Valentine’s Day marked the last day of New York Fashion Week, a biannual event dedicated to designer clothing, gorgeous models and chic spectators lining the sidewalks around Lincoln Center like Amherst students in Val at the lunch rush.
For many of us, these factors are all we see. Though each event lasts for under an hour, they all take an unbelievable amount of hard work and preparation that only those behind the scenes can understand. Fashion has always been an informal hobby of mine, and over this past interterm I wanted to delve deeper into the world behind the catwalk. I figured working in a design studio would be an interesting way to spend a couple of otherwise lazy “Mad Men” marathon-filled weeks in January, so I applied to be an intern with the French women’s designer Catherine Malandrino. After a short interview that highlighted all of the practical experience I didn’t have in fashion, I somehow got the job and started soon thereafter.
How do you picture the inside of a fashion designer’s studio? Elegant people left and right, racks and racks of perfectly organized designer duds and big chic offices à la “The Devil Wears Prada,” right? That’s what I pictured before working at Catherine’s New York studio. When I showed up on my first day to a grungy building in the heart of the garment district, those “Project Runway”-inspired fantasies about where I would be working were dashed quickly. What I found instead was a tiny studio with desks tucked away wherever they would fit and heaps of papers and other materials filling whatever space was left. Even more alarming was the amount of clothing on racks, in piles and in boxes all over the office.
I was surprised by the small group of people that run the behind-the-scenes operation for such a well-known company as Catherine Malandrino’s. Since there was such minimal manpower, I and the few other interns with whom I worked spent full days at the studio, with rarely a dull or idle moment. Though I went on the inevitable coffee run every once in a while, I was very pleased that my days were mostly filled with duties that actually contributed to the company’s output. Often, I was relegated to fabric swatching: the designers would describe a particular type and color of fabric they needed for a design, and then send me out to search far and wide through the various fabric stores littered across the city. Sometimes I was given a request so rare that it took hours of searching through hundreds of fabric rolls in dozens of different stores to find a match. It was definitely interesting to understand how fabrics are selected and purchased in the fashion industry, and especially to have been personally part of the process, but the searching got tedious and exhausting at times. I’ll be okay if I never see “Fuji Silk” or “Ponte” again.
Other activities in which I partook included pinning pictures of different “looks” to big display boards until my fingers burned, cutting out shapes and contributing ideas to the design of different pieces, trying on the clothing as a “fit model” and even trying my hand at drawing sketches of the clothing and utilizing my minimal Home Ec. skills to sew items for their Fashion Week show. Unfortunately, Winter Storm Nemo kept me from heading back to New York to work the show, but I was happy to at least have lent a hand during its hectic lead-up.
Although the work was surprisingly exhausting, I’m glad that I used my interterm to step out of my comfort zone and enter a field that I’ve always had a passion for. I’m particularly grateful for the intimate and unique exposure I received, especially with the lack of prior experience I had going in. While my break was not as relaxing as I had hoped, and despite the fewer episodes of “The Real Housewives” I got to watch or hours of sleep I got each day, I definitely wouldn’t take back my decision to work for the company. I loved getting creative when dressing in the morning to keep up with the effortlessly chic people I interacted with, who were, for the most part, intelligent, kind and understanding. (There are always going to be those sticklers who are unsatisfied with the apple you’ve fetched them, right?) I even had the privilege of working with Catherine herself, and was genuinely surprised to see the design genius on her hands and knees working just as hard as the rest of us. I now feel that I have a more profound understanding of the field I have always had an immense (albeit superficial) interest in, as well as a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into the clothing we wear and the shows we see. The worst part? Acknowledging that I couldn’t sneak out of the office on my last day with every piece of beautiful clothing stuffed into my back pocket.