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True Life

The Girl with the Front Row Invite

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Taking notes alongside Anna Wintour, trying to place a familiar face that turns out to be Kylie Minogue's, chatting backstage with John Galliano on matters unsemitic, Namrata Zakaria likes her life

Holistic lifestyles be damned, most models survive fashion weeks on alcohol and drugs. How else can they preen and pirouette for 22 shows in five days, their face caked with an inch of greasepaint, the hair tugged, rolled, poufed and hot-ironed every few hours?

All I need is a strip of Ibuprofen. It’s packed among six pairs of shoes (all high heels, hence the painkillers), maybe two dozen outfits and a hair dryer. This is what my large suitcase holds on every trip I make to a fashion week anywhere in the world. The suitcase is never bursting, though. There’s always room for my just-off-the-runway shopping.

Covering fashion shows is no picnic, glamorous as we may make you think it is. For one, you are on your feet all day, running between one show and another (if it’s Paris or Milan, the venues are spread across the city, so good luck with taxi fares too). Second, you must be at parties all night to either write about them or to network. But never to unwind. And finally, the toughest part: in how many ways can you write about a dress?

Ask me. I’ve been doing it for over a decade and loving every tiresome day and sleepless night of it. Writing on fashion isn’t easy, it’s a gift. It isn’t watching a three-hour film peppered with characters and plots that you need to review in 400 words. It isn’t interviewing a chef and introducing your readers to the fabulous Tuscan ingredients he has used. It’s just you and a bunch of clothes.

All you have to play with are 30-35 outfits that are shown to you in one straight line. What is required is extremely creative writing (metaphors like ‘If that dress could walk , it wouldn’t be going home alone’ or ‘the outfit was so beautiful, you’d want to hang it on a wall’), great knowledge of the label’s history and its previous showcases, faultless taste and a giant myth called trend-spotting. Of course, none of us gets it right.

Professional fashion shows in India have existed since the 80s when stores like Glitterati or Sophia Polytechnic’s Chrysalis presented shows. The models then were the most beautiful women you had ever seen: Suzanne Sablok, Queenie Singh, Mehr Jessia, Namrata Shirodkar, Madhu Sapre, Anu Ahuja. But the clothes were rubbish—Kala Niketan-style Indian wear.

Fashion weeks in India have existed since just over a decade, but it’s still anything-goes. There still isn’t one defining fashion week (I guess it could be Delhi’s since it’s owned by a governing body of designers and has the biggest and best names participating); so every city has an alcohol-sponsored fashion week of its own.

Fashion shows are hotspots for socialites to flaunt their prized baubles and newest handbags. But the best-dressed folks in the room are always journalists. They are the true followers of trends, the real arbiters of style, and the most in-step with the latest fashions (and we get freebies). They live, breathe and eat fashion (though none us really ever eat anything).

Every journalist worth her iPhone must have visited at least one international fashion week of repute. It’s not that difficult, as we’re now hosted by big-ticket brands, each one looking for maximum publicity in India. The hierarchy goes thus: Paris, Milan, New York, London.

London is lovely—this is where you see the edgiest styles. Reputations are built here. Alexander McQueen and John Galliano started their careers here. The biggest game is New York—this is where the big department stores with mega budgets are. This is where the money is made. Although, after the American recession and the great global shift in wealth, the focus is now on the East—China. Milan is where the big fashion houses show, and is highly revered. Valentino’s shows are the most elegant in an old-fashioned way; when he hung up his boots two years ago, I wept. Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli vie for the slot of the most glamorous front rows. I first spotted Elizabeth Hurley at Dolce & Gabbana, much before Arun Nayar or Shane Warne met her. No paparazzi followed her then. I saw a familiar face across me at a Valentino show once; it turned out to be Kylie Minogue.

But Paris is Paris. Paris is where any designer dreams of showing, regardless of how many tailors and seamstresses he employs. Paris gives you museums, palaces and even the Eiffel Tower as show locations. It gives you grandeur and history. “Fashion designers are our gods,” says Didier Grumbach, president of Paris Fashion Week’s organising body, Federation Francaise de la Couture. “We don’t care about sales—if everyone likes a collection, we don’t.” Paris Fashion Week goes on for eight days and no one can ever watch all the shows.

My first tryst with Paris Fashion Week was four years ago. I sat in Row 3 of Christian  Dior’s ready-to-wear show, with a silver card that had my name handwritten on it. John Galliano’s show was fun and commercial, and had Lucy Liu, Kate Moss, Kanye West and the two antipodal scribes, Anna Wintour and Suzy Menkes, attending. Galliano came on the runway for his finale bow a whole minute later, with two burly bodyguards on either side walking when he’d walk, stopping when he’d stop.

At last month’s Paris shows, my seat is the very first in the house right in the front row: Aa1. After Dior’s couture show, I am escorted backstage to meet with designer himself.

Backstage is a party with a celebratory Champagne tulip in everyone’s hand, even as canapes lie untouched. I say hello to Pedro Almodovar who has come with his new heroine Elena Anaya. I meet John too. I thank him for the spectacular bouquet he sent to my room the day before (100 red tulips with a handwritten note by him). And he is so chatty, quite unlike the quiet, quirky man I had read all about. He loves India and has visited often, but never allows himself to be interviewed here or photographed, he says.

Five days after a video of an inebriated Galliano’s profane altercation (no scene-making screaming, mind you; he spoke almost inaudibly) in a bar appeared on the internet, one of the most revered names in the creative world was out of a job—and his house.

When Dior’s ready-to-wear show took place in Paris two weeks later—Galliano’s last after 15 years with the French label—the audience was misty-eyed and more than just a solitary tear was shed. Newspapers are calling it the most solemn moment since another brilliant British designer and Galliano’s contemporary Alexander McQueen was found hanging at his home last February. But suicide and sacking are very different things. And fashion is a cruel mistress.