldn't put a brush through it. We had no facilities to wash the models' hair, so we literally had girls washing their hair with big bottles of Evian over dustbins. It was insane. Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do to get a certain look, but I always like to warn the hairdresser on the next show by sending a text. Some of the models will text me as well saying, "Paul, I'm at this show and I've got gel in my hair," so you know what's coming.

Linda Evangelista backstage at Versace

What shows do you work on?
I've worked on shows for Roksanda Ilin?i?, Comme des Garçons, Sophia Webster, Henry Holland, 2812 and Cassette Playa.
What's your most memorable experience working on a show?
Personally delivering my Comme des Garçons headpieces to Rei Kawakubo for her White Drama collection. I brought a massive laundry bag of inflatable headpieces to the Comme headquarters in Paris a day before the show. Rei came in, selected her favourites and took them away in the silent enigmatic style you would imagine. Later the collection was revealed to a handful of her team with my headpieces in place. I felt extremely honoured.
Have you ever performed any crisis management during a show?
A while back I was working with a set building team, who I had never used before for a show. Somehow something in the design got lost in translation, and when it was finally delivered the night before the show, it was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen. The show was first thing the next morning and it seemed like there was no way of saving it. The next morning I had to re-calibrate, see the whole thing with fresh eyes and think of a detail that would pull the whole show together. It went from being potentially the biggest disaster of my career to one of my favourite projects in the space of about half an hour! 

What shows do you work on?
It depends on the season, but usually Marc Jacobs. I've also worked on Oscar de la Renta, Alexander Wang, Victoria Beckham and Reed Krakoff.
How long does it take you to design and build a set?
Usually with Marc we'll do it very quickly. Everything comes together in the end, and he knows exactly where he wants to go. We'll have a lot of really long days and nights to make it happen, but the great thing about Marc is that a lot of amazing people work on his shows - from production to the carpenters, the scenic painters, the lighting guys and the riggers - and they know the drill. Last season we did the sun; we had never done anything like that before, so we experimented a lot with the light at Marc's studio.
What's your fondest memory of working on a Marc Jacobs show?
One season there was a giant red curtain and behind the red curtain was a palazzo set. It was all about the conformist, so it was all 30s fascist architecture. This giant curtain opened and the audience just gasped. They were so taken aback. To me, those experiences happen when the show starts and people still don't know what it's going to be.
The show starts and suddenly, fifteen minutes later, it's over; is that an anti-climax for you?
Sometimes. I guess we're used to tearing our sets down. We try to donate things when we can.

What shows do you work on?
I do the Prada and Miu Miu shows, but we work with a number of other brands as well.
How do you approach a Prada set?
You have different components: the fashion component, the architectural component, the music component, and so on. Eight to ten weeks before the show, we do a brainstorm where we share ideas, and we come up with the proposals. We meet with Miuccia Prada and her creative team, and the production company. It's a joint process between the teams, and we have an enormous amount of communication about the message that the brand wants to deliver with the show. I always think about it as a theatrical process.
Which of the Prada shows have been your favourites?
I really enjoyed the spring/summer 12 men's show where we had a field of blue cubes. Normally a fashion show is strictly organised with the most important people in the front row, the second most important people in the second row, and so on, but with this show we completely blended the relationship between the members of the audience. The result was total freedom and the most "democratic" show you could imagine. For the autumn/winter 13 men's show, we had a really theatrical approach to domestic interior settings and we were really working on the context, which is very cinematic.
Are there any limits when you design the sets?
Eight years ago we were designing shows for 450 people. Now we're designing shows for 900 people, so the challenge is to try to accommodate that amount of people in a way where everybody gets the same experience of the show. For Prada, a show has to be an experience, not just a collection, and the way we organise the audience around the fashion is the key to that.

What shows do you work on?
I've worked on every show from Topshop to Louis Vuitton. I get excited by the recent one-off shows in London and Paris, such as the River Island Rihanna presentation last season, or the Jeremy Scott show in London, and the Kanye West ready-to-wear in Paris. My favourite designer by a mile is Henry Holland. He has remained loyal to me since 2008, and we always do a fun nail design!
What sort of challenges does a nail technician encounter backstage?
It's always the same, especially in London: trying to get the models' line-up ready in ten minutes before the show starts when they're arriving late from another show. They always lie to you and say it's only a couple of models, and then it ends up being five. I've actually asked if they can wear gloves a couple of times, but we somehow always manage to get it done. 
Have you ever lost it backstage?
A few years ago I had 14 shows to get through in a season, and I felt so under pressure. A lot of the team working for me were great, lovely people, but in the heat of the moment they don't always listen to your instructions, so stress levels are peaking. But I think I've learned to control it now and I'm generally a lot calmer. I haven't shouted for ages!
What are your best memories from the shows?
My best memories are from Paris. It's the real deal over there! Louis Vuitton's catering was always like a five-star restaurant and as it was the last show of the season, we always enjoyed a few glasses of bubbly for our troubles.

What shows have you worked on?
Chanel, Céline, Sonia Rykiel, Dior, Raf Simons, Proenza Schouler, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, J.W. Anderson, Gucci, Valentino, Fendi, Maison Martin Margiela, Thom Browne, Dior Homme, Michael Kors, Rodarte, Theyskens' Theory, The Row, Sacai, Jeremy Scott and Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière.
How do you approach a show soundtrack?
Everyone has his or her own way of approaching music. All elements are part of the mood, including the time of the day. Some designers like to tell a story, some just wish to make their point stronger with the sound. My favourite shows are the ones where there's a dialogue between the designer, the creative team and myself. We need each other to build a story.
How important is the actual live show to you?
Actually the show is when my work is finished. Everything has been done beforehand: research, editing and timing. If I had to mix music live during the show, it would be a bit messy. If the models walk slower or faster and the music needs to change at a certain point, it would not be as nice. I [sometimes] mix it live, depending on the scenography, if it allows it.
Are there certain elements that always work or never work?
Movie soundtracks are always a winner as the music is composed for images, but I have no rules. Anything goes if it fits.
What's the most memorable experience you've had?
Making the soundtrack to the Fendi show on the Great Wall of China was such a challenge, and being there in the night was more than memorable!


What shows do you work on?
I've worked for Hugo Boss, Pringle of Scotland, Bally, G-Star, Costume National, Todd Lynn, and Mulberry, which is one of my favourites. Emma Hill and her team are fantastic to work with.
How much do you communicate with the other creative teams backstage?
We always have a fitting a couple of days before, where we sit down with them and create a look and talk about the collection. Then make-up and hair will create a look on a girl, and we put them in different outfits. You tweak or change things until you have the look everyone is happy with.
What's your process like backstage?
I'll do a demo on one of the models and explain how I want the girls to look. Then each team will start working on their own model. I walk around a lot and see how they get on and correct them where necessary. Sometimes I'll divide the team into groups: one for skin, one for eyes, one for lips, especially when the look is quite specific. About 45 minutes before the girls get into the first looks, we'll touch up their make-up.
Are there any unwritten laws backstage?
Tweeting and posting pictures online before the show is a very big no! It happens a lot these days as everyone has cameras on their phones. For the rest, be nice and work hard.

What shows have you worked on?
Chloé, Shiatzy Chen, Alexis Mabille, the fashion shows at the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, and Dior's showroom where I was chief dresser. My favourite was the Chloé show because I love Chloé, and since it always takes place in the Tuileries Garden you see the most fashionable people, such as the Vogue editors-in-chief.
How did you become a dresser?
When I was in my first year of fashion school in Paris, they picked one student to be the chief dresser at the Dior showroom, and it was me!
What are the responsibilities of a dresser backstage?
As a dresser you have to arrive early. Usually you have to wear all black. There are 15 to 20 dressers, and there's no ranking amongst the dressers. You just have supervisors working for the brand who explain what to do. Someone will assign you your looks and models, and you have to look at the board to make the outfit look exactly how they want it to look. Then you have to unbutton all the items to be able to dress models very quickly. It's not a hard job but you're stressed for a while.
What are the hardest parts?
Usually the biggest challenge is the shoes, especially when you have straps, which take a long time to buckle. The models aren't meant to bend down so you're on the floor. You have to be calm to do it the fastest way possible.


What shows do you work on?
I love working on the 3.1 Phillip Lim men's show in Paris. He has such an amazing vision and an incredible eye for colour. James Long is one of my favourite London-based designers. I've also worked on shows like Calvin Klein Jeans, Pringle of Scotland and J.W. Anderson.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced backstage?
One of the most stressful scenarios is when models arrive late from a previous show with greasy hair, covered in glitter and they need their hair washed and re-done, and their make-up removed and re-applied in three minutes flat. But you can prepare yourself by knowing what shows the models are coming from, how late they're running and what look that particular show had, so you know what to expect and what to have ready.
What do you talk to the models about while you're working on them backstage?
Nothing and everything. You do get to know each other quite well during fashion week as you see each other over and over again, but the conversation completely varies from talking about the weather to talking about more personal stuff. Sometimes you need to hold their head upright, so they can have a snooze while you do their make-up!


What fashion shows have you worked on?
I've covered security for Mercedes-Benz Fashion week at Bryant Park, Lincoln Center in New York City and The Raleigh in Miami since the late 90s. Since 1992 our firm, Citadel Security Agency, has worked on a full spectrum of shows.
What other services do you provide for the designers apart from the shows?
We're constantly updating our procedures depending on world events. In 2011 the entire Marc Jacobs collection was stolen from a train on its way from Paris to London. Before that, for several years we had our guards ride with the collection to and from the Oscar de la Renta show in New York. As you can imagine, since 2011 we have been providing this service for many other designers.
What kind of problem solving have you done at the shows?
The list is literally endless. I was standing on the front steps of Bryant Park on September 11th and saw the first plane fly south over midtown. What we saw and did that day still seems surreal. Over the years we've dealt with many challenges, from fake credentials to stolen tickets, imposters, front row seat poachers, and more. Solving these challenges comes down to one thing: asking questions. You ask someone enough questions and they eventually reveal themselves.

Alexander McQueen
Alexander Wang
Karl Lagerfeld
Tom Ford
fashion show
Dries Van Noten
Jeremy Scott
Think Pieces
Phillip Lim
Hussein Chalayan
Maison Martin Margiela
Martin Margiela
Gary Card
Raf Simons
Rei Kawakubo
Henry Holland
fashion interviews
alexandre de betak
anders christian madsen
3.1 phillip lim
anthony turner
kate and laura mulleavy
lotten holmqvist
mathias van hooff