Sunday, February 04, 2007

Fashion Weak

Every February, when the white tents cover Bryant Park like some alternative circus, I get a little weak in the knees. It's not because I wish I were a model strutting the catwalk -- I got over model glorification after watching one lose her shirt in the middle of a show. It's because I remember Fashion Week February 1999, when I made one of those choices that forever changed my path.

I had been working at a beauty/fashion public relations firm, for Vidal Sassoon. It was my first job out of college, and one that I chose in the same manner that I had made so many other too-important choices at that age -- my friends were doing it. Specifically, my best friend J, who is the type of girl who had a "Job Hunt" binder, complete with dividers by industry, lists of contacts and coverletters. I was lost, unable to find a career that would "just let me write". "Go into PR!" J pleaded with me, as I sat on the lowest step of the staircase of the house I grew up in, where I found myself living once again, unemployed after college. I sent a few resumes and got even fewer bites. One, which we'll call Sabrina Star Communications, seemed most promising.

My interview was in Manhattan, and I prepared by reading my sister's "PR 101" textbook on the bus ride to Port Authority, squirming in my cheap cotton suit. The agency was designed almost entirely in hot pink, the signature color, I would soon learn. It was on Park Avenue, where I had imagined all of corporate life happening. I walked through rows of cubes and offices, as heels clicked around me and women in varying degrees of trendy dress rushed, as if I was in some sort of "Fashion E.R.". My first interview was with a woman named Laura, who intimidated and charmed me equally. She was pin thin, in the manner that I coveted at the time. She seemed much older to me then, but I now recognized that she was likely no older than 33. She talked to me about the agency, their beauty clients, the meetings, the travel. The glamour was building. I stared at her highlighted blonde hair, her designer suit and perfect makeup and suddenly worried that she would notice how unlike her package I was.

Luckily, the second meeting was with an overweight Jewish male VP, who could have easily been my father. We hit it off instantly, as I was much more accustomed to people like this. I knew that I would be hired, as they lead me out behind glass doors, handing me a glossy bag filled with press kits and client products. I was "in".

My comfort and confidence at Sabrina Star lasted no more than that one day. When I started my work as an The company, comprised almost entirely of women who might as well have had well manicured claws, was lead by Sabrina, who was almost cartoon like in her evil. She was anywhere between 50 and 80, with skin pulled tight across her face. She teetered in stilettos and wore Chanel suits from the 80s. A decrepit dog would follow her forlornly around the office until the day he did and was immediately replaced with the same breed of dog and given the same name. Her best features, piercing blue eyes, were constantly narrowed in discontent. She invoked extreme fear, and had no qualms about calling coordinators at home to ream them about messy offices or overdue deadlines. This woman made me shake, she made me loathe my unpolished nails and knock off Prada shoes. "No one uses hair gel!" I remember her screaming through the office at a member of the Vidal Sassoon staff. "Unless you have hair like her!", she seethed, pointing to me with a withering look. My hands ran quickly over my hard and crunchy curls as I tried to dissapear. And Sabrina always sniffled, which was either due to a hideous tick or an equally bad cocaine habit. Probably both. You could hear her sniffling before she found you, giving you time to brush crumbs from your desk or kick the sneakers beneath it.

Still, as I stood pressed against proverbial glass, hunched over a tiny desk which was forever teeming with tiresome "to do"s, I longed for the glitz. My first client was a motorized toothbrush, and I dealt daily with dentists and gingivitis and plaque. It was far from the world of beauty that I imagined when I interviewed. I am sure they believed me to be a better fit in the world of oral health care than that of Cover Girl, and they were probably right. But I pushed to get closer to the prettier people.

Which lead me to Vidal Sassoon. I was finally moved to that part of the business, only to be met with more difficult bosses. There was the one who was happily married to a clearly closeted air steward, who would conveniently lose his wedding ring on overnight flights. She was a pleasure to work for, her mood solely determined by his travel schedule. To augment an already stressful situation, I had begin dating the boy who I would ultimately lose my virginity, and my mind to. I cried easily at work in bathroom stalls, wiping my face fast enough to start inventory on the many different shampoos. And while there were exciting moments, eventually running my own fashion show for one, they were few and far between. On the surface, I had it all, a job in the beauty industry, a handsome latin boyfriend who wanted to kill any man who looked at me twice. But I was falling apart at my sale rack seams.

I pinned much of my hopes on Fashion Week, which Vidal Sassoon was sponsoring. It was the ultimate manifestation of all that I wanted to be a part of. I loved the production end of the shows, watching them all come together from casting models to that very first strut. Not that I was a part of any of this. My first formidable task was to find some sort of solid honey that Mr. Vidal Sassoon enjoyed with his tea. This was pre-internet accessibility, which meant hours and days of calling. When I finally found the jars I bought several, and would snack from them as my only sustenance in the impossible long days. As I met more and more people from this glamorous world, I was more and more unimpressed. The best folks I met were the staff from Proctor and Gamble, who owns Vidal Sassoon and traveled in for the shows in faux fur vests and leather pants, clearly trying too hard, all hailing from Ohio.

When I finally got to the shows, holding my laminated pass as tightly as a life preserver, the aesthetics were everything I had hoped for. Beauty was everywhere. Crisp white fanned out over a beautiful park. Celebrities who looked even more ethereal in person. Lights, camera, action. It was perfection. And it was also freezing.

In all of my Fashion Week fantasies, I never took into consideration that the tents might not be heated. They weren't. I spent day after day stuffing gift bags until my hands were blue and my teeth chattered. Only colder than I was likely the models. Tears pricked my eyelids. And on my last day, my rented cellphone rang. I stiffened in anticipation of my next set of ridiculous orders. It was my boyfriend. Who, in a rare moment of conventional niceness, had sent my resume to a local non profit. "They want to see you", he said. It sounded bland and boring and totally unglamorous. But it also sounded warm. And it was.

So I took the job, bidding farewell to free cosmetics and celebrity sightings and lying awake at night feeling terribly unfulfilled. Years later, I would meet my husband through this job, which would lead me to forever thank my terrible ex, those freezing cold tents, and my ability to have the strength to choose a life that was much more "me".


At 2:00 PM PST, Blogger Pink Lemonade Diva said...

oooh! First-time reader (here via Greek Tragedy) and I loved this story! I can totally relate - I remember interviewing at Cosmo and thinking how out of place I felt. Guess they thought so too, b/c I never heard back.

At 6:35 PM PST, Anonymous Amy said...

Pink: I believe that the only enviornment worse than the fashion PR firm is the fashion magazine. Consider yourself spared (I interviewed at quite a few and never heard back either!)


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