Last week I got the chance to shoot a couple of days of London Fashion Week. With colleague Carl de Souza organising the week’s coverage, the bulk of the shows are being covered by him with a few odds and sods open for me to play with. The work that goes into dealing with pass applications and PR-chasing is unbelievable, so I was more than happy to just cover a few on the outskirts!

Having not shot fashion in a few years, it was quite a jolt to rediscover how fast and aggressively you have to work to get things done. At the second show of the first morning, tempers were already fraying as photographers fought to preserve their positions on the podium. While most of the British contingent were approaching this with fresh eyes, it has to be remembered that those who cover the fashion season full time have a hell of a lot of work to do. Starting in New York, the season then moves to London, Milan, then Paris with little or no break in between.

With photographers, models and stylists all working to incredible deadlines, the days are a constant rush of fighting, pushing, working then dashing, with little time to gather thoughts in between. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that designers generally aren’t keen on holding their shows in the main tent, opting instead for “off-piste” venues. While this breaks up the monotony of the photographic options by providing new backdrops and environments, it means that as soon as a show finishes, hoards of journalists, photographers, models, stylists and audience members rush for the door to fight over passing taxis to the other side of town. Oddly enough, after managing to grab a taxi, we got a few hundred metres down the road before the driver told me that he had to read me something. With growing concerns of being abducted or, even worse, becoming a contestant on “Cash Cab”, I was somewhat relieved when he produced a piece of paper and read, “To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the love between Barbie and Ken, this journey is free, compliments of Mattel”. Only at Fashion Week…

Life isn’t made easier by the small amounts of room reserved for the photographers to work in and the lack of early access for marking up positions. In the main tent, positions are assigned before fashion week begins, meaning that there is some semblance of decorum but when it comes to fresh venues for one-off shows, the race is on. To sum up the pressure, you have to consider that a model will walk down the runway, staring straight ahead of her. The fashion magazines all want photographs that look as though the model was presenting the designs exclusively for them, so the need to have the model looking down the barrel of the lens is critical. Now consider the fact that at the big shows, the stand at the end of the runway will be loaded to capacity with 100+ photographers, the majority of them urgently needing to be in a 2m square area that the model looks towards. Sounds fun, eh?

Thankfully, AFP doesn’t put the pressure on its photographers to get eye-line from the models, which is certainly a relief. This frees us up to shoot a mixture of straight catwalk (from as close to the magic spot as possible), runway from other angles and backstage features. I think that being forced to shoot every design from every designer in the same way, show after show would quickly become exceptionally dull, so I’m very happy to have the option to put the ‘Arty Farty Pictures’ into AFP.

The issue of marked positions has further problems than just being able to get a spot. If a show is well-attended, the photographers will positions themselves in rows with the front row sitting on the floor right through to the back row on the tops of very tall stepladders. During the marking up stage, photographers mark a nice 40-50cm square on the ground with gaffer tape and write their company name on it and you’d think that they were then safe. Unfortunately, aside from the ever-present threat of just outright cockish behaviour by some who just ignore the marked spots and refuse to move, there is also the physical issue. If you’re on the fourth row and need to shoot over three rows of heads in front, you’ll need to be pretty high, right? Now remember the fact that you’ve only marked up a 40cm square. If you’re standing two metres off the ground, do you really want to be balancing on something this narrow as you try to work? Stepladders take up WAY too much floorspace for any of the rows within the group, so ingenious systems of wooden blocks, flight cases and chairs become the norm. Who thought fashion could be so lethal?

I guess when you approach fashion from a news point of view, a model walking down a runway in constant light can seem a little flat. As fellow photographer Jeff Spicer said, you can often tell if a show is going to be interesting within the first three designs. To followers of fashion, this will sound like heresy but to someone who is trained to look for interesting and unusual pictures for their newspaper/agency, the difference between a model wearing a long-sleeved green dress and a short-sleeved green dress is not enough to ring the creative alarm bells. It’s no coincidence that a designer who puts in a series of eccentric hats or the occasional revealing outfit will find themselves in the next day’s newspapers.

Thanks to the slightly less regimented coverage of these events by AFP, when the show isn’t the main one of the day, I can squeeze out of this delightful tribute to personal space and head backstage. Like a lot of my colleagues, I believe that this is where the best pictures are. While the conditions are often as equally tight as those on the photographers’ podium, it gives you the chance to see some human interaction, some unusual sights and work close-up with people whose job it is to look great for photographers.

While it certainly looks glamorous in pictures, it has to be said that life backstage isn’t exactly what a lot of people expect. When taking taxis between shows, the drivers will often see my pass and ask if I get to go backstage and spend time with the semi-naked models. I always feel a bit of a let-down when I tell them that while I do, it’s not exactly the teenage fantasy land of “Entourage”, with women seductively sauntering around in lingerie. The majority of the models have their heads buried in their phones or a book, desperately seeking some calm among the chaos while any clothing changes are done at a sprint as they dash between appearances.

On a separate note, you may well have noticed that this is my first fully black & white post. When I came to edit my shots for this blog, I found that I fancied a bit of a change so gave it a try and I was quite pleased with the results. It’s a hell of a lot easier on my colour blindness too… All “Multichrome” lovers out there will be pleased to know that normal service will resume with the next post. I’d enjoy the glamour while you can though, as I’m guessing that the Irish election may not offer quite as much to please the eye.

21 Responses to “La Fashionata”

  1. Superb pictures Leon. Well done to you, but also the backroom fashion people who make this happen. Quality work mate.

    Posted by Mike King
  2. Stunning pictures as usual. Was going to ask you about the “all black and white” decision before I read your explanation. Works really well. Great bokeh too, personal favourites being the picture of the fur hat and the model laughing further up. Can’t wait for the Irish election now, who would have thought!

    Posted by Olivier Sandri
  3. @Mike Cheers bud! I’d actually have quite liked to shoot some more this week but Ireland calls.

    @Olivier Thanks. Yeah, I just thought I’d go all mono for a change. AFP aren’t very keen on filing BW shots for the wire so it’s not really the done thing. Hurray for the liberation of your own blog!

    Posted by tabascokid
  4. It sounds like organised chaos! Any idea why the designers don’t like to be in the main tent?
    I imagine there won’t be as many hair stylists and make up artists for the Irish elections.

    Posted by Karen
  5. LOVE LOVE LOVE all of these but the shot with all the movement (hair shot 6th from the bottom) is stunning!
    Leon you are a either a wizard or you sold your soul Im reserving final judgement until i meet you;)

    Posted by lee allen
  6. Leon – Super impressive blog post, I’m loving the B&W treatments too, it just seems to work so well for the material. So pleased that we can get an insight into how your working day goes, please keep up the posts.

    Posted by Jonathan Yearsley
  7. @Karen I have no idea for sure but I’m convinced that it’s partly along the lines of exclusivity; why would a top designer want to share a catwalk with those grubby little companies, dahling? 😉

    @Lee haha! If only… Having said that, I don’t think I’d have been offered too much for it. If you ever notice that I’ve suddenly got a lifetime supply of sherbet dipdabs, I might have finally struck a deal.

    @Jonathan It’s great to hear the b&w edit’s appreciated! It was really good fun to play with so may make another appearance in the future…

    Posted by tabascokid
  8. Lovely set Leon, enjoying the black and whites too. Um, have fun in Ireland?

    Posted by Matthew Brodie
  9. Cheers bud! Always an honour to receive a comment from the PS-King! I’ll do my best on my glamour-filled foreign assignment. We can meet up next week if you’re around? Pint, chat and 7dayshop package exchange!

    Posted by tabascokid
  10. Leon – another great blog capturing the mayhem of Fashion Week and made all the more powerful by being in black-and-white. I love the high viewpoint for the Issa backstage shot. Best Wishes Ian

    Posted by Ian Gillett
  11. Fantastic pictures, love the one towards the end with the big burly chap with tattoos……a hairdresser!

    Posted by Emma Thomas
  12. wow incredible shots and looking great in black and white – behind the scenes always more interesting than eyes front

    Posted by amarkfell
  13. @Ian The power of a monopod and a 2 second timer! :)

    @Emma Yeah, he was huge! Always good to see a stereotype smashed so thoroughly.

    @Andy Cheers. I think I’ll definitely have to go mono again with this positive feedback. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  14. Love that series of photos showing the process of the specifically shaped lips. Well, all the photos are great (that upwards hair something out of Whoville…) but those 3 – Ah, I see what you did there.

    Posted by Sara H
  15. Hello,

    I found your website through flickr. I’ve photographed London Fashion Week for the alternative, fringe section of the event. I did it with a Canon 350d and a very cheap lens. The backstage part is certainly my favourite. I agree about the sometimes quite frightening (!) scrum of photographers at the end of the catwalk. I didn’t have any pressure to get shots involving models staring directly at me, so took photos from the side of photographers’ section at the end of the catwalk.
    Your shots are truly amazing. I definitely think that the black and white works really well.


    Posted by Soph
  16. Fabulous exciting photos! When are AFP going to host an exhibition of your work?

    Posted by Katherine Bree
  17. Cheers! If only… I’m a considerable way down the list when it comes to talent at AFP, I’m afraid. It gives me something to strive for though! :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  18. love the heads shot, 4th from the bottom. really great set.

    Posted by Naomi Goggin
  19. Cheers, m’dears. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  20. Hey mister – just been foraging through your archive of blog posts :) great reading and especially like this lot. I really like shot 7 with the rim light. Must be nice to have an assignment where you can get such great variation of shots. Did you stick with a single lens?

    Question, when are you opening the Leon Neal Center For Kids Who Can’t Shoot Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too? I want to sign up 😉

    Posted by Carl Osbourn
  21. Cheers Carl. Yeah, fashion is something I enjoy shooting on a reasonably irregular basis. If you have to shoot it twice a year or more, I can imagine it’d get very tedious but once every couple of years is perfect for me!

    I shot a lot of the behind the scenes stuff on the nifty fifty but it was a bit of a mix really. I tend to carry far too much gear.

    As for the Leon Neal Center, I’ve just signed a contract this morning to rent Wembley Arena for the rest of 2011 and most of 2012 to hold the main assemblies and seminars with general classes being held throughout London. Touts are already selling tickets at upwards of £3 so hurry!

    Posted by tabascokid

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