THE COUNT DOWN The stylists at the shows are the Formula One racers of hair. They have to work at the top of their form in cramped conditions with a team of assistants choreographed to pull off 20–50 stunning heads of hair in under two hours. There is no time to wash out the grease and gunk from previous shows, no time for mistakes and increasingly little elbow room, as backstage is usually swarming with press and camera crews all wanting interviews. A decade ago, backstage was a party where people gossiped, sipped champagne and were made up and styled in leisurely fashion. Now it has the frantic feel of a pit stop as the supers rush through, sometimes only 10 minutes before the show starts. Bb. Creative Vice President, Howard McLaren, has been at the shows for over two decades and here relates the countdown to the frantic final minutes.
Two Weeks The first meeting is at the first fitting. It can be two weeks or two days before the show – the timing is so late because the designers don't have the clothes ready or the models cast until the last minute (you get the picture). The hairstylist is supposed to come up with a concept there and then. You demo on one or two girls and you and the designer come to an agreement about the look. Some designers are very hands-on and specify hair by hair exactly how they want you to execute the look. Some don't care about the hair and just want you to do it. Some have you do five fittings to see if they want the part in the middle or on the side. It can drive you to madness. The best is when it's a collaboration and you can create an aesthetic for them, but also keep the signature of who you are.
Two Days As a lead stylist you don't go to a show and make it up. That's what a lot of hairdressers don't get. There's a lot of time put into the preparation and you have to trust your team. I see a lot of top stylists doing too much themselves, because they don't trust their team (or their team sucks). One of the keys is being well informed. You need to know if the girls are jumping on trampolines during the show and you need to see the lighting beforehand, because both will affect the hair. It's no use doing beautiful gold leaf on top of the models' heads if there is no light there. Prepping for a show can take two to three days or an hour, depending on what you're doing. A lot of the prep is pre-coloring wefts and wigs, which takes forever. To do that, you have to know the exact hair color of every girl in advance, which isn't always easy to find out as the info usually comes from the models' agents, whose powers of description tend to be limited to “brown” or “black”.
Two Hours At shows like Alexander McQueen and some couture events, they allow at least two to three hours backstage and the models can't do any shows that conflict, so there is no last minute frenzy. But that's rare. Everyone is so booked now that in London the models hurry from show to show on mopeds.One of the first things the lead stylist does backstage is show the rest of his or her team the look. It helps to have snaps from the fitting because lots of hairdressers aren't very good at explaining. It may take a couple of goes and tempers can be tested, and then the designer might come back and say, “the look is too high” or “no, we want it simpler.” Calvin Klein had the hair all grungy and long for one of his men's shows, then 45 minutes before the start he wanted it all short back and sides. You've got to be able to stay cool and adapt if they change their mind at the last minute, because chances are they will.
Frantic Final Minutes The work of the hairdresser isn't finished when the show starts. Most of the team leaves, but two to three stylists stay behind with the lead stylist on the lineup. First call is the request for the first outfit on the first girl; then, behind her, the rest of the models are lined up to go on stage. The lead stylist and two assistants go on line with finishing products. The designer is usually right there with you and they're pretty nervous at this point, so there's tension to deal with because at this point, if something goes wrong, it's hard to conceal. Everything backstage is amplified 100 times. I've been at shows where the designers were still sewing things on outfits as the models went out, and where 12 models arrived and they had only 10 pairs of shoes, so two went out barefoot. Great preparation makes the difference between it looking like amateur night and a smooth, polished show.