Vada in Paris: My first time at a Paris fashion show

Our features editor goes to his first-ever runway show at the Haute Couture Week in Paris, and shares some of fashion’s behind-the-scenes secrets.

It’s just gone half past eleven on a freezing Monday morning in Paris, and I’ve joined a queue of guests outside The American Cathedral in Paris in the heart of the French capital. A peppering of photographers have arrived and are selecting people from the queue to be photographed. I observe as women in stilettos attempt to balance between the cobbles of the avenue’s pedestrian crossings, whilst the photographer’s time their photos perfectly with the traffic lights and oncoming traffic. It can only mean one thing – Haute Couture Week has officially started.

From what I can tell, there are two groups waiting to go inside: those who are dressed to impress, and those who are dressed to blend in. Bright yellows, pinks and blues for the first group, which I later work out are front row VIPs, and black and navy blues for the second group. I find myself amongst the latter group, along with the other journalists covering the runway shows.

As we slowly freeze in the icy wind that is blowing along the avenue George V, which bridges The Seine and the Champs-Élysées, an American woman taps me on the shoulder and asks me how I know the collection’s designer. When I admit to her that I don’t know the designer, rather I’m here to write about the show, she flashes me a Hollywood smile and thrusts her phone towards my face. Her camera roll is filled with pictures of her wedding day – the designer in question, designed one of her many wedding gowns.

Suddenly there is a slight shuffle from the people in front of us. The doors have opened and people are slowly filtering themselves into the venue. I’m nervous and excited; this is my first time attending a fashion show in Paris. The people on the door seem nice enough, and once they’ve found my name on the list, a group of us are ushered into the cathedral. Rows of inward-facing church pews run alongside the centre of the dimly-lit building. A white runway has been laid down before our arrival, and a large group of photographer’s are busy setting up their cameras at the end of the runway.

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I’m seated next to Cécilia. A veteran fashion journalist, she’s been coming to these shows for decades. As the small talk about the weather and if she can still use her old paper bank notes in London next month (I doubt it) starts to dry up, I share that this is my first time coming to the Haute Couture shows. I ask her if my outfit is OK. “It’s perfect,” she replies. “You can get into any party wearing black! Plus you are not the main event today, the models and the clothes they’re wearing are.”

My outfit for the day is a skinny-fit black suit from Zara, paired with a navy blue roll-neck jumper and black leather Chelsea boots. I’m wearing a black single-breasted overcoat from Next to keep me warm, and a patterned scarf I’d bought in a French supermarket many years ago.

As I relax into my seat, I observe the front row. Many selfies are being taken, air kisses are being exchanged, and photographers are continuing to ask guests with striking outfits for a photo. Three men dressed in black appear and begin to peel off the protective layer of the runway, which accidentally drags a guest’s handbag a few feet along the runway. She laughs (once she has inspected the designer bag), whilst one of the men apologises profusely.

Cécilia also tells me that fashion shows never start on time. Almost an hour after the show was supposed to start, the lights dim even further, and a fog machine begins to create a somewhat spooky atmosphere. Sound effects of the wind and footsteps crunching across fresh snow fill the cathedral. We are transported to the Himalayan mountains, part of the inspiration for the first collection, Fovari.

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It might have only lasted just over fifteen minutes, but it’s easy to see how quickly an audience can become mesmerised by the show that was unfolding before us; a collection of snow white, sky blue and black coloured fabrics, gliding down the white runway. The designer, Yara Shoemaker, says the draping of her collection mirrors the freezing slopes of the mountain range. The show concludes with Shoemaker appearing from behind a sea of models to take a bow to rapturous applause.

Hadley at the Haute Couture shows (second row, far left). Photo: jadesoussann/Instagram

And just like that, the first show is over. Cécilia and I give ourselves rendez-vous back at the cathedral for 3pm, when the next show is taking place. She’s off to a presentation, armed with a sandwich and a notebook. Meanwhile, I’m googling somewhere to eat lunch. After a few too many wrong turns, I give up on Google Maps completely and begin walking along a main road, stumbling across a typical Parisian brasserie.

I’m greeted at the door by a rather stressed waiter. “We need backup!” he yells into the phone he’s clamping between his ear and shoulder. The scene inside feels rather under control, yet he is insisting it is very busy today and I must order straight away. As I wait for my food, I observe the people in the restaurant. At one table, there are two doctors discussing a new surgical procedure for fractured fingers. At another, two men in expensive suits talk about exchange rates over coffee, whilst an elderly man seated alone is reading a newspaper at the neighbouring table.

Much to the waiter’s relief, I eat my food quickly and ask for the bill when he comes to collect my plate. I take a post-lunch walk along the Seine, the Eiffel Tower in full view on the other side of the river. I take a few pictures of the landmark, and think back to being a teenager and watching The Devil Wears Prada every weekend, dreaming of working for a magazine, and going to fashion week in Paris. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t throw my mobile into a fountain, nor have I ever worked with an editor like Miranda Priestly).

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I walk past the Musée d’Art Moderne, before walking across the Passerelle Debilly. The footbridge is covered in love locks, with two vendors on either side of the bridge selling padlocks for people to write on. I continue along the banks of the river, looping back across the Pont des Invalides, before rejoining the queue outside the cathedral.

We were once again seated on the second row, behind a pair of guests who kept being photographed. I wish I could tell you who they were. The show’s start was delayed, so my row neighbour shared what she had seen at the lunchtime presentation and a bit more about why Fashion Week is so important for Paris. It’s great, she tells me, to be attending a real-life runway show again, after the pandemic had forced the runway shows to become online events. “You make friends from across the world at these shows,” she explains. “Who you see for only a few days, and then don’t see until the following year.”

It turns out they are holding the start of the show for a guest. She arrives with a whole army of people – one carrying a suitcase, the other, a dog. They file away into a back room, whilst the guest slides into the front row. The show starts moments later. The collection, Alin Le’Kal, is inspired by the Australian landscape. The natural surroundings of the country, from the brightness of the beach to wet and dark forests, give rise to the beautiful silhouettes that envelop the models that strut down the runway. It is another adrenaline-inducing show, with some outfits weighing almost more than the models who wear them. At one point, a model can be seen obviously struggling to lift the base of her dress up to navigate the two steps to get off the runway.

Once the show finishes, I rush to get on the Eurostar back to London. Before I leave the cathedral, Cécilia grabs my arm and says, “You’ll never forget today.”

Main image credit: Daniele Oberrauch/Gorunway.com. With thanks to Méphistophélès Productions and Romain Hulin-Boulais for inviting Vada Magazine to the Haute Couture shows.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.