It’s 10:30 on an October morning at the Institut National de Judo, in the south of Paris, where the Kenzo spring 2013 show was supposed to have begun 30 minutes ago. Lateness is de rigueur in fashion, but this is starting to push it. Outside, as street-style photographers snap away, editors, buyers, and the odd celebrity (the singer M.I.A., Nicolas Godin from Air) are beginning to crowd the venue’s narrow entrance. And in the main hall, things are getting hairy. It turns out the video art that was commissioned to run on massive backdrop screens as the models walk on a trapezoidal runway has not been properly edited. Important chunks are missing, and while there is one good cut, it’s low-resolution. Lighting teams are still sorting out their cues, and production staffers keep running back and forth with questions.
One man, wearing a cumbersome multichannel headset that goes oddly well with his Rick Owens dhoti shorts and basketball sneakers, is in the eye of the hurricane. He is Etienne Russo, 55, founder and head of the Brussels-based production company Villa Eugénie, which is responsible for helping to conceive shows like this one as well as many more for labels including Hermès, Lanvin, Moncler, Chanel, and Dries Van Noten. Right now he is not pleased. After one last push to improve the video edit, Russo crosses his fingers and finds seats for his three daughters, who are 14, 6, and 2. Five minutes later, he is sitting cheek to jowl with a phalanx of photographers, calling for each model’s exit, cursing, whisper-yelling, and pleading for the lighting to come out right.
People who don’t attend fashion shows on a regular basis might not understand how much work goes into producing every second. At a stadium concert—an event with comparably high-impact visuals and a similar number of moving parts—the audience is with its star for a good two hours. If Mick Jagger decides to jump into the crowd, the crew is prepared for it, having taken the same show to dozens of other venues; if Beyoncé stumbles onstage, she still has five more songs that will make everyone forget what just happened. At a fashion show, there are no do-overs and no room for improvisation. Between New York, London, Milan, and Paris, there are hundreds of different presentations in the space of a month—and the bar for attention-grabbing spectacles is raised every season.
“You want the editor of a big magazine to remember you and to say, ‘I want to shoot this!’ ” Russo explains, talking at his usual double speed in a throaty French accent. Russo collaborates with designers over a period of months for each show, suggesting venues, performers, and all manner of tricks and effects, but he has only mood boards and fabric swatches from which to spawn ideas. While the designer works until the last minute to complete the collection, Russo usually gets to see it in person just a few days before the show; the entire cast of models is often not in place until about a half-hour before curtain. This has nothing to do with Russo, and it’s not a recipe for Zen. What if a member of the Parkour troupe had broken his neck while somersaulting from the bleachers onto the stage (Kenzo, men’s spring 2013)? What if the live horse on the runway had been spooked by a flashbulb and stampeded into the crowd (Hermès, women’s spring 2011)? It’s not surprising that Russo took up yoga 10 years ago and that he and his partner, Virginia Sanz, a former model who also works at Villa Eugénie, live in Brussels, where Russo has, he says, “no clients at all,” so that he may maintain some distance from the circus.