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02.16.11

New York Fashion Week: Backstage at Marchesa

New York Fashion Week became a fantasyland at Marchesa's presentation on Wednesday. Isabel Wilkinson reports on the hours before the show. Plus, backstage photos by Kevin Tachman.

New York Fashion Week became a fantasyland at Marchesa’s presentation Wednesday. Isabel Wilkinson reports on the hours before the show. Plus, backstage photos by Kevin Tachman.

So far, New York Fashion Week has been about functional clothes for fall—from gray wool coats to furry vests. But at the Marchesa presentation Wednesday afternoon, we were transported to another world.

The line, which is designed by Harvey Weinstein’s beautiful wife, Georgina Chapman, and Keren Craig, is marked by over-the-top fantasy. These are architectural dresses that seem to challenge laws of physics. Every season, the collection is shown in a Champagne-filled presentation rather than a runway show—in part, you’d imagine, because the dresses aren’t exactly easy to walk in. Instead, models are arranged on pedestals, and circumambulated by editors—like museum visitors looking at outdoor sculpture.

Gallery: Backstage at Marchesa

As such, each component of the Marchesa look is carefully selected for maximum impact. We arrived two hours before the house’s presentation Wednesday to understand what goes into the making of that Marchesa magic—a unique mix of tulle clouds, lace socks, pretzel sticks… and lots and lots of hairspray. Herein, our play-by-play of the hours before Marchesa:

1:24 p.m. It’s just over two hours till show time at Marchesa, and the models are in various states of hair and makeup. Some girls are racing in from other shows, and immediately change into bathrobes before handlers rush them onto high chairs where they’re descended upon by makeup artists, manicurists, and a buzzing team of hair people from Frederick Fekkai. Lace veils descend onto models’ heads.

1:31 p.m. Ornelia Edwards, a 16-year-old from Jamaica who is already in dewy pink makeup, is scarfing down a McDonald’s chicken sandwich with bacon and an extra large Coke. She’s awaiting a hair transplant: While other girls are being teased and sprayed into balls of fuzz, Edwards has only two little pigtails. She’ll get an elaborate hairpiece fastened onto her head by a team of people. But she’s also preparing for the mind-wash that is a standing presentation. At runway shows you’re in and you’re out, but at presentations, models have to stand on a podium for more than an hour in spike heels while they stare blankly into a spotlight. “Sometimes it gets boring,” Edwards says. “My mind wanders all over.”

2:07 p.m. Two models from the Jeremy Scott show come sprinting in. There’s just one problem: They have bright pink pigtails on top of their heads, and a mess of fuchsia makeup all over their faces. They need to be converted from 1990s-Lolita to virginal-Miss Havisham in a matter of minutes. To the makeup artists at Marchesa, this is the equivalent of an Emergency Room panic: "We’ve got a bleeder!!!" Instantly, a dozen makeup assistants are cleaning up each girl with makeup-remover pads. “Get the fucking chisel out,” the lead makeup artist says as she coats one model in foundation. “This one’s going to be rough.”

2:15 p.m.: As models finish with hair and makeup, they’re hustled downstairs, where they change into massive dresses and are photographed for Marchesa’s look-book, which is the visual guide to the collection that goes out to editors and buyers after the show. A team of photographers is on hand to shoot each girl from every angle—front, back, and side—in each dress. The entire collection needs to be photographed in 45 minutes, before Anna Wintour is scheduled to arrive at 3 p.m.—and God knows, she’s never late. On hand to make sure this goes smoothly are dozens of dressers and publicists with walkie-talkies who dress the girls, line them up, and make sure they’re photographed as quickly as possible. “Face forward!” scream the photographers. “Side! Back! Thank you!” Off camera, one model bemoans the Christian Louboutin heels that have been created for the line. “These are the most uncomfortable ones yet!” she says, rubbing the soles of her feet.

2:55 p.m. The crown jewel of the collection is a ballgown of tulle with a beaded bodice. Like the rest of the collection, it looks like it had been made to be worn on the Oscars red carpet. A publicist stands on a table, holding the bodice of the dress, and four assistants spread out beneath her, opening the dress like a parachute. A naked model scampers underneath before it is lowered on top of her. Once she’s fastened inside, two men go under her skirt, each fastening a shoe, while a female dresser holds her hands.

2:59 p.m. Anna Wintour is due in one minute, but there are three more looks to shoot. “We’ve got to hurry this up!” screams a man in a suit as the publicists shuffle a model off the stage. All the models are placed on their pedestals. Chapman and Craig appear in a panic—aside from their perfect Marchesa dresses and spotless makeup. Chapman is running around in ballet flats, frantically making adjustments to the models.

3:01 p.m. All press out! La Wintour is on her way into the building, and needs to study the collection in complete peace. Photographers and press are ushered back upstairs to the makeup area—a holding pen for everyone to wait while Wintour views the collection.

3:11 p.m. Back upstairs in the makeup and hair area, all is quiet. In a corner sits one last model, hunched in a bathrobe in the corner, quietly reading a book. She’s Chavelli Inghels, an 18-year-old Ford Model from The Netherlands, otherwise known as the “Backup Girl.” She’s at-the-ready in full makeup and hair should, God forbid, something “happen” to one of the models downstairs—be that passing out from exhaustion or breaking an ankle. We ask her: Is she sad to be missing the show? Without hesitating, Inghels flashes the cover of her book: Twilight, in Dutch. “I’d much rather be up here reading,” she says with a laugh. “I just hope they pay me well.”

3:15 p.m.: Fifteen minutes before the house opens, and Wintour is long gone—but the other top editors from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and W are brought in to see the collection before the venue fills with guests. Vogue.com’s Candy Pratts Price fawns over the collection’s jewelry, which was created in collaboration with Miriam Haskell, while W’s Stefano Tonchi circles Chapman and Craig to congratulate them on the collection.

3:30 p.m.: Georgina Chapman is on a press whirl, reciting her inspiration to a series of camera crews: “I was watching David Lean’s [1946 version] of Great Expectations,” says Chapman. “It’s so visually decadent and beautiful, I was so inspired by Miss Havisham’s character. I came in and told Keren the next day: ‘We have to do that.’”

She explains that through the details of the collection—which includes earrings that weave up the ear, and lace socks that extend mid-calf, she wanted to communicate this idea of “the lady sitting in the attic and having things grow up around her.” With all the tulle and spectacle of these gowns, it’s hard not to think about the upcoming royal wedding. What’s she going to wear? “ That’s the million-dollar question!” Chapman laughs. “She’s a beautiful girl.” Any chance you’ll put Kate Middleton in Marchesa? “Well one day,” she says. “It’d be nice!”

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.

Kevin Tachman is an award-winning photojournalist best known for his backstage reportage documenting fashion, music, and art world events. He launched BackstageAT.com in September 2009 to document and share an ever-growing collection of captured moments, often fleeting as seen through his lens.