Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

A marathon of preparation and frantic activity backstage — the West Coast Cooler Belfast Fashionweek is no exception

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

October means just one thing for the fashion industry in Northern Ireland — the West Coast Cooler Belfast Fashionweek.

This season it’s being held at the Europa Hotel’s specially designated Fashion Week Centre. Everyone who’s anyone will be there (including yours truly as the Belfast Telegraph’s catwalk correspondent) to watch the designers, couturiers and retailers showcase their new collections for autumn/winter 11/12.

But while the chic cognoscenti assemble, the supermodels sashay and the paparazzi bulbs pop, backstage there’s a frantic hive of hysteria going on that few ever get to see. I’ve been there myself on numerous occasions and believe me it is phenomenal how complete chaos can convert into such elegant serenity within a few perfectly poised paces.

So here’s a sneaky peek at the sheer volume of work that goes on to get a show off the ground.

When I was a fashion design student in Manchester in the 80s, part of our “hands-on” experience involved the planning and directing of fashion shows. First and foremost, the key consideration for each participant was their own collection of clothes and how they wanted to present it. Rather than send out a mishmash of uncoordinated items, we were encouraged to think of a ‘theme’ that would tie each garment into an overall look with maximum catwalk impact. How we achieved that would be marked by a panel of judges from our department, a bit like the TV series Project Catwalk, except that we were given the verdict in private after the event.

Once the clothes, accessories, jewellery and make-up ‘story’ was worked out, the next crucial decision was finding the right models to present your look most effectively. Luckily for us, Manchester was a fashion mecca in the early 80s and so we had any number of model agencies to choose from. Between us, we had to agree on a line-up of eight models who looked the part and had sufficient stage presence and personality to carry off each outfit with suitable aplomb.

Fittings came next. Once the girls had been chosen and booked we were obliged to pay for each appointment out of our paltry budget, so it was often the case that students would cut out this stage and rely on guess-work until the actual day of the show. This, of course, only added to the fear factor as we hoped and prayed that none of them had been on an eating binge and gained weight — a designer’s worst nightmare.

Next on our lengthy to-do list there was the venue to source, book and prepare; programmes to write, compile, design and print; hairdressers, make-up artists and ‘dressers’ to arrange; music and/or sound effects to record and choreography to plan.

Then, as the big day approached, a catwalk and full lighting rig had to be erected, press releases had to be written and sent out, make-up and hair products needed to be assembled, a PA system had to be installed and tested and, of course, a full dress-rehearsal had to be managed.

So far so good. But none of the above takes into account the utter mayhem involved when a lot of stressed-out divas are squeezed into cramped quarters and made to strip off and get dressed again countless times. To describe the atmosphere as tense is an understatement. It’s like a ticking timebomb waiting to explode and if it does the tears, tantrums and hissy-fits all erupt simultaneously.

This is all going on frantically (yet quietly) backstage, but up front the audience is utterly unaware.

Now, bear in mind that that was just the preparation for one single show.

For Cathy Martin — the PR guru and eminent fashionista who directs West Coast Cooler Belfast Fashionweek with her company CMPR — this has to be done over and over again for the best part of a week and then repeated every season. The volume of work involved is mind-boggling.

Here are some insider facts and figures from behind the scenes and beyond:

  • The CMPR team of six do much of the strategic planning in advance but come the event itself, the number swells to more than people behind the scenes.
  • The ranks include 10 make-up artists and their assistants, 15 hairdressers and assistants, 20 models, five stylists, 20 dressers, 10 in the management team, 25 in the front-of-house team and 10 photographers/videographers.
  • The venue must have the capacity to accommodate more than 500 people in the city centre and has to be free for three to five days of shows in a row.
  • Cathy and her team are responsible for the auditioning and selection of every model and have a bank of about 20 with around 15 used for each catwalk show.
  • Volunteers from art and fashion colleges including UU, QUB & Belfast Met are involved to help with the smaller details such as assembling goody bags, arranging seating and dressing models.
  • As for the number-crunching: each season they use some 30 cans of hairspray per night, 75 pairs of eyelashes, 80 pairs of tights and socks, 200 pairs of shoes and 3,000 ‘looks’ on the catwalk. Some 10,000 photos have snapped and 2,500 goody bags are handed out.
  • All told, each season costs anywhere between £35,000 and £45,000 to run. This includes a big advertising campaign, models, production, venue hire, chair hire, transport, catering etc, etc...

The West Coast Cooler Belfast Fashionweek kicks off on Thursday, October 13, at the Europa Hotel and continues with a series of nightly shows until the official closing event on Sunday, October 16.

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