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Fashion photographers can spend more than six months on the road each year circumnavigating the globe from the twice-yearly Fashion Week in New York to London, Milan, Paris and continuing on around the world to such diverse cities and countries as Berlin, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Sydney and New Zealand. Even in the U.S., there are more than a few Fashion Week events including those in Miami (swimwear), Atlanta, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Montreal, Portland (Oregon) and even Washington, DC. But New York, London, Milan and Paris are the “big four” and attract the hottest designers and the most important editors and buyers. Over the years, celebrities, socialites and, especially in New York, reality TV personalities have become front-row regulars at the shows.
Spring/summer collections are shown in the fall and fall/winter collections are shown in the spring, to give buyers and editors plenty of lead time. For example, from February 11-18, 2010, fall/winter 2010 collections will be shown at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York [see www.mbfashionweek.com/newyork] the 2011 spring/summer collections will be shown in September, 2010.
I’ve only photographed New York Fashion Week (NYFW), so I can’t speak directly to experiences in other cities but, after chatting with photographers who cover international cities, and from what I’ve read, the set-up and scheduling at the major shows is similar to New York’s. With the economic downturn and the upcoming move in September 2010 of NYFW from its traditional venue at Bryant Park uptown to Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, certain aspects of Fashion Week are evolving, but the basics remain the same.
In NY, collections are shown either at the main Tents or off-site. The Tents offers a trio of spaces: the Tent (the largest), the Promenade and the Salon. Off-site shows are held at various venues, which can include photography studios, art galleries, designers’ showroom, huge spaces like the Hammerstein Ballroom and hotels. The occasional show may even be held outdoors at a park.
Registration for photographer passes starts at least a couple of months before Fashion Week at the title sponsor’s website (in this case, Mercedes Benz). Accreditation requires proof that you’ll be shooting the shows for a publication, whether you’re on staff or a freelancer. Detailed information can be found on the Mercedes Benz website. Invitations can also be provided by individual designers, but only for their shows.
If you’re just starting out or don’t have an assignment to get a photo pass, explore local fashion events to gain experience and expand your portfolio. Community organizations and schools often stage runway shows and will probably be happy to have you photograph their events.
In the Tents
The first show of the day in the Tents generally starts at 9am (10am on Saturday/Sunday), with shows running every hour, on the hour, with a couple of one hour breaks at around noon and 4pm. The last models walk the runway at either 7pm or 9pm, so it’s a very long day if you, like many photographers, are covering all of the shows in Bryant Park. Unfortunately, there are few amenities for photographers in the Tents other than wireless, a press room and public port-o-potties.
Sponsors, including Mercedes Benz, exhibit their products in the lobby of the Tents with some giveaways including water and the occasional snack. In the past, UPS gave away yummy brownies (brownies are brown, just like the UPS uniforms), Fage distributed Greek yogurt and Haviana created custom flip-flops for free, if you had the patience to wait in line. But for real food, you’ll have to run to one of the nearby delis, bring something with you or both. Whether you’re shooting in the Tents or off-site, it’s always a good idea to bring some water and snacks to keep you going throughout the day.
Prior to the Fashion Week start date, photographers wait in a group outside at the Tents to pick up their badges and, once in the Tents, use tape to mark their spot on the risers.
Shows generally run anywhere from about 15-20 minutes, depending on the number of looks in the collection. Photographers who don’t have all-access passes that allow them to go backstage and onto the photo risers early, wait in a group outside until security lets them in. At that point, it’s a mad rush to get a good position in the aptly-named photographers’ “pit.” There’s a definite hierarchy in the Tents, with the house photographer (who is shooting for the designer or for IMG, the producer of Fashion Week) getting the prized center positions, along with photographers shooting for high profile publications and clients, as well as those who have been covering NYFW for years.
That doesn’t leave much space for the first-timer and that’s something you’ll have to live with—even if it means sitting on the floor (not ideal because you’re shooting up at the model when she or he poses at the end of the runway) or standing off to the side.
Being in the photographers’ pit isn’t quite as bad as it’s made out to be—I’ve met some really nice people, from all over the world, by standing next to them during the shows. Occasionally tempers may flair, particularly at the end of a long day or after a pressure-filled week of being elbow-to-elbow, and hip-to-hip with so many people. A little respect, a calm demeanor and a few polite words go a long way when trying to find a place to shoot from. If you stand in a spot that has been taped off, don’t be surprised if the photographer comes in at the last minute and asks (or tells) you to move.
In addition to having a good attitude, be sure to have your gear organized beforehand. You won’t have much (if any) room to dig in your bag to set up your camera.
Most runway shows are configured with a single runway down the middle. A few, however, may be set-up in a U-shape with additional rows of chairs in the center. Your best bet is to get as close to the first runway (on your left, when you’re facing the runway). Occasionally, models will walk down both runways, but you may not know this ahead of time so assume that the models will walk down one side and up the other. If you get stuck in the middle, facing the chairs, you can still get decent shots when the model poses at the end of the runway.
Lighting in the Tents is generally good, although not always. Betsy Johnson, who stages the most interesting and fun shows, will sometimes use colored lights in the background and have spotlights follow the models down the runway. It’s a bit of a challenge but well worth the effort. Don’t forget to be ready for her signature cartwheel at the end of the show.
When a show ends, be ready to run to the next show or, at the very least, get out of the way of the other photographers who need to move quickly. Photographers not only have to shoot back-to-back shows but have to file their images as well, so the pace is pretty intense.