I was the lowest of the low in the fashion hierarchy. Surrounded by a mountain of ruffles, an abundance of silk and a stubborn rabbit pee stain, I spent my summer as a fashion assistant at Australian Vogue. Fashion assistants are generally held in about as much esteem as tapered-leg pants and Christina Aguilera; in a world where glamor is most accurately measured in units of champagne consumed, I lived the lifestyle of a teetotaller. Similarities between me and fellow novice “fash-mag” employee Carrie Bradshaw end with our riotous hairdos.
Carrie, for instance, would never have to deal with the rabbit dilemma. Ensconced in a closet optimistically known as the “fashion storeroom,” I held in one hand a Marty Samuels cotton voile broderie anglaise dress. I had begun to think in terms of such minutiae as “broderie anglaise” routinely, as one of my many dogsbody tasks included writing captions for clothes featured in photo shoots. In the other hand, I clutched industrial-strength stain remover which, even after hours of intense scrubbing, had failed to remove the aforementioned rabbit pee stain from the Samuels original.
And so, I was now faced with the task of informing an uptight store-owner that her thousand-dollar sample merchandise, entrusted to Vogue for the purposes of our seasonal fashion shoot, now featured an intriguing splatter-style motif. The rabbit had been whisked in at the last minute, after the stylist informed me in a stroke of artistic inspiration that the look she had envisaged for the story—“Harry Potter meets English private school meets upper-crust garden party”—necessitated the presence of something white and frolicky. It hadn’t been easy finding a photogenic albino rabbit with owners crazy enough to lend their beloved pet to a group of flaky fashion types. This involved a few frantic phone calls to pet shops until finally I was put in contact with a starry-eyed rabbit breeder (surely the world’s easiest job) willing to do anything for “the Vogue-er.” My explanation of the difficulties of working with animals, however, did little to assuage the irate boutique owner, who was sweet-talked only with the promise of a promotional push in the next issue.
Luckily it wasn’t all incontinent fluffy bunnies. Certainly, being a Vogue staffer had its perks. My first fashion event was a major skin care launch held at the penthouse suite of one of Sydney’s most exclusive hotels. I was sent to gather enough information to write a newsy puff-piece and to take photos for the social pages, but my secret agenda was to gather as many freebies as possible. But first I had to endure a seemingly endless babble of pseudo-science from PR representatives wearing faux lab coats. This was a none-too subtle tie-in with the company’s slogan, which had something to do with “the science of beauty.”
A press liaison officer with a face so caked in makeup that it remained stiff even when she smiled offered to perform a skin care consultation on me using a “patented” magnifying camera. She claimed this device would accurately detect the “real” age of my skin. I politely declined. After all, every Aussie girl already knows that years of cavorting under the hole in the ozone layer have most likely given her skin an unattractive, leathery quality. Aside from this, there was something about the idea of identifying the “real age” of my skin through some sort of carbon dating procedure that made me feel like a rare Grecian pottery shard.
Undeterred, the PR representative informed me in earnest tones that this skin care line was so revolutionary that it had the potential to take five years off my appearance. Inspecting the assembled ensemble of toners, astringents and masques, I did the math. Did I really want to spend fifteen minutes a day applying all this gunk only to look fourteen again? Suddenly, all the angst and agony of my early teens came flooding back. Putting aside the nightmarish aesthetic trifecta of braces, pimples and school uniforms, there were also the socially horrific memories of gym class, trigonometry and that embarrassingly cliché infatuation with Tom Cruise. The fountain of youth may have been discovered—and bottled at just $80 a pop—but I was not ready to partake of the elixir (or rather, the exfoliant). I left the launch with the face I walked in with plus a bag of ridiculously expensive beauty products I was too terrified to use.
The experience of acquiring exorbitantly priced merchandise I was unable to personally enjoy became a fairly common experience. One of the fashion assistant’s more exciting tasks is “scouting,” which involves visiting über-exclusive boutiques in the most snobby parts of the city, displaying a Vogue business card, and leaving with piles of loot to be used in shoots. It was the ultimate in retail vindication: Minutes after entering a designer store only to be greeted with death stares from Ivana Trump look-alike assistants, I would saunter out with a huge sack of shoes equivalent in value to a semester of tuition at Harvard (this is only a slight exaggeration). For these brief moments, I lived the life of a society heiress, except without the Tiffany’s store credit, but with eight-hour workdays. Another catch in this appealing little fantasy is that said shoes are never kept by the magazine staff. Sadly, everything borrowed for stories must be returned as brand-new—which means, for example, that before a shoot every single shoe sole has to be covered in protective masking tape by the fashion assistant. This is so that afterwards, a store can actually sell the shoes on to unsuspecting customers—i.e., the real society heiresses, who can then declare that their footwear was “seen in Vogue.”
There was also the problem that the sheer volume of merchandise and taxi mileage acquired on these scouting trips didn’t always meet approval from the fashion editors. The process by which random garments and props are plucked from store obscurity to shoot stardom was never made entirely clear to me—it seems some fashion assistants have the requisite savvy, and some do not. After searching all over the city for exactly the right pair of Mary Jane shoes only to meet the disappointment of the stylist because none of the straps were “quite wide enough,” I consoled myself with the thought that I merely lacked the precise strain of extra-sensory perception necessary to read her mind. I have begun to think, however, that an objective observer may simply label this a “innate lack of style.”
The fact that I would never myself become a full-fledged fashionista became painfully apparent as time wore on. Flashing the Vogue card always felt a little pretentious and slightly phony. For one thing, everyone who forges a career in fashion magazines is always immaculately groomed. At the whim of a stylist, who envisaged a “boho-chic” shoot surrounded by red desert sands, we drove 15 hours from Sydney to a town in the middle of the Australian outback incidentally made famous as the location where the drag-queen epic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed. Staying at the only available “hotel” (a run-down pub known affectionately to the bushie locals as “Mario’s Palace”) and working in 100-degree temperatures in a dust bowl, the stylist still managed to look as calm, collected and—most impressively—clean as she had back at air-conditioned HQ. Suffice it to say that by contrast everyone else on the shoot looked like extras in Gladiator.
The lexicon of the fashion journalist is another part of this strange world, a fact I discovered when I went to interview a fashion designer at her studio. The studio was entirely white and there were no chairs, perhaps because she feared ruining the clean lines and angles of the creative space. Even the clothes on display seemed to be impertinent imposters in this place of pure minimalism. The collection itself was rack after rack of what seemed like dirt-colored hessian sacks. The look, according to the breathless press release, was “modern day nomad.” After the awkwardness of standing up for an hour while pursuing a hard-hitting “What was your inspiration for your designs?” line of questioning, I was faced with another quandary. I asked the fashion editor for advice: How to go about constructing a 1,000-word, lavishly descriptive article on the designer’s new collection if every single item in it was brown? She explained to me that it is common currency in the fashion business to invent scores of original labels for what is essentially the same sort of neutral beige color—a hue which is unfortunately “everywhere this season.” Being able to speak fluent brown, it seems, is an essential skill in fashion journalism. My efforts—“donkey,” “cocoa,” “mud,” “snuff” and “tobacco”—were admittedly unappealing.
When people ask me about what it was like to work at a fashion magazine, I often feel that they are disappointed with my response. “It was a job,” I say, “albeit a fun one.” I think this is because most of us, myself included, associate such workplaces with a clutch of negative stereotypes. There’s a sense that these people are not actually “working,” or if they are, that they are performing tasks that anyone could do. But it’s not at easy as it looks. No matter how frivolous you think fashion is, Vogue isn’t the most famous magazine in the world for nothing. And after spending three months ensconced in their other world, I’m not sure I could do their job half as well. So before judging someone, try walking a mile in their (masking-taped) shoes.
Amelia E. Lester ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. She is a native of Sydney, Australia, where words like “dogsbody” are used with alarming frequency.