In London, like in New York, Milan and Paris, behind the pristine runway sets is a through-the-looking-glass world of mayhem and magic, where models are transformed from a multicultural gaggle of gangly teens into Madison Avenue beauties -- who've taken a stroll in the country -- or Napoleonic provocatrices.
While fashion shows are held in grand venues, including Claridge's hotel and The Royal Opera House, the backstage spaces are a virtual slalom course for the dozens of makeup artists, hairstylists, models, fashion stylists, photographers and journalists crammed together for the hours leading up to a show. There is a certain level of skill and survival smarts required to duck in time to dodge the video cameras, leap to avoid tripping over hair-dryer cables and swerve to circumvent hairstylists' elbows as they brush and tease long hair.
Amid the chaos, meantime, the lead coiffeurs and makeup artists work furiously (while fielding questions from a seemingly never-ending stream of beauty editors and TV crews). At Unique on Saturday, for instance, stylist Paul Hanlon poufed and back-combed models' hair to Hindenburg proportions before rummaging for strips of fake fur to add an even more savage element to the coif.
"Grip," he commanded to his assistant, with all the steel of a surgeon demanding a scalpel from a nurse.
Once grip was inserted and fur attached, Hanlon stretched over the foot-high mound of fake fur to explain wild forest creatures inspired the look.
Each makeup artist and hairstylist has his or her own method of dealing with the pandemonium. Some are seemingly impervious to stress and will happily recount repeatedly to journalists and video cameras the inspiration for the looks they create and how they were achieved. Others quickly run through the hair or makeup concept -- often an historical or cultural reference updated with an incongruous modern touch -- before zigzagging through the melee to find a model waiting to be made over.
One hairstylist confided recently that he doesn't like to watch shows since the appearance the perfectly coiffed and beautified models make on the runway seems too brief to do the hours of backstage toil justice. But then again, it's also time that could be spent preparing for the next show, where the whole circus will inevitably start all over again.