This week in Paris is Haute Couture week. Unlike Pret-a-porter (french for “ready to wear,” otherwise referred to as Fashion Week), Couture Week actually only lasts as long as its name (six or seven days) and requires a very specific body type and catwalk strut. Couture operates on an entirely different mentality than RTW, and involves different garments, different audiences (think: red carpet), and, yes, different models. The last time I came to Paris for couture, a year and a half ago, I was turned away for not fitting these needs, but I’m back again this season, with my agency’s encouragement, to try my hand (well, my whole body!) once more at this, the most elevated (and often the most breathtaking) of fashion’s devices.
I arrived in Paris yesterday morning and just had time to drop my bags off at the room I’m renting in someone’s flat before rushing out into the city for six castings, ending at 9 that night. That’s a relatively easy day by fashion standards, but after my sleepless flight (and my roundtrip to Dallas just a day before), I found myself worn to the point of delirium by the time I returned to my apartment. This morning, however, sees me feeling refreshed after a solid (and much-needed) twelve hours of sleep, and I go out to meet with a model friend of mine. Over hot chocolate in a cafe beside the Seine, we conciliatingly divulge to each other our present work-related complaints: a little soap box of sorts, a pastime both diverting and healthful! I was simply coping with loneliness and a temporary self doubt that were likely each the cause and effect of the other, and of tiredness. My friend, on the other hand, was facing her recent resolution to quit the fashion industry altogether. Having been sort of beguiled into it at a young age, it’s not surprising that she’s unhappy in the powerless position she now occupies, a puppet to her family and her various opaque agencies around the world. She describes the lack of honesty and lack of respect she has met throughout her years at work, and I suddenly feel very privileged that my own career has been unfraught by such challenges.
When models complain to non-models about anything related to our job— demanding hours, the isolation of constant travel, often feeling disregarded on a human level,— we’re met with a familiar adage: “But you're so lucky. Thousands of girls would give anything to be in your place.” And we are incredibly lucky, I don’t doubt that for a minute: fate somehow saw fit to grace us randomly with means and opportunities that are highly coveted in our culture today. And we must keep this fact in mind at our hours of misgiving. But that fact doesn’t alter certain difficulties, and I can’t speak for all models but I for one do have moments when I wonder why I continue. These doubts, however, invariably pass away just as the issue that caused their arousal passes. At the end of the day, I find that I choose to persist in this field because it is made worth it by the opportunities I am given of seeing the world; both physically (through travel) and figuratively (through worldly experience, ie. learning how to pay taxes, navigate foreign cities, or live on your own in a cramped Parisian apartment under the despotic rule of a middle-aged punk landlady who flies off the handle if you turn the heat above 55). My job is a window into the workings of my society, and, like most windows I know, it looks out on sunny days and stormy ones alike.
Later today, standing in line to enter the Orangerie museum, I overhear three Scottish girls behind me in their early twenties complaining about their jobs as nannies in French families here, and I can hear my own struggle echoed in their words. Their particular woes are of a different nature than mine, of course, but the contest between work and identity that they describe is not so different from my own— and no more or less valid than my own.
Turning this all over in my mind as I file into the museum and buy a ticket to see Monet’s waterlilies, I come to the cynical conclusion that no matter who you are or what you do in life, no job or lifestyle is ever as easy- benign- as it outwardly appears to be— not nannying; not modeling. The magical waterlily canvases, though, soon cheer me up (they’re not so famous for nothing)! The paintings make me feel at home and help me remember myself in a way that few other things do. I may not be licensed to define the purpose of art (who is?), but I can tell you that what I appreciate most about it is the gentle emotional uplift it can implement with its beauty and timelessness— and that’s as noble a cause as any I can imagine. Sunny days or stormy days, I remain Zuzu. Haute Couture or no, I am just myself.