My Month of Fashion Ghostwriting

For a gig, Chris Erik Thomas was tasked with filing dozens of front-row dispatches from fashion shows in Paris, London, and Milan — all while sitting in their apartment in Berlin.

by | March 11, 2021

To report on fashion week is to descend into a Dante’s Inferno of D-list influencers, swarms of street style photographers, and manic fashion design interns one seating chart snafu away from a trip to the emergency room. Just when you think you’ve survived every circle of Hell, you find yourself at a fashion week party wedged between three male models named Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, then everyone blacks out on free alcohol. Beyond the logistical challenge of trying to be at two shows at once, or finding time to surreptitiously eat a meal, trying to file collection recaps while running around the city will test the limits and sanity of any writer. It was common practice to type up copy while balancing your laptop on your knees as you squatted backstage waiting to interview the harried designer, trying to stay out of the way of half-dressed models or rogue clothing steamers. It feels like Mission Impossible meets The Devil Wears Prada.

I knew none of this in 2015, when I enthusiastically agreed to help cover New York Fashion Week months after starting my first editorial internship at Milk, a now-defunct publication that aged as well as the product it was named after. I didn’t know what hell awaited me, and maybe that was for the best. I descended into the madness and covered two fashion week seasons under the guidance of a few well-dressed Virgils, and despite the trauma of willingly wading into mobs of influencers to get a two-minute interview with a designer who didn’t want to talk to anyone, I learned to love fashion and genuinely enjoyed writing about it. Still, when I left New York for Berlin in April 2018, I told myself my fashion week recapping days were behind me. 

Less than six months later, like most things I’ve told myself I would quit (men, chocolate), I broke my promise out of a mix of financial necessity and boredom. It began with an email from a prominent youth culture magazine named after a tree byproduct: An offer to crank out recaps for at least 14 shows in London, nine in Milan, and 22 in Paris; all for a grand total of $2,400, which sounds great until you’re told in the same sentence that it’s roughly $50 per post. At the time, was struggling to get Out Magazine to pay me on schedule, so I accepted.

“You don’t need to physically attend these shows,” the editor assured me, an indirect way of saying that the magazine wouldn’t pay for travel. “There will be a format you can follow for recaps — it’s basically CliffsNotes for each show.” It was never explicitly indicated that I needed to pretend to be sitting in the front row of shows I wouldn’t attend, but in an email a week later, the editor explained that I could use their in-person New York Fashion Week coverage as an example. In fashion writing, nothing conveys clout quite like being sat feet away from the conveyor belt of models, so those recaps were sprinkled with lines like “a series of silk garments gliding down the runway left us completely gagged.”

After covering three seasons of New York Fashion Week, this format — which wouldn’t require getting quotes from designers or navigating a city’s public transit system — seemed like it would be a breeze. But as the shows began, a problem emerged. I had to turn in copy, heds, and deks for multiple shows each day by 9 am EST; without physically attending a show, the only way to know what happened was to frantically scroll through Instagram hashtags and tagged posts, searching for badly composed videos or snapshots until, at some point, professional photos made their way online and runway recaps popped on Vogue, WWD, and other sites. 

For one month, I was the ultimate fashion insider, writing about dozens of shows across the continent, all while swatting mosquitoes and sitting on a mattress on the floor hundreds of miles away. In some instances, I got show notes from the fashion director and editor-in-chief of the magazine, who texted a group chat from their front-row seats.  (The group chat also became a space for the kind of ridiculous scandal that only matters during fashion week: In London, the fashion director informed us that they weren’t “accommodated at Victoria Beckham,” prompting a “what?!” exactly one minute later from the editor-in-chief, who assured them that “this will all be corrected by next season.”) 

In the last year, brands have adapted to the pandemic and have begun to show new collections online: videos, high-quality images, and even video games are published directly onto the internet. But in 2018, the best way to condense a fashion show with dozens of different looks into its relevant points was still to physically be there. Without that prerequisite, writing recaps involved a ridiculous series of workarounds: I rewatched shaky, five-second videos posted by D-list influencers and fashion editors to find something interesting to say about the silhouette or song the models walked to. I spoke of moments that “roused the audience.” For the Supriya Lele show, I wrote that “while Manolo [shoes] and threads had us leaning in for a closer look, it was a gorgeous green sari that blew us away” as I sat, unmoving, on my mattress in Berlin, staring out my window, wondering when I’d see the sun again. I googled color charts to find a new way to say something was orange (fire, yam, carrot, tiger, and tangerine were favorites that season). By the final week of my assignment, the challenge was just to find something to say that I hadn’t already said five shows ago.

Two weeks into the recapping job, I was tasked with covering Balmain’s Spring/Summer 2019 show. The designer had teamed up with Oculus, the virtual reality company owned by Facebook, so that fans worldwide could watch the presentation live from a VR headset. It was the closest I would get to being live at Paris Fashion Week for the duration of the gig, and although the exercise felt gimmicky, I was excited to cosplay as a front-row fashion insider while sitting alone in my room. I would need to have a headset mailed to me in time for the show, which was scheduled to take place a week after a PR person from a French fashion services agency sent an email asking for my address. 

I did not receive the headset in time. The email asking for my address was sent on September 20; the show was September 28; when I finally received the headset, it was late November. Nearly two months after the show, an email appeared in my inbox following up on the gift, long after I’d forgotten about it. “I’m working with a team to get an Oculus headset to you,” a PR person from an entirely different company assured me. “I’ve got your address but could you please just confirm the door number? Apologies for the delay in getting this over to you!” 

After a failed attempt to explain that the Balmain show had passed long, long ago, I was told that I could still have the Oculus, and if I ever fancied a trip down memory lane, I could relive the Balmain SS19 show whenever I wanted, thanks to a full video loaded onto the unit. I accepted the offer and finally received the package in the final few days of November. I unboxed it with excitement only to find, with horror, that Balmain decals had been applied to the headset, ensuring I’d never be able to forget the brand’s hold over my sanity as long as the item was in my possession. Three weeks later, I gifted it to an artist friend for Christmas so they could hack it and make anti-capitalist art.

It’s been over two years since this strange, month-long odyssey into fashion week clout forgery, but it still feels like the pinnacle of everything that I grew to hate about the media industry’s obsession with clicks and views. I was thousands of miles away from every show I covered, creating content the quality of which nobody really cared about. I learned that the secret to fashion week coverage is embracing the reality that, unless you exist in the upper echelon of the fashion press, none of it matters. 

Fashion and media’s unholy union is built on wealth and, more often, proximity to wealth. Every season, fights erupt over who gets to sit in what row at shows;  full outfits are sent out to influencers and fashion editors in hopes that some street style photographer will snap a photo. Gifts, swanky dinners, and exclusive showroom appointments make up for the measly pay and long hours of pushing out content that only the most ardent fans will take the time to read.  Just like the hundreds of news stories I’ve regurgitated as a writer at outlets that chase trending topics, I find that I have no memory of any of the shows I wrote about that month. The only thing I remember clearly is that PR person and their desperate attempt to get a VR headset to me so that I could slip it on, silo myself off from the world, and relive a fashion show that ceased having anything to do with me the second it ended.

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