Fashion month is here, and with it the inevitable flood of fabulous street-style shots filling your feed. Achingly cool women laughing as they waft from show to show, showered in sequins, their Dior saddle bags swinging behind them.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the chance to play dress-up every day, stay at world-famous hotels and get the inside track on next season’s most-talked-about trends is the ultimate fantasy job. On the one hand it is.
But behind those statement sunglasses and smiles lies the dark underbelly of fashion week: body-shaming, fierce competition, crippling anxiety, pressure to ‘turn it on’ 24/7. Because for many of the most identifiable fashion week names, street style is a job. Whether they’re paid to be a professional clothes horse, act as an ‘ambassador’ for a label, asked to host a breakfast or paid to be seen at a party, there’s a long list of lucrative ‘activations’ that top up influencer salaries. Though the fees some command can be eye-watering (upwards of £20k for an ambassadorship), not everyone is making that and the environment can be stressful, competitive and physically and mentally exhausting.
A month away from friends and family travelling for work isn’t straightforward, no matter the career. And, as I’m finding, doing it as a new mum can be heartbreaking, with uncharted pressures on both your time and body. The anxiety of being picture perfect at all times can be debilitating.
While I’m certainly no street-style celebrity, as a journalist and influencer I’ve been in front of the cameras from dawn to dusk some fashion weeks. And while I’m returning after taking a season out (I gave birth during last Paris Fashion Week and, though I’d planned to do a couple of London shows, in the end I couldn’t waddle, let alone walk by 38 weeks), as a freelancer the break meant a hit on my earnings (plus no maternity leave).
I’m back because I need the money and because a year is a long time in fashion – enough time for people to forget about you for future projects and collaborations, so there’s a pressure to get your face back out there. Aside from the childcare conundrum, there’s also the fact that even though I’ve lost most of my baby weight, my body is a different shape, especially around my middle, and I haven’t had a minute to think about my wardrobe.
Over the 25 seasons I’ve been doing shows there have been similar crises of confidence. Five years ago, my husband left me – yet only two months later I was back on the carousel, multitasking 10 collections a day with long-distance phone calls from my divorce lawyer, while crying hysterically into my pillow at night.
Miscarriages, terminally ill loved ones, flooded basements and broken arms – these are all things that friends of mine have gone through during fashion week – but you plaster on a smile regardless.
‘The funny thing is that, sometimes, I look back and see these amazing pictures and I remember feeling that I wanted to cry because I felt so shit,’ explains Camille Charrière, an Anglo-French influencer and podcast host. ‘All I can see is how unhappy I was and I know I was wearing sunglasses to hide my pu y eyes from the cameras.’
‘Over fashion week, a day won’t be OK until I see a good picture of myself,’ Camille continues. ‘Getting ready for each show can take five minutes to two hours – it’s that same panic you get before you go on a date and can’t figure out what to wear. For each show you’re meant to represent a designer. The girl that gets photographed the most will get the first pick, then it goes down each rung until it gets to you and sometimes something arrives that you would never wear. You either suck it up or they may never work with you again.’
Yet the damage can run deeper than a missed opportunity for a five- or six-figure deal. The fashion paparazzi don’t mince their words. I was once told to turn to the side by a street-style photographer as I looked ‘too wide’ (I was a size 6), and one friend was told that no one was shooting her that season because she’d eaten ‘too much pasta’. The next year she came back half the size and was all over the street- style coverage. She rolled her eyes at it, but in the end there’s an acceptance that it’s one of the sad realities of the business – thin, leggy white girls get photographed, especially if standing next to each other.
‘Once I was outside a show with a good friend,’ recalls LA-based blogger Courtney Trop, ‘when a photographer came up and asked to take a picture. He then said, “No, we just want your friend, step aside.” Now I hate getting my picture taken outside of shows because it gives me so much anxiety.’ Others have been elbowed in the face, pushed to the ground or screamed at if they’re in the way of someone ‘important’.
I’ve sat in the back of a Mercedes ferrying us from one show to the next with women in tears because they’ve seen unflattering shots of themselves on social media, or because photographers have ignored them, or they think they look dreadful or just because they’re wiped out.
It may sound like First World problems but, when your livelihood is your look, street style has the power to make – and break – career opportunities. It’s easy to suggest they walk away from the new media, but brands will soon move on to another, most likely younger, face.
Undeniably it’s an incredible privilege to travel, see beautiful clothes and have money-can’t-buy experiences, but it can also feel like an endurance test. So next time you see that girl swinging her Dior saddle bag nonchalantly down the Rue de Rivoli, remember she may be battling a crisis, crippled with self-doubt or just in need of a duvet day with her newborn.
‘Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life’ by Katherine Ormerod (£12.99, Cassell) is out now.