My Volunteer Experience at New York Fashion Week

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Last Saturday, I got a chance to work backstage at the NYFW runway show of FlyingSolo, an independent fashion designer showroom based in Soho. If you’re curious about how to volunteer at Fashion Week, I wrote an entire blog post about that along with other ways to attend NYFW without an invite.

This was my first time volunteering at Fashion Week so I thought it might helpful to talk about my experience and also provide some helpful advice for anyone who’s interested in working behind-the-scenes but isn’t quite sure what to expect.

While I didn’t work one of the major designer shows and I only worked one singular event, from what I heard, the experience is pretty similar across the board – depending on your role. I was a dresser for the runway models. Here are my takeaways from the experience:

1. Don’t worry if you’ve never worked a runway show before. There will likely be a training.

I was asked to attend one of two trainings a couple days before the FlyingSolo show – held at the FlyingSolo showroom itself. The training was pretty straightforward and detailed – they went over the the logistics of the event, our dress code, what our responsibilities as dressers would entail, the do’s and don’ts we had to be aware of as workers, how to work with our models and who to reach out the day of the event should we have any issues.

Generally, if you are a dresser, you will be assigned a model the day-of along with a rack of “looks” that the model will wear and walk down the runway with. Your responsibility is to get these looks on and off the model in one piece and as quickly as possible. There will likely be a photo attached to the rack representing each look, so that you know what each outfit is meant to look like.

I will say that while it is not mandatory for you to have runway show experience to volunteer, it helps to have some styling/retail/event-planning experience in general. The first two will help you to understand how to work with the garments and understand how to dress the model in the most efficient way that won’t ruin the clothes. It will also come in handy should there be any last-minute clothing mishaps, like a loose thread or worse, a rip. Having event experience will just be useful in preparing you for the crazy adrenaline rush that is the day of the event.

Which bring me to my next point…

2. The day of the event, it is absolute chaos backstage.

When you’re watching as an attendee of a Fashion Week show, the entire production can seem very effortless and streamlined. After all, the actual time that models spend walking up and down the runway is super short – normally less than a minute! But behind the curtain is an epic madhouse of makeup artists, hairdressers, models, photographers, dressers, stagehands, and sound engineers all crammed into one small space.

When I first walked into the backstage area for FlyingSolo, there were hair dryers blasting, models walking in late, makeup brushes flying across cheekbones, dressers unbagging looks from garment bags – in one hour, I experienced more stimulation than I had in an entire year. There are always last-minute changes or tweaks being made to outfits or hair or makeup – a heel might break that needs to be glued back on, a model might mess up her hair putting on a garment and need a re-style, the back to an earring might get lost.

It really speaks to the dedication and the teamwork of the workers (usually absolute strangers) all working together – up until the minute the model walks onto the runway – to make sure the designers’ work looks flawless. As they say in fashion, it takes a lot of effort to be effortless.

3. Being a volunteer is not glamorous.

Do not expect to roll up to volunteer at Fashion Week in your finest designer garb. In fact, you’ll most likely be asked to show up in an all-black outfit that you can sweat in – so black jeans or leggings, black T-shirt, and sneakers. For us, we were also asked to not wear makeup or jewelry either because they were fearful it may rub off or snag on a garment.
The entire experience can be quite physically taxing. Depending on the show, you may be showing up as early as 6AM and leaving as late as 11PM. Before the show, you can be unzipping and racking garments, demo-ing outfits with the models, steaming clothes or running around trying to track down missing models or pieces. While the show is happening, you’ll be zipping and unzipping models in and out of garments at lightening speed.
There’s also a lot of standing and waiting around which may not sound that physically difficult but honestly takes a lot out of you after 8-10 hours.
While some shows will offer light refreshments to volunteers, you can’t always bank on it. I would definitely suggest bringing anything that could help you maintain energy and make your life easier – bottled water, snacks, a caffeinated beverage, your vitamins, hair ties, your essential oil kit (okay, I’m half kidding on that one). Bottom line is you are responsible for taking care of you during Fashion Week so don’t get caught starving or dehydrated when you need to be on your A-game.

4. Your priority is your job, not your followers.

When you’re surrounded by models and industry professionals and maybe even the rare celebrity, it can be extremely tempting to pull out your phone and start recording.
Do not, I repeat DO NOT, do this. Put the phone away. In fact, you will likely be asked by the brand to keep your phone in your bag. If you do pull out your phone, don’t be surprised if an event organizer or security personnel asks you to put it away.
Beyond the fact that it takes away some of the magic of the show if you’re posting backstage footage left and right, it’s also highly unprofessional and might cause you to make a mistake in your role. During the show, we literally had three minutes in between each look to get the model outfitted and ready – and that included the time that she walked down the runway and back. The timing was super quick – BAM BAM BAM – and if I was too preoccupied with taking selfies, I might have forgotten a piece or been careless with the garments and ruined them.

5. It is a great way to meet people.

You really do bond with the other volunteers backstage. You will walk into the experience complete strangers and walk out with the camaraderie of war buddies. There will definitely be a few moments when you might be finished with dressing your model but your fellow volunteer isn’t and may need a hand. There was moment during the FlyingSolo show where I needed to put these incredibly elaborate candelabra earrings on my model and….get this, I don’t have pierced ears. I had idea how to do it. Another volunteer kindly helped me.
For me, it was incredibly inspiring and uplifting to be around so many like-minded people who were just as passionate about fashion as I was.
And while your number one priority is to do your job, there will also be opportunities to network and make conversation with the people around you. If there’s down time and there are no tasks to be done, feel free to strike up a conversation with the models, the other workers, the event organizers, and ask them about themselves. After the show, it is usually a big celebration and there is a collective sigh of relief as everyone celebrates the completion of an epic event. Use this opportunity to talk to the designers about their labels. Ask for their emails – the worst they can say is no.
At the end of the FlyingSolo show, I left several hours of sleep poorer but a few emails and Instagram handles richer. And while none of them may turn into a job opportunity, you never know when having a contact may come in handy.

6. At the end of the day, it’s a great learning experience.

I always say that everything is either a good idea or good learning experience. Even if you leave your volunteer shift thinking, “that was cool but I never want to do that again”, it is still an incredibly valuable asset to know how to work behind-the-scenes at a runway show. Especially if you’re going to working on lots of editorial shoots.
It also shows to future employers that you’re serious about the industry and also communicates a level of organization, dedication and open-mindedness.
I would recommend that anyone who is serious about working in fashion to do it at least once in their lives. All it takes is one day of work to gain a resume-builder that will pay off for years.

~

What about you? Have you ever volunteered for Fashion Week? Comment below and share your experience!

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