Backstage at Marchesa

Behind the scenes at the Plaza Hotel on Tuesday, Naomi Campbell makes an appearance, and Karolina Kurkova and Karen Elson prepare to walk the runway. See exclusive photos from backstage.

“Boys! Boys! I need help getting down the stairs!” It’s 30 minutes before Marchesa’s runway is set to begin, and Karen Elson, the stoic redheaded model and singer, is teetering in a pair of Christian Louboutin heels. She’s wearing a lavender tulle gown for the first time—and is taking a practice run to make sure she can walk in it. She grabs two stage boys by their forearms and glides expertly down three marble steps into the Plaza’s grand salon. Piece of cake.

Georgina Chapman and Karen Craig, the designers behind Marchesa, are doing things differently this year. After several presentations during New York Fashion Weeks past—in which the models stand on pedestals like mannequins while the crowd circulates around them—they’re staging their first-ever runway show in a gilded salon in the Plaza Hotel. “We felt it would be great to see the dresses move around, so we’re very excited about that,” Craig says. But this, they say, is no more stressful than usual. “It’s all very nerve-wracking!” Chapman laughs.

But an hour before show time, things backstage seem relatively calm. The designers are doing interviews with a steady stream of reporters, and models are trickling in from the morning’s other shows. They’re whisked into hair and makeup—sometimes both at once. Some models read books (we spotted both Ayn Rand and C. S. Lewis), others text, some chat with the girls straightening their hair, and others pick at plates of cold pasta salad.

There’s a discussion brewing around Charlotte Free, a 19-year-old model who has become known for her pink hair. It’s the color of an unripe eggplant—blonde at the root and pink and purple at the ends—and there’s a dispute between two stylists about whether it should be supplanted by neon-pink extensions. “We could cut it there,” one hairstylist says, holding up the extensions under Free’s head. Eventually, it’s a go—and Free gets an extra long set of pink strands.

Photo By Kevin Tachman  2011

Kevin Tachman for Newsweek & The Daily Beast

In a quiet corner, makeup artist Talia Shobrook is putting eyelashes on Karolina Kurkova, who models two looks in the show. “It’s their first fashion show, and I’ve been with the girls since the beginning,” Kurkova told The Daily Beast of Chapman and Craig. “I’ve worn their dresses to the Oscars and on the red carpet, so I had to be here for their first fashion show.”

The runway format, however, adds new challenges: there are plenty of things that can go wrong when models have to walk, especially in the sometimes-constricting Marchesa gowns. The girls are lined up for an official run-through half an hour before the house opens. Chapman and Craig take in the view from the best seats in the house, where Chapman’s husband, Harvey Weinstein, and the Vogue editors will later sit. The models, all still in their bathrobes, are sent out one by one to practice prancing the route around the gilded salon to the sound of pulsating music. They’re being shepherded by men in headsets, told when to walk, where to look, and how straight to stand. A few are wobbling in their shoes, designed in a collaboration between Marchesa and Christian Louboutin, but the veteran Kurkova isn’t nervous about the show. “I’m not worried,” she says. “As Tim Gunn would say, we’ll make it work.”

Meanwhile, Free, the pink-haired model, goes through the rehearsal with an iPod hidden in one pocket—exposed only by a single neon wire that leads into her right ear. What’s she listening to? “Biggie Smalls,” she says. Do Chapman and Craig not care? “I think they care,” she laughs. “But I’m just zoned out, so I play lots of music in my head.” After the final model leaves the stage, Today’s Savannah Guthrie is the last one to walk—decked out in Marchesa’s full hair and makeup. Straightening her back and elongating her neck, she centers herself at the top of the stairs. We walked over to her after she had taken a spin on the runway. Was she, um, actually going to be in the show? “Oh my God, I’m not in the show,” she said, explaining that she was filming for a segment later in the week. “If I were in the show, they’d have to get their heads checked!”

At 3 p.m., the time the show was set to begin, an enormous pool of tourists has formed on the steps of the Plaza. “Oh my God, it’s Tinsley Mortimer,” one woman whispers as the blond socialite alights from her chauffeured car. And as Mortimer plows up the stairs, one little girl turns to her father: “Why does everyone have to wear such high heels?”

Marchesa is in with Hollywood, indeed: before the show begins, Weinstein chats with Rachel Zoe, Camilla Belle, Petra Nemcova, Molly Simms, Emma Roberts, and the other young celebrities who had turned out in Marchesa for the show. “It’s fun to look like Sarah Jessica Parker sometimes!” Roberts says, crinkling her nose and spinning for the cameras. She’s quick to announce that like the other starlets dressed for the event, she’s wearing Marchesa—with Brian Atwood heels.

But not all were so lucky. The actress Mandy Moore was in a plain black minidress, designed by L’Agence—the company that makes high-end T-shirts. “Unfortunately, I was wearing one of their dresses today, but at the last minute the zipper broke!” she said when we asked why she wasn’t wearing Marchesa. “I’ve never met them before, and I don’t think I’m going to go meet them. I don’t want to shame them! I was really looking forward to my beautiful Marchesa dress, but damn those shoddy zippers!”

After a late start, the show runs smoothly—and one glittering, red carpet–ready dress appears after another. The collection, according to the designers, was inspired by the artist Ilya Repin's painting called Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom. One dress is “lilac, hand-dipped pleated organza,” another is a “silver illusion dress with cascade tulle detail,” and there’s even a “squid” chiffon jacket. No one falls, and Free (without her iPod) manages to march to the beat of her own drum.

After the show, the crowd—including Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love—rushes backstage to congratulate the designers. “Who is that?” Love asks, pointing to the model Bar Refaeli, who is talking to Chapman. “I wore that dress in the longer version.” She whips out her iPhone and shows us pictures of herself lounging around a hotel room in a Marchesa gown. But of course. And as the crowd of adoring stars swallows the designers, people congratulate Weinstein, too—who just laughs, quick to point out that it’s all the work of his wife: “I did nothing!”