Lanvin models take a victory lap.
Pitcher Perfect in Paris
The Indy Goes to Fashion Week
Thursday, April 30, 2009
When glamorous Susan Pitcher, owner of two of Coast Village’s chicest boutiques, invited The Indy’s style editor to join her on a retail buying trip during Fashion Week in Paris, L.D. Porter jumped at the chance, cashing in her frequent flier miles and packing every black thing she owned except the cat. What follows are brief vignettes from her Paris journal where she recorded the most grueling, exhausting, intimidating, and exhilarating week of her life.
Oh, I know the Paris shows aren’t what they used to be: gilded chairs with discrete clientele and white-gloved elegance. Nowadays, it’s all ready-to-wear, celebrity flash, and sell, sell, sell. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to death when Susan, who seldom goes to runway shows-she’s much too busy working away in designer showrooms-managed to snag me tickets for two coveted shows: Stella McCartney and Lanvin. (Susan’s stores, dressed and ready, are the only boutiques in town that carry these two important lines.) As you can imagine, invitations to such events are not easy to come by. It’s like having the best seat at a prominent table in a posh restaurant-luck did not get you there.
Stella McCartney shows in the marketplace.
My Stella McCartney runway show invitation included a miniature megaphone that made my voice sound like a robot, and I certainly felt like one when I boarded the Paris Metro at 8 a.m. the morning of the show. It never occurred to me that fashion shows would take place before noon, but apparently Stella is an early riser.
I left extra early to ensure I would arrive well before the appointed hour. The show was in the oldest section of Paris, the Marais. As I exited the Metro, I noticed a long line of stalled traffic on a one-way side street. Many of the passengers, all chicly dressed and clearly irritated, were getting out-the women wearing amazingly high, high heels-and walking determinedly up the Rue de Thouars. I realized I wouldn’t need my map, and followed the tottering fashion pack to a 19th-century iron-and-glass-covered marketplace where a crowd slowly was gathering. A stylish young man with an earphone was stationed at the doorway, nodding to the few people who were presenting their invitations for entry. Outside, the place looked cold and dark, but inside it was a huge airy space with concrete floors. I immediately was drawn to a series of tables laden with my favorite food groups: champagne, coffee, and chocolate truffles spelling out “Stella.” No one, inside or out, seemed particularly concerned about time.
Highs and lows of Fashion Week guests.
The runway stretched down the center of the building between two parallel sets of bleachers covered in white fabric. I soon found my seat, but quickly realized almost no one else was sitting down. Chicly dressed people continued to wander in leisurely, joining little groups standing around chatting idly. They greeted each other with air kisses.
I noticed a single line forming in front of a closed door on the far side of the room: les toilettes! I happily joined this group. The line moved at a glacial pace. A middle-aged man emerged and gestured to those waiting that he was slitting his throat. The wait, it seemed, was not going to be worth it. I finally reached the front of the line when a troika of lanky, tall, and extremely young women with tightly pulled blonde ponytails loped up to me: “Can we go first? We’re in the show.” I continued waiting.
Sir Paul with paparazzi.
Sir Paul at 64
As the last model disappeared into the wings to the familiar voice of Paul McCartney singing “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Stella McCartney appeared on the runway dressed in an oversized blazer (her feminine take on an English suit coat nicknamed the “boyfriend jacket”) that’s a familiar staple in Susan’s stores. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, Stella looked like a shorter version of the eerily identical models who had just whizzed down the runway wearing the collection she designed for spring 2009. After her quick bow and exit, the audience stood up, and the photographers, in a feeding frenzy of flashbulbs and microphones, lunged at Paul McCartney, who had watched his daughter’s show from a front-row seat. Moving like an amoeba, Sir Paul and the attached paparazzi flowed toward the exit and into the bright light of the chilly Paris morning.
Susan Pitcher On Topic
Occupation: Owner of dressed and ready boutiques on lower Coast Village Road.
Describe your style: Clean, sexy, fun, functional, and feminine in a modern way.
What is your earliest fashion memory? My parents led a very glamorous life in New York. My mother, who always had amazing style, would appear in the doorway of my bedroom before she went out for the evening to ask me how she looked. I would appraise her from her makeup down to her shoes-an unusual exercise for a young girl, I admit-but I attribute my critical eye and understanding of fit, color, shape, and style to those times.
Who is your style icon? Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, gazing at the store’s windows with a tiara on her head, a coffee in her hand, and a dream in her heart. She epitomizes all the elegance and glamour of New York.
What’s the most cherished item in your closet? My father’s favorite cufflink that my son had made into a ring for me.
What is one thing you’ll never be caught dead in? A string bikini.
Where do you shop in Santa Barbara? At dressed and ready, of course.
Grace Under Pressure
Once we started making the rounds of the designer showrooms, Susan’s retail prowess and physical stamina quickly emerged. She had scheduled appointments with at least two showrooms per day, which might not sound like much to the uninitiated. In fact, I had pictured the two of us sharing a leisurely lunch each day at a cafe on the Avenue des Champs-lysees. How was I to know that showroom appointments can last as long as five hours? Luckily, most showrooms provided food. And drink.
It’s hard work if you can get it.
Our first appointment started at 9 a.m. and we quickly got down to work. The routine was always the same. A sales assistant escorted us to the clothing racks and explained the “theme” of the collection, which was the designer’s overall vision for the season. At the Lanvin showroom, for example, our sales assistant told us the clothing for the spring 2009 collection was simple and unadorned, because, in the mind of Lanvin’s designer Alber Elbaz, “the jewels are beneath the table.” Translation: The shoes sparkle like jewelry so the clothes don’t need to. (Although in this case, Elbaz’s clothes, in their vibrantly colored fabrics, were so magnificently designed that they were jewels themselves.)
As the sales assistant guided us through the throng of clothing racks, Susan would quickly select items that interested her, and then we would sit at a table and wait. Within a couple of minutes, a model appeared wearing one of the outfits Susan had selected. Firmly but politely, Susan would ask each model to sit down, stand up, turn around and raise her hands, and sit back down again. It suddenly dawned on me: Susan was test-driving each item to make sure her clients would be able to wear it comfortably in real life. As I learned, even a garment that looks great on a live model can have structural problems. (In one showroom, a model came out in a dress that so restricted her arms she could only flap her hands like a fish stranded on shore.)
After the model exercise, Susan would then seriously study the garment up close, examining the seams, lining, zippers, and fabric. Then Susan and I would both photograph the model from every angle with our digital cameras. Out came the next model. When Susan had seen all of her selections, it was accessory time. This was always fun, because we actually got to try on the jewelry and shoes and hold the handbags. (Returning everything was harder.)
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Susan would sit down with the sales assistant to make her order. We saw so many clothes, bags, shoes, and jewelry at each house that my mind was practically spinning; yet Susan remained totally calm and collected. Not only did she mentally keep track of each design she wanted to order, she had already evaluated which of the outfits would suit specific clients. The sheer amount of detail she kept track of on a daily basis was mind-boggling.
And this was only part of the picture. The stakes in the fashion business are always incredibly high; but imagine the prospect of committing to buy thousands of dollars of clothing in the midst of an uncertain economy. Susan’s unwavering concentration and determination showed me that she’s a true believer: in the art of fashion and in the industry she so faithfully represents. Susan never forgets that behind each piece of clothing she sells in her stores there are hundreds of workers whose job it is to create reality out of a designer’s creative vision by cutting the fabric, sewing the seams, and placing the zippers.
After three days visiting showrooms with Susan, I was exhausted, my feet hurt, and I had run out of clean clothes. But Susan, like a professional athlete, continued on, cool, collected, and dressed to perfection. When we visited the Lanvin showroom, she wore her Lanvin ensemble; when we visited the Stella McCartney showroom, she wore Stella McCartney. And she thought nothing of wearing high heels all day, every day.
She is one of those women who can walk through life in four-inch heels as if they’re wearing running shoes. Not me, though I never gave up the concept of myself in high heels, which was why I brought a new pair of black high-heeled boots to Paris. Of course, my faithful but ugly walking shoes went in as well (my dedication to fashion has its limits). In contrast to Susan, my daily outfit remained the same: black shirt, black skirt, designer unknown; but I did make an effort in the shoe department. As we approached each designer’s showroom, I would whip out my black high-heeled boots from my purse and simultaneously stuff in my ugly stepsister walking shoes, which is how I found myself hopping around on one foot on the ultrachic Avenue Montaigne to the bemusement of the elegant passers-by. (Luckily, Susan also has a sense of humor.)