“It’s like a hurricane: one minute it’s calm and then it’s chaos,” says Kate Reynolds from Melbourne design-duo Pageant moments before the start of their debut show at Australian fashion week.
Behind her, 20 or so models are frantically changing into their outfits, half a dozen backstage photographers are herded together and repeatedly told “do not cross the yellow tape” by an irate producer, and a doorman blocks a young woman from hurriedly entering the scene.
“I’m a model,” she protests. “No-one’s coming in and no-one’s crossing that tape, that’s what I’ve been told,” he says. “But I’m in this show!” she scoffs, swerving around him while rolling her eyes at the snappers.
It feels like a microcosm of fashion week, where colour and drama are abundant, punctuality is unheard of, and surviving the week is half the battle.
Held at Carriageworks in Sydney, this year’s event has seen 43 shows from 67 designers, with garments worn by 1,080 models. There have been approximately 30,000 guests, 400 photographers, 500 volunteers and too many bloggers to count. And after the shows, it’s still not quite over yet: there’s a day of fashion seminars to go.
Fashion is a booming industry in Australia, the luxury sector alone is worth in excess of $2bn in annual revenue and one model on the runway this year, Jordan Barrett, is said to be earning $100,000 for a minute’s work.
“We’re growing as a nation that wants to dress better and be more fashion conscious,” says Jordan Stenmark, one half of the Stenmark twins, Australia’s most recognisable male models. “And even though there might only be something like 24 million of us, there’s so much talent out here. So you’ve got to celebrate what’s being done back home.”
The twins attended the opening show by Dion Lee at Sydney Opera House on Sunday afternoon – Lee was making his fourth appearance at the venue whose geometric form has so inspired him – and were impressed by his colourful collection featuring sliced Akubra hats and oversized jackets.
“I thought the Dion Lee show was fantastic. He’s such a talented designer because he plays with textures and cuts really well. He’s been able to own that. Over the years he’s really put Australian fashion on the map.”
It doesn’t matter that most of the garments on display at fashion week are unaffordable, says photo-blogger Myles Kalus.
“It’s kinda like going to a museum. Just because you can’t own a painting doesn’t mean you can’t still see it and enjoy it,” he says. “My favourite brand, Comme des Garçons, it’s way out of my price range but I absolutely still love it regardless because it’s one of those brands that shows the world what you can do with clothes.
“Clothing originally came from a more utilitarian background but with fashion it’s a celebration of creativity.”
Backstage, 20 year-old model Akiima Ajak is taking a quick lunch break. She’s booked to walk in so many shows she can scarcely keep track. “Sass and Bide, We Are Kindred, Dion Lee,” she says, pausing to consult her phone. “Alice Macall, Magraw, too many to remember. I did four yesterday, four today, one Sunday. Some days you wake up and you’re so excited, some days you’re tired. You just have to enjoy every moment.”
Ajak was only signed to an agency two months ago and has never done a real photoshoot, let alone walked the runway. Until recently she was working in a care home.
“I wanted to put my height to use for once,” she jokes. “Modelling isn’t what I imagined it would be, but it’s good. Normally you watch TV and you see the pretty stuff but you never see backstage. I didn’t think about how the hair and make-up would take hours to get ready for a five minute show. And I’m lucky – I don’t have much hair.”
While Ajak’s career is just beginning, fellow model Raenee Sydney, one of the most memorable faces from fashion week 2016 thanks to her electric-blue hair, has reservations about continuing hers.
“This time last year I flew to LA to shoot Calvin Klein and that was a phenomenal experience but at the same time modelling can make you feel like total shit,” she says.
“Last year I went to a casting and waited at the fitting for six hours and then I tried on every outfit and got dropped at the last minute. It makes you question yourself. Am I not good enough? Have I not got the right look?
“I have to remember never to blame myself because there’s plenty of other things that come into it – maybe you’re just not right for that season.”
Models are often misunderstood as just “walking mannequins”, says Kalus, who has come to know them personally through photographing them backstage.
“I don’t think people have a negative perception of models because of the models themselves, I think it’s the industry creating its own universe. Fashion is built on the idea of hierarchy and to make things more enticing they have to create separation. But they’re humans too.”
‘Cotton creases a lot’
In the lead up to every show, accredited photographers either head backstage or queue for a position on “the riser”, the stepped platform at the end of the runway. Almost every snapper wants to be front and centre of the riser, lest they have a poor angle or their colleagues’ lens-hoods creeping into their shots.
Miro Kubicek, the seating director, oversees their arrival before opening the doors to the audience. He’s not only one of the doyens of fashion week, but also one of its most charming characters. He greets everyone with enthusiasm and somehow ushers them to their seats in an orderly fashion even when the show is about to start.
Occasionally the photographers call him into action. “Hey, we need a big man for this job,” a photographer shouts over to him during the white balance reading before We Are Kindred. Kubicek’s ears prick and he glides over, takes the sheet of white paper from his colleague and grins for the cameras.
The clothing at fashion week ranges from slick, monotone menswear by the likes of Justin Cassin to the quirky, colourful creations by Double Rainbouu. There are times when you can sense the approval of the photographers as the flickering sound of their shutters rises with every vivid creation.
During one show the final model, wearing a billowing ballgown, trips on her garment halfway down the runway, directly in front of the riser. She gathers herself and continues her walk.
“You do have that thought in the back of head of ‘don’t stuff up, don’t slip, don’t trip’,” says Sydney. “It’s hard trying to keep your balance and your walk right. It looks easy but you have to have a certain look to it. You’ve got to be a bit staunch and not sloppy. It’s really methodical: left, right, left, right, with a bit of hip swing.
“A lot of the designers tell you what look to have or how to showcase yourself. But you also have to do what you feel comfortable with because if you don’t feel comfortable you’re not going to look right.”
“Don’t bend your arms,” is the main instruction given by designer Anna Quan to her models before they go on show at the Box. “Because, y’know, cotton creases a lot,” she explains afterwards. “It wasn’t some weird disciplinarian thing making them behave!”
It’s little wonder she’s concerned about the details: she’s invested $30,000 on one fifteen-minute show.
“I think people get really carried away with doing a show. It’s a very obvious spectacle and you can get swept up in the excitement, but if you had to break it down it’s basically a sales presentation,” she says. “Because what’s the point of being a designer if no-one wants to wear your clothes? Is it just art or is it art that people wear?”
Like Quan, veteran designer Arika is similarly cursed by creases in the lead up to his show and has surrounded himself by a team of steamers in bid to resolve the matter. However, so much power is needed that they fuse the powerboard and there’s a sudden electrical outage.
Akira seems remarkably unruffled. Then again, he’s used to these dramas – he’s been showing at fashion week since 1996, the year it began.
Over the years, he says he’s noticed a shift in the creative intentions of Australian designers: “In the past they were playing more safely and presenting stuff which was a derivative of what’s going on in New York or London or Paris, but nowadays they’re more confident and are showing their individual point of view, which is healthy. They’re definitely setting the agenda.”
On the eve of the final show by Romance Was Born, themselves a good example of Akira’s point, the queue for a spot on the riser begins more than an hour before the official start time. But everyone knows it won’t start for at least another two.
Outside, blogger Warren Pasi is hoping to squeeze his way in to catch a glimpse of their elaborate, bizarre, dreamy creations.
“I love fashion that makes you think, makes you feel, makes you excited, makes you happy,” he says. “Because clothes are meant to be the outer expression of your emotions, of who you are on the inside.”
After the show, Redfern train station is speckled with familiar faces from the week, including young models, each of them almost disguised by their ordinary clothes. Yohanis Diaz Morgan is one of them. Did he make it past security to see Romance Was Born?
“I was outside watching the live stream. I couldn’t get in.”