Maverick Life

Chronicles of Chic: New York Fashion Week, through the milliner’s eyes

By Emilie Gambade 19 February 2014

New York Fashion Week defied the slush and the cold winds and dragged members of the fashion crowd from one catwalk to the other. To many, the gridlocked calendar is a well-oiled machine; but behind the flashes and the pretty aesthetics, chaos, hard work and frustration reign. EMILIE GAMBADE asks South African milliner Albertus Swanepoel about his fashion week.

Despite the abominable weather, the eight days of fashion shows for Autumn/ Winter 2014 – nine if one counts the unofficial start, a day earlier than the official 6th of February – were crammed with sleek presentations and dramatic looks.

From the outset, it was ready-to-wear collections as usual: here, celebrities and riches, shouldering each other with inevitable sighs when the shows ran late, there, a clear muddled feel, the one that goes with big events. For most, the shows went like Swiss clockwork: stylists did their work of putting outfits together, designers closed their show with a mixture of humbleness and über-confidence, buyers watched with a usual I’ve-seen-it-all air of and editors swung between overstated ecstasy and extreme ennui.

Front row and catwalk aside, the real business of fashion happens way before fashion week. For South African-born New York-based milliner Albertus Swanepoel, who has been creating hats for Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs and this season, for Carolina Herrera, the duo Cushnie et Ochs or Assembly, creative busyness happens three months earlier. “I work pretty hard from December onwards, all the way through Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I also have to have my own Fall/Winter collection ready by the end of January, so things get super crazy here.”

In that short period of time, Swanepoel meets with the brand’s designers, creative directors and stylists. The latter have become inevitable in the long road to the catwalks; they are the brands’ creative consultants, counsellors or coordinators, and can alter the final look of a collection up till the last minute.

“[For Carolina Herrera], we were asked to add five more hats to the collection in a matter of two days. Companies with big budgets prefer to have everything in every colour for the stylist to choose from. Stylists are now a huge deal here and charge anything from $5000 per day upwards. Most designers want their hats a week or two before the show, [and then] their stylists come in to basically change everything!”

Photo: Carolina Herrera, fez by Albertus Swanepoel (Carolina Herrera website)

In addition to the back-and-forth meetings, samples previews and last-minute changes, there is the usual pre-show stress: that time when unexpected orders come through, giving the pace a sudden shot of frenzy into an already rich adrenaline flow.

“The week before the NYFW shows, I had to ship over 200 hats to Barney’s, so a friend of mine came in and we were [at my studio] till midnight every night, she packing hats, and me and my assistant working on the shows and my samples.”

The nights are long and the weeks are short in this creative phase; it also often leaves Swanepoel moneyless; he explains:

“I am paying so much money for production and materials doing the show hats, so I often have no money during this period and rely on friends here to help me through this time. It’s something I can never get used to, working so hard and having no cash. No stores give advances here and almost no designer pay me a deposit. I usually have to wait 30 to 120 days to be paid for all of [my work]. Cash flow is by far the biggest problem for a small, self-financed company like mine.”

But past the pandemonium of conceptualization and creation fashion week can finally start.

During that time, the designer wakes up at 8am, drinks one of his partner’s health shakes or a Starbucks Cappuccino, the New York Times or WWD under his arm and heads for his studio. If you thought designers didn’t care about reading international reviews, think twice:

“During fashion weeks, I look at every show on and and read the reviews,” he says.

Although he isn’t directly involved with the shows, Swanepoel tries to go backstage to do final checks and sees if the hats are well fitted on the heads. Preparation starts four hours before the presentation, just for make-up and hair. “It is very insane back stage, especially with the big shows and now that everything needs to be recorded, it is even crazier.”

Photo: Models have their make-up applied before presenting creations by Naeem Khan during the Fall 2014 collection during New York Fashion Week February 11, 2014. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

The shows are usually set at the Lincoln Centre and at Milk Studios, but some designers prefer to show off site. This season, Alexander Wang presented his collection at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, which, according to Swanepoel, caused major uproar and talk:

“But he provided some transport and cab vouchers for the top editors.”

Out of the 312 shows held at NYFW, Swanepoel had his favourites. For one, Tommy Hilfiger, mainly because of his incredible set:

“Tommy Hilfiger has been showing inside the Park Ave Armoury, changing the vast cast inside to something else. Last year, the place was a library and this time, there were real fern trees, snow, boulders and a ski lodge as the set; [it was] unbelievable.”

Photo: A model presents a creation from the Tommy Hilfiger Fall 2014 collection during New York Fashion Week February 10, 2014. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

He enjoyed Cushnie et Ochs, for whom he created this season’s modern cowboy hats in felt.

“The blocks were from South Africa, I bought them about 20 years ago from a factory, Dorian, that has now closed down. They had the license for Stetson in Africa.” A few minutes after the show, Swanepoel received a phone call from Vogue magazine asking him to talk about ‘those’ hats; “[apparently], there was a Western hat-moment happening already in the shows, so they asked for an online interview that went up the same day. It is amazing to me how fast all these things happen.”

Photo: Cushnie et Ochs: picture from the website – cowboy hat in felt worn by Karolina Kurkova and made by Albertus Swanepoel

Also on his radar, Rodarte’s eveningwear and The Row, which ‘does insanely chic clothing.’ Kate and Laura Mulleavy for Rodarte based their fall 2014 collection on their childhood memories (they were born in the late seventies-early eighties), bringing back floor-length sparkling gowns (by sparkling, I mean embellished with Swarovski crystals) and printed with images of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, Master Yoda or R2-D2. If lurex fishtail skirts, crochet tops and faux-fur collars don’t bring back nightmares of eighties prodigality, this daring collection, berets fitted on the side of the head, will attract fans of flashy colours and textures.