It’s the week after Nashville Fashion Week—seven days past the bright lights, couture threads and base-heavy Top 40 playlists—and male model Bryant Lowry has one thing to say about the experience.
“Zoolander is way off.”
Yes, Ben Stiller, tousled tresses, chiseled cheekbones and luxurious labels aside, there’s a good deal more to the model’s experience during fashion week than “being really, really, ridiculously good looking.”
“We’re the kind of kids who grew up being like skeletons,” said Nashville Fashion Week runway model Emily Hunerwadel, who, before finding a niche in modeling, saw her tall, thin frame as a “disadvantage.”
“When I went to prom, I remember being so sad because I couldn’t fill out a dress, and now I get to model evening gowns, and it’s so great.”
However, for the thousands of models who color the runways of fashion weeks across the globe each spring, the glitz and glam of the show itself is just the result—a thrilling end to days of tireless work with very little breathing room.
Nashville Fashion Week made no exceptions.
“It’s just, like, madness,” said model Adrienne Dolan. “And everyone’s trying to get their job done. You could look upstairs and see people hanging over the banister, just watching the mayhem.”
Post-show coverage of the weeklong industry celebration showcases clusters of Barbie-like men and women dressed to the nines in haute couture hot off the sewing machine. Even the backstage, up-close-and-personal photos sport ‘candid’ shots of big smiles, relaxed interaction and picture-perfect chaos.
“It’s always nice to see the pictures because it’s like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t look like I was crying like three seconds before that, that’s good,’” said Hunerwadel of her Vogue-ready runway snapshots. “Because I was definitely hyperventilating a little bit.”
For a model, Nashville Fashion Week begins well before the doors open and the crowds of eagers start flowing in.
Several weeks before, in fact, with a two-round audition process Dolan endearingly describes as a “cattle call sort of thing.”
In a room full of hundreds of models lined up against a wall in head-to-toe black to be measured, photographed and given a quick once-over by the eyes of the operation, it’s not hard to see why.
After passing the height inspection preliminaries, where, for Lowry, being the ideal 6’1’’ is “crucial for guy models that do runway,” Connie Richardson, fashion week matron and self-described “Nashville Fashion Evangelist” monitors the second, most important, part of the audition process—the runway walk.
The task was, in model terms, simple—walk to the end of the hallway as if wearing a $5,000 evening gown, pose at the end, and strut back as if clad in head-to-toe leather.
In Lowry’s experience, simply “not walking like a cocky gangster” was enough to make callbacks.
“Having an excellent attitude goes a long way,” said Lowry. “Although in some cases, models will get hired regardless just because their look is interesting or attractive enough.”
Dolan, like many fashion week newcomers, entered without knowing what to expect.
“I expected this big thing,” said Dolan, whose extensive theatrical background has exposed her to many complex auditions. “It was just, ‘OK, thanks,’ then they took a picture and I left.”
For fashion week audition veterans like Hunerwadel, who’s walked in fashion week events in Birmingham, Ala., Louisville, Ky. and Memphis, Tenn., the high-volume, one-shot experience seemed all too familiar.
“They’ll yell at you the whole time,” said Hunerwadel with a reminiscent laugh. “Don’t move that arm, do this differently/better—I ended up laughing at the end of it. That’s kind of how it always goes with runway auditions—people yelling at you. People everywhere.”
In the true fashion of Fashion Week, the high demand of the audition process only scratches the surface.
Leading up to the big week, some models, like Hunerwadel, prepare for the physically demanding events by changing their sleeping habits to get a few extra hours in and practicing yoga each day.
“There are stories from Victoria’s Secret models where they’ll go to a liquid diet sort of thing, and I definitely know some models who do that,” said Hunerwadel, who, most of the time, prefers the healthier alternative. “I also know a lot of models who just eat cheeseburgers and stuff, and I’ve even done that.”
Some models, like Lowry, who already practice strict exercise routines, simply watch what they eat and “don’t do anything dangerous, like heli-skiing.”
“Some of those clothes are pretty tight depending on the designer, so dehydrating before the actual day of show can help you shrink a bit,” said Lowry of some last-minute tricks of the trade.
After weeks of anticipation and physical and mental preparation, the week to remember kicked off at Nashville’s chic, 1930s warehouse-style bar, The Rosewall.
Each of the five nights, the best of Nashville’s fashion-forward crowd packed into several of Nashville’s A-list event venues. Even Fern Mallis, director of New York Fashion Week, sat front row in support of Music City fashion.
However, for the models, the excitement began long before 7:30 p.m.
Required to come in with clean faces and hair—as ‘blank canvases,’ in fashion week lingo—the models began the morning at 8 a.m. sharp with a five to six hour block for fitting.
“It was weird, because you’re there because you’re in the show, but the designers chose who they wanted while we were there,” said Dolan of the fitting process, which mimicked the auditions in structure.
Naturally, the chaos began from minute one. Models lined up against a wall while each of the day’s designers scurried back and forth from one to the next, tossing an asymmetrical blouse in one direction while sending a texture-layered pantsuit in the other.
“If you’re changing for somebody else and one of the designers couldn’t see you, they didn’t choose you,” said Dolan of her experience on the morning of the event’s opening night. “I got through the first two and was trying on clothes and couldn’t be seen by some of the others.”
The end of the fitting period ushered in a two-hour period of free time—which translated to about one hour in fashion week time—until the call for hair and makeup.
“I just drove home, let my dog out—I think I ate something,” mused Dolan. “I even just sat in the sun and grass for like 20 minutes just to get that relaxation in.”
As far as hair and makeup goes, the process only took “about 10 minutes tops with guys,” said Lowry.
“If you’re lucky, you’ll get yourself a baller haircut from one of the ultra-fashion-savvy hair stylists,” said Lowry. “In most cases, every guy gets foundation and bronzer, then if the designer wants eye shadow or something crazier it’ll happen.”
For the female models, makeup and hair lasted well into the runway walkthrough and main event.
“I lost count of the number of times someone either combed my bangs over or put lipstick on me,” said Dolan with a wave of her hand and exasperated smile.
Between perusing the catered food and juice bar and getting into their clothes, the models participated in a one-on-one runway walkthrough with each of the designers they will be modeling for.
“In a world where everyone’s attention is constantly going in a million directions, it’s great to be art, become a canvas for something and grab all that attention,” said Hunerwadel of the theatrics brought to the show by each of the designers.
“Johnathan Kayne wanted empowering womanhood—I’m pretty sure he used the word ‘womanhood’ like 70 times,” said Hunerwadel.
“All I remember about Julia Clancey is that she wanted me to smile at her like I wanted to ‘do’ her,” Hunerwadel said. “I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ And she would be like ‘I need you to give me bedroom eyes.’”
Dolan’s runway personality, as prescribed by the three designers she walked for Tuesday night, went as follows: “content and thoughtful, like you’re reading a book; sleep walking, like a zombie; and smug and confident, like you know a secret about someone else.”
“She was very specific about the kind of smirk she wanted,” Dolan added of the last designer, Maria Silver.
Despite the theatrics and varying personas, each model carefully remembered to keep the golden rule of modeling at the forefront. In the words of Dolan, “A good runway model does not distract from the clothes, but puts them on display.”
In Lowry’s case, this required “a little self-reflecting to see how you will best fit what the designer prepared for you to wear that night.”
The end of the designer walkthrough signals the beginning of last-minute changings, makeup touchups, model lineups and enough production manager stress to generate the night’s electricity.
“I would just seriously hide in the clothes, and like hug the wall—you could not get away. You’re always in somebody’s way,” said Dolan.
The house lights fade and the florescent runway glows beneath a host of stage lights glaring down at each model as he or she is pushed from behind the curtain by Connie Richardson, a feeling Hunerwadel relates to as “being pushed out of a nest.”
“Everyone is usually pretty excited and nervous,” said Lowry of the preshow jitters vibrating in the atmosphere. “The element about performing keeps everyone’s spirits up and alert, so we all have fun hanging out ’til it’s time to go do our thang.”
The hustle and bustle of the pace keeps everyone on their toes, especially during clothing changes. Models like Lowry and Hunerwadel, who both wore multiple looks for a certain line, run backstage with approximately 30 seconds to change looks and hightail it back out.
“You walk backstage and just kind of lift your arms up and people change you, and there will be like 30 people touching you,” said Hunerwadel. “They changed my hair and makeup backstage, like, as I was walking out. I would come back and have like two minutes to change and they would completely change my hair and makeup in that time—like, completely.”
And the models aren’t the only ones with pounding hearts and shaking limbs.
“With the jewelry, it’s hilarious, because the dressers get nervous too, and so they couldn’t get the necklaces to come off,” said Hunerwadel while miming trembling hands.
The thrill of the change is one of Lowry’s favorite parts of the runway experience.
“Part of the fun of the show is being in a scramble to get your next outfit on in time.”
The rest of the night post-runway holds hours of further opportunity for each of the models. Whether it be snagging a photo-op with friends on the red carpet, schmoozing national talent scouts—or, in Hunerwadel’s case, scoring a drunken kiss from designer Manuel—or enjoying worry-free fun at the after party, the fan fare, for most, doesn’t stop as the lights dim over the runway.
That is, unless, like Lowry, your job requires early mornings and makes “staying up and being social at the after-parties” difficult. Or, like Dolan, you have a husband and plush couch calling your name.
One day accomplished. Only nine hours until the cycle begins again.
And, as the week draws to a close, despite the stress, the chaos, the physical, mental and emotional demands and the exhaustive hours, the experience still leaves those who embrace it with a sense of unparalleled fulfillment—if only for a night.
“I become someone else when I walk down a runway,” said Hunerwadel. “I feel like I’m very dorky and quirky, and when I’m on the runway I feel like a queen or something. It sounds really cheesy, but there’s something really empowering about it. Every eye in the entire room is on you.”