Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Mardi Gras-sur-Seine at Galliano: Showgirls, streetwalkers and chicks au Dix

Alexandra Agoston backstage before the show.

Some of us might be a long way from home, but we are having our own private Mardi Gras here tonight [Saturday] at the Carreau du Temple, the venue for John Galliano's show.

I'm backstage, it's about 20 minutes to showtime and the girls are almost out of makeup. Just don't ask me who anybody is - due to the theatrical makeup, I can't recognise most of them.

The look has been executed by a member of Galliano's creative coterie - top British makeup artist Pat McGrath. The model on whom she is currently working has heavy black eyeshadow smudged with blue and green, little purple clown lips and pencilled brows high above the browline, which has been 'disappeared' via a heavy layer of white makeup.

McGrath is using her hand like a painter's palette and it's covered in blobs of turquoise, yellow and white. The model's wig is short and black, with a kind of ragged geometric fringe.

"The whole show is based on Brassai" says McGrath, of the brief. "Really painterly, crazy, beautiful..."

I spot a running list of models on McGrath's table. The first group are all called "Vlada", followed by "Madame Bijou", "street walkers", "Otto Dix" and "Pigalle at night after the party".

A model in a white wig and exaggerated purple eye makeup that extends across half her face wanders past looking like the Madwoman of Chaillot. The makeup makes her piercing blue eyes look quite terrifying. I twig that it's Sasha Pivovarova.

"Who are you supposed to be?" I ask.

"Kiki!" she squeals.

The pace is picking up.

"I want some more foundation on her brows" McGrath commands in a loud voice to an underling. "Where is the team? Go get anybody who's not doing anything and bring them here!".

A very tall girl walks towards me staring straight at me. She's wearing one of the short black wigs, with the smudged harlequin makeup.

It's Alexandra Agoston-O'Connor, part of the Australian modelling triumvirate at this week's shows. I mentioned that Agoston-O'Connor, Gemma Ward and Catherine McNeil were all at Dior. All three are apparently also modelling tonight. Somewhere.

En route to the dressing area, we have a quick chat:

How many John Galliano parades have you worked on?
Alexandra Agoston-O'Connor: Three. This is my first John Galliano show, but I've done Dior pret-a-porter and Dior couture as well.

What's the difference between doing these shows and regular shows over here? They're very creative aren't they?
Yeah, extremely creative. Amazing. It adds so much fun to the show.

And what's the difference between doing this and doing Australian Fashion Week?
Um... well I think probably, I don't know... I mean Australian Fashion Week is right up there I reckon.

It's given a few people a start.
Yeah - and I mean I guess Paris and all the main fashion weeks are just on a grander scale. Like there's heaps more shows, there's heaps more hair and makeup... Everything's just kind of emphasised but I reckon Australia's right up there, in my eyes.

She scurries off to get changed. They're all only wearing one look - such is the complicated styling. I can hear a piano accordian playing over on the other side of the curtains in the auditorium. It feels like a night at the circus. I'm in the dressing area now and there's smoke everywhere. Not just cigarette smoke - which tends to be prevalent backstage at shows, with an alarming number of models apparently chain smokers - but stage smoke that has wafted in from the auditorium.

"Where the hell is Galliano?" I think to myself, having not spotted him once so far.

I look up above the exit to the runway and blog the models' cue card.

The card is headed:
"Debaucherous decadence. Be sexy, be playful, sleazy and very strong! Enjoy!"

And then some specific instructions:
"Walk out and make a first pose in front of exit, facing cameras, following the red path, walk to each set making poses. Be playful with cameras and tease, interact with cameras and audience".

Brit milliner Stephen Jones is adjusting a red net and white feather contraption on the head of Mancunian Agyness Deyn. He looks hot and bothered. She is only half dressed and I notice that she has a pierced right nipple.

Next to Deyn is Sasha 'Kiki' Pivovarova, now changed into a scarlet georgette and devore velvet knee-length dress with asymmetric hemline and tiers of ruffles. She wanders into the middle of the room and starts flailing her arms around like she's about to perform a pirouette.

You can tell the girls are really into this show. An unrecognisable model wearing a wig fashioned from strips of newspaper is standing in front of her rack, which reads "Gemma Ward". She is smoking up a storm.

Agoston-O'Connor is standing alongside the other streetwakers, all half naked save for wads of tissue paper that each holds over their breasts. They are having splotches of purple and turquoise makeup applied to their chests and arms.

I spot Iekelienne in the streetwalker lineup - she's already dressed in a pretty, drop-waisted, ankle-length, calomine lotion pink slip dress embellished with pink sequins and tiny strips of pink velvet. A dresser is attaching a long matching silk scarf around her neck.

Next to Iekelienne, Anja Rubik is putting on a flesh-coloured slip dress with black cornelli embroidery. Most of the streetwalkers seem to be in striking, nude, drop-waisted bias-cut slip dresses. They look chic - apart from the cadaverous body makeup. I should add that there are a lot of people in this room. Apart from the models - and there must be over 40 of them - there is a dresser per girl, hair and makeup artists, photographers and stylists.

I venture out to check the auditorium. While a show is waiting to start you wouldn't normally walk straight out the runway exit, but this setup is unusual and I've already seen people come and go via same.

I walk past a security guy and out into the room next door - and it's like a movie set. The chairs have been arranged around a meandering runway 'path'. Props and actors are everywhere - a woman in a tiara and ballgown walks past with a guy in a morning suit, carrying a croquet mallet. There are ships in glass boxes, candelabras, an English flag, kitsh paintings... Two guys dressed as a farmhand and sailor are lying on a big brass bed covered in straw. An elderly Eliza Doolittle lookalike sits adjusting her knitting. It's totally bonkers and to add to the delirium, audience members are wandering around taking happy snaps.

I return backstage. The girls are lining up - waiting to go on. Between the stage smoke, the real smoke and the stench of hair product that has just been sprayed on some girls, you can hardly breathe. The opening series of "Vladas" are a garish vision of crimson ruffles and scarlet hairpieces. Photographers are in overdrive and the girls are hamming it up, posing in groups like a demented ballet corps.

"Keep powdering! Go for the bodies now!" screams McGrath.

A girl in a black cock feather trilby walks past me to join a small group of androgynous, black-clad women with orange hair, one carrying a black riding crop. They look like a bunch of glamorous lesbians heading for Berlin's Kit Kat Club. I surmise they are the Otto Dix section. Suddenly I spot another familiar face from Sydney - makeup artist Dotti.

I head towards the runway exit to go back out into the auditorium but am barred by the security guy - it's too late, he says, the show is about to start.

I am trapped inside the ramparts of Galliano's louche Parisian fantasy - and the bastard's nowhere to be found.

"Go get me a plate! I need a plate! I need a plate!" shouts McGrath - before someone eventually rushes to the rescue with a plastic dish on which McGrath starts frantically squeezing piles of red goop.

The atmosphere is electric - and verging on pandemonium. Stephen Jones runs past looking stressed, with sweat beads all over his forehead. Gareth Pugh was the Chelmsford deep-sleep clinic compared to this show.

As I walk past the end of the lineup I hear a ripping sound. I look down and realise I have just trodden on the tulle train of the black negligee sported by Flavia de Oliveira, over the top of black satin knickers, suspenders and stockings.

"God - so sorry" I say to her.

"That's OK - I'm going to tell John" she snarls, half-joking.

"The good news" I respond, "is that if you're supposed to be a prostitute, noone's going to notice the difference".

The music starts - a kind of doof doof house music courtesy another longtime Galliano collaborator, Jeremy Healy. I am standing next to the models as they wait to take their turns. They keep breaking ranks to join a group crowded around an adjacent video screen watching the show go live.

The music is pumping, the girls are dancing and pointing and laughing at the poses being pulled by their runway colleagues. Lily Donaldson and Irina Lazareanu are still smoking as they stand in the lineup. I am now right next to the exit and Agoston-O'Connor is horrified to discover she has purple lipstick all over her teeth.

"Just keep your mouth shout" I suggest.

One of the Otto Dix chicks whacks me with her riding crop. Talk about tough chic.

Now all the models are back in the room and getting ready for their victory lap. The music is pumping louder than ever and I feel like I am caught in the wake of 50 drag queens on the dancefloor of the Hordern Pavilion.

A girl with a heavy Russian accent comes running towards me.

"Can you please close this button for me?!!!" she pleads, pointing to her belt which has come undone. I have a camera in one hand and a BlackBerry in the other, but somehow I manage to oblige - just.

"Breathe in!" I have to tell her three times. So much for skinny models.

The girls go out and I walk to the end of the runway exit area where a half dozen people are standing, including McGrath and Jones. Galliano will have to make his own exit soon and I wonder where that's going to be from because I still can't see him. A couple of people ahead of me, I spy the top of a garden rake.

I go back inside to watch the monitor. Galliano then materialises on the screen from behind one of the actors - he is dressed in a yellow bathrobe, with a tweed cap and is carrying.... a rake. Somehow he snuck out there.

Everyone comes back inside the room. They're jumping up and down, clapping and hugging each other.

Suddenly Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley emerge and are whisked by security through the changing area to the back door.

Next Galliano is rushed out by security - but to a black 'tent' that has been built on one side of the makeup area via black curtains. It dawns on me that that's where Galliano has been for the duration.

Another smaller figure gets whisked out from the runway and into the black tent - it's Kylie Minogue. A suite of other people arrive and also get whisked in, from big name editors to buyers.

I wait out the front of the tent, sardined within a posse of television crews, barred by two huge security guys. I keep an eye on the second doorway in case Minogue comes out. Once she does I run over and just manage to speak to her in the crush as she is whisked out the back door and into a car:

What did you think about the show?
Minogue: I absolutely adored it.

It was very showgirl.
Yeah I know! Lots of drama, sparkle...

Are you happy to be back in Paris?
[Pauses] Very much so, yeah.

I wait with the tv crews for at least an hour, barely able to move, cracking jokes and negotiating with the PR retinue. We are standing right in front of the hair and makeup area.

"God I look old" says one tv reporter out loud, catching a glimpse of themself in one of the mirrors.

Finally, a PR emerges and announces that Galliano will do interviews in groups.

Several groups go in and out and the PR comes back and announces that that's it, Galliano is too exhausted to do anymore. After an Italian reporter practically gets down on her hands and knees to beg, the PR gives in, ushering in one last group - including me - giving us one question each. It's an exact repeat of the last season, where I found myself with the last group of tv reporters huddled around Galliano in a small darkened room.

Here's the suite of questions and Galliano's answers:

American reporter: John - what an amazing return of all the spirit of Galliano, the poetry, the beauty, everything was beautiful. It was a dream and it was beautiful clothes.
Galliano: Thank-you so much.

Kiki de Montparnasse?
Yes, Mademoiselle le Bijou... Well I was looking at silhouettes of the Regency period but seeing it through the eyes of a photographer, Brassai, so there was beautiful cocoon shapes, a welcome return to my daywear and a huge exploitation of my bias cutting [laughs] which my markets demand and I was very very happy to do. Set against this amazing theatrical backdrop...

Belgian reporter: Mr Galliano, what inspired you for this collection?
Galliano: Really the Regency period and the photographs of Brassai. The Paris that I dreamed of as a child, the Paris that I longed for, the reason that I ran away from London to live in Paris, um, they're all the reasons that inspired this collection.

Was it fun?
I was a rundown aristocrat and I loved the idea of doing this stately home, a little bit English but inside-out. So we were all outside. You know, tax, very expensive, death duties.... we have to live in the garden.

And a lot of seduction.
Always, that's Galliano.

The bed with two guys?
Mmmmm, what did you think? [laughs]

And then at the end, you greet the audience?
I was the lord. But I had no money. I'd lost all my money but I had this fantastic family. There's a wonderful English proverb that says 'The family that eats together, stays together'. And I firmly believe in that.

This family, with all these special people. It was a very special family, non?
Yes, of course it's the family in my dreams and I challenge you to dream and that's my job.

Italian reporter: Ah - is a work of art.
Thank-you so much.

Yes, the poesie and inspiration from Colette, from the sensualism.
Exactly, from Paris, the Paris that I dreamed of as a child and the Paris that I believe in today.

Is it sexual elegance?
I mean sex sells. And we all love to be sexy. C'est un raison d'etre and a joie de vivre.

Merci. Can you describe your look because you are always...
I felt like an aristocrat and that was my family but we moved outside, because the death duties were too high. So we lived outside. But who cares, as long as we can sleep under moonlight, who cares?

Me: You've pulled off two spectacular shows this week, arguably the week's best productions.
[Tongue-in-cheek] I think I've done two pre collections and I did a menswear collection and an haute couture collection and two ready-to-wear collections...

Yes but I am referring to the two big shows you did this week - Dior and now for your own line.

What drives you to produce such extraordinary theatre with your fashion shows - when most designers are just sending their models up and down a plain white runway?
Quite simply, women. Women like you.

But you don't always do such big shows.
That's perhaps because I'm getting to know women like you.


You're lost for words aren't you? [chuckles]

After seeing over 100 shows in four cities - most of which I have had to badger my way into without tickets - and after being embedded within almost as many media scrums, Galliano has a point. I am lost for words. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else - but by the same token, I am relieved it all wraps tomorrow.

He continues:

No really, women drive me. I love the whole creative process. I love working with my teams. It's true that we've become more organised and I feel I'm so inspired and I need these vehicles to express myself and with the great teams both at Dior and Galliano, we're able to do that.

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