Fit Modeling: Sort Of Like The $100-An-Hour Model Equivalent Of Sweatshop Labor

Welcome back to Modelslips, in which our anonymous fashion week model Tatiana "slips" about what it's really like trying not to "slip" while starving herself down the runways of New York's inimitable Fashion Week. Yesterday she worked a job for a Top American Designer! Sound glamorous? It was sooooo not.

People are always surprised by the number of modeling jobs that are totally behind-the-scenes. But there's a lot of paid work that will never result in lavish magazine editorials, trendy turns on runways, or even smiley-happy-well-remunerated catalog glory. I am talking about work in which nobody will ever see you at all. Why hire a model, someone whose sole skill set is her appearance, for a job in which no member of the public will actually see her, you ask? Why, to stand in for the miniscule measurements of another, more famous model, of course! And sometimes, when you've spent two days walking in a respectable but not great number of showsfor some well-regarded but not headline-grabbing designers, and you've been earning mainly clothes anyway, you'll get a call from your agency telling you to be across town in twenty minutes because you're going to spend the day working as a looks model and you'll be kinda stoked! Because that means you're getting paid.

Top American Designers don't cast models like me in their shows. They always plump for at least one token "new" girl with buzz, an Abbey Lee or a Karlie Kloss, but their true desire and budget leans toward the established set. Top American Designers cast Freja, Anja, Magdalena, Natasa P and Caroline T., all the many-voweled, leggy, Vogue-nabbing girls with abused hair, perfect skin (well, okay, Caroline T had a big zit on the side of her forehead yesterday morning), and bulging portfolios.

There's just one problem with casting your show directly from the tippety-top of the women's board: Olga, Agnete, Denisa, etc. tend to be rather in demand just now. You should be able to get each of them in for a brief fitting. But when you're a Top American Designer, you don't have one workroom, filled with a bunch of sweet Latina grandmothers who can set sleeves in their sleep, turning out garment after garment. You have things coming from this sample producer and that, knitwear arriving from thither and yon, things being tailored here and there, and the shoes you've designed being shipped from factories near and far.

In the days before a show, when your sleepless, overworked design team's various ideas are harvested from points of manufacture all over the world, you tend to need a little bit of time to make sure everything fits — one sample house's interpretation of a Size 2 is not necessarily another's — and that, you know, the colors match and the things with the highest markups, the shoes and bags, are properly thrown into relief by the outfits. Anabela's hardly going to stick around for hours and miss the Temperley show while your styling team sorts through a giant pile of items to come up with forty-odd runway looks. But for a hundred or so bucks an hour, I will.

My odyssey began simply enough. Early in the morning, I walked up to a nondescript workroom, full of people too important to follow smoke-free workplace legislation. Maybe fifteen minutes later, I tried on a look from a collection that appeared generally decent — wearable, mass-market-friendly, reworked 1970s and 1940s styles for people too scared to shop vintage — with the help of four dressers. The head stylist looked at me from the neck down, puffed out her lips, and vetoed it. I sat back down for the rest of hour while the team came up with something else.

It soon became apparent that this was not a happy showroom. Trying to be a team player, I complimented the cut of a shirt with a flattering cowl and fluttery sleeves. "This looks so, uh, vintage; it's beautiful," I murmured to one of the assistant stylists. "Oh, it's just a knockoff of something old," he said, glumly. When an assistant dared approach the head stylist, deep in contemplation of a wall of Polaroids, for a fabric choice, she wheeled around and said, "Do I look like I have eyes in the back of my head? A set of arms growing back there? Wait a fucking minute, okay?!" Forgetting she hadn't yet assigned me a pair of shoes to match the skirt and turtleneck I'd donned, she hissed at me to get something on my feet. "I won't even look at you girls without heels! I can't dress you without your fucking shoes. Which heels? The gold slingbacks!" The assistant asked again what size I was, and when I told him 38, he returned minutes later with a pair of 36.5s. Just then one of the polysyllabic names waltzed in, everyone's voices rose by a delighted octave, like a married couple interrupted mid-fight by the pizza guy, and I was dispatched to spend another thirty minutes reading the Times.

Looks proceeded at a snail's pace all day. Only the accessories man seemed genuinely happy; "I think we have a real something, a real edge, here with these bags," he said into a reporter's mini tape recorder. "We have the crocodile, the Italian calfskin, the pony. These are going to be huge for us." (Perhaps he hasn't heard?)Someone else spoke very carefully to the same reporter about the role of music in the life of the head designer. What kind of music? "Lately, Wyclef Jean."

I found it stupendous to imagine that all these people — these lounging, sighing, shiftless men and women, myself included, spending the day occasionally opening new bottles of water — were being paid. Sometimes, on the days when the creativity doesn't exactly crackle through the air, and the standing and walking and posing seems like slog for more reasons than just the too-small shoes, it hits me that this is an industry that tolerates horrendous, offensive levels of waste here in the Western upper echelons, at the same time as it diddles Third-World garment workers out of sadly needed pennies. Top American Designer, like numerous brands of its stature, is known for having its clothes made in the U.S. commonwealth of Saipan. MADE IN THE USA labels can be affixed; U.S. labor laws need not be followed. The head designer, present yesterday, makes a minimum of $14.5 million per annum, plus additional stock options, I read in WWD. The head designer is a billionaire.

The pace of the styling did not improve as the day wore on, and it was dark by the time I left to go home. Thank God for reading material, and Japanese food. Today, I'm back to walking in more shows — of course, I can't tell you which ones. At this point I'll gladly take the frenetic energy of a runway show, even one that pays in clothes, over the dead air in that room. It is really possible to suck all the fun and performance and beauty out of fashion by making it this giant, world-sourced, automated, machine of perpetual wealth. Bring on the shows; what they have in store for my hair notwithstanding.