Welcome to the decade when the resplendence of couture came varnished with rebellion, thanks to Alexander McQueen and John Galliano — the era when supermodels moonlighted as makeup artists and movie stars mingled in the backstage chaos.
“It’s about Chanel proportions and luxury pushed to absolute nervous-breakdown extremes!” Karl Lagerfeld’s right-hand woman Amanda Harlech told Vogue’s Hamish Bowles backstage at the house’s spring 1997 couture show. As Vogue reported, that particular January in Paris, the halls and hotel suites at the Ritz (Couture Fashion Week’s unofficial HQ) were buzzing with word of a “showdown”. Just the day before, a 27-year-old British designer by the name of Alexander McQueen had presented his debut couture collection for Givenchy, entitled Search for the Golden Fleece. The upshot? McQueen had piqued the attention of the world’s press with his no-bullshit attitude as much as his knife-sharp corsetry.
“He’s got a lot of gumption,” Vogue journalist Kate Betts wrote of her pre-show encounter with McQueen in a lengthy extract, which I strenuously advise you to read in full here. “We’re sitting in the big salon, an elegant room that has fallen into some disrepair, vases of half-dead flowers perched on an ugly makeshift coffee table,” Betts continued.
“McQueen seems pleased with the way things are going, especially with the ateliers. ‘You know, I worked for Marc Bohan when he was at Hartnell, and it was the worst experience of my life. He was so snotty with the ateliers. I think they really like me up there,’ he says, pointing to the ceiling and the Givenchy workrooms beyond. ‘They don’t think I’m some silly little kid from London fussing around with a hemline.’”
Rather unsurprisingly, the feathers of the old-world powers of couturiers had been ruffled. Exactly a year earlier, another British star of the nouvelle avant garde, John Galliano, had unveiled his debut couture collection for Dior and the once-serene salons were now resolutely chock full of Hollywood celebrities, mingling with rock stars, pop stars and royalty.
It was in the 1990s that the resplendence of couture came varnished with rebellion. Supermodels prepped their own makeup backstage, film star Rosanna Arquette took her seat, unaccompanied, for the Chanel couture catwalk presentation and waited patiently for the show to start. This was the decade when you could spot Sylvester Stallone (again, minus publicity entourage) loitering near the backstage entrance, and Richard Gere might be passing through to meet Cindy Crawford. Imagine an era of unguarded haute jinx. Mariah Carey caught her 1990s couture shows while cuddling her puppy and late supermodel Stella Tennant would arrive on the back of a motorbike. It was chaotic — but this was the good kind of chaos, which we all miss in 2021.
Here’s what it was actually like to go backstage at Couture Fashion Week in the 1990s.
Originally published on Vogue.co.uk