The show must go on: off brand #4

I wrote the following piece of short fiction during Paris Fashion Week, at the end of February. Completed in the car in between venues, and waiting for rows to fill up before shows, it was inspired by the way the industry was reacting — or rather, not reacting — to the news of a mysterious, oncoming pandemic. That week, all I could think about was Thomas Hardy’s poem on the sinking of the Titanic, and one word from it in particular: vaingloriousness.

Reading my words again now, after all the world has seen over the past several months, I’m struck not only by how incredibly lucky the fashion community was to be, quite literally, outrunning the pandemic as it began to take a devastating hold in Italy, but also the irony that some of the things I’d imagined about this fictional virus held true for the real one. I am also struck by my own arrogance: even writing this at the time, I, a lifelong hypochondriac, was unconvinced that the threat was as real as it proved to be.

As London emerges out of lockdown months later, the organisational body of Paris fashion has announced, somehow, that the shows are on for September. I share this piece now, not because I think the threat is over. Nor because I want to make light of the horror of this virus, which has touched many people I know and very likely that you do too, but as a kind of reminder of our hubris as the fashion industry seeks to return to normality. To myself, if to no one else. “We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives,” the Director-General of the World Health Organization said yesterday.But the hard reality is: this is not even close to being over.”

Later, when we understood not only how the virus spread but how it mutated, people would look back at that fashion week like they did the Titanic. It wasn’t just fashion week that had continued in spite of the headlines, of course — fans still gathered in shouting crowds at football matches, and bodies crashed sweatily against one another in nightclubs, but it was fashion week that became the byword, the symbol of it all, of the pride and the vanity and the ego and the downfall. 

It wasn’t like we didn’t know there was a virus, hadn’t seen the headlines. But us fashion people were used to speaking in trends — cycles and seasons, comings and goings. The virus would be no different, we reasoned. And anyway, it just didn’t seem that serious — fashion month doesn’t stop because a few old people somewhere far away get sick. New York was business as usual. London was basically quiet. 

And then, as the shows began to wind down in Milan, the atmosphere shifted. It was almost imperceptible at first. A few cases — seemingly out of nowhere — had been reported on the edge of the city; the government was scared, considering a curfew. In a matter of hours, supermarket shelves had been cleared. In the airports, uniformed officers in hazmat suits barked orders to editors en route to Paris, holding a machine to people’s foreheads. They were taking temperatures. Or was it reading irises? If you were positive, some people said, your eyes became tinged with a mysterious purple. It seemed to us, then, like overkill — all a bit much for something that was more of a minor inconvenience, a few days in bed, rather than a real threat.

So, we carried on. Business as usual. 

In Paris, industrial-sized pumps of hand sanitiser were stationed at venue entrances mostly as symbolic reassurances for the anxious, and here and there stewards passed out face masks that few people bothered to wear. Maybe we just didn’t pay attention to the news, to the sudden spike the death rate had taken, confounding epidemiologists. To the cases that were untraceable. No one knew, then, what they had realised at the centre of the outbreak and were trying desperately to keep quiet: that the virus had changed. That things were not under control. 

Ask anyone left who was there, who remembers, and we would probably tell you that the first death, our industry’s patient zero, was the moment the horror dawned, the moment the latent anxiety turned dizzily into pulsating chaos. Of course, after the 19-year-old influencer slumped forward unconscious from her front-row seat and into the path of an oncoming model on the Dior runway, her agent had been quick to blame exhaustion. She had flown into Paris early, after a late night at the Versace party. (It’s true, people confirmed, mostly as a way to show that they, too, had been at the Versace party.) She was on a new vegan diet. (Which we all knew was a nightmare when travelling.) She had done menswear and couture and Freize in LA — she had been working so hard. (Who couldn’t relate?) She was carried out of the venue and said to be recovering. No one thought much of it. 

This was before the suspicion had set in. 

Within hours, the incident was forgotten, lost amongst the chaos and noise of the day’s shows. Cheeks were kissed. Make-up was applied to models' faces. People sat close on rows. In the streets, they twirled in borrowed clothes for the cameras as usual, and packed together in jostling crowds outside the venue doors. The shows went on. 

It was towards the end of the week, during Givenchy, that the news of the influencer’s death broke. Screenshots of a brief statement posted to her 15.4m Instagram followers ripped through the venue like a match dropped in a line of petrol. Hushed whispers turned into panicked voices and when the lights came up after the finale, people didn’t wait for the designer’s bow before they pushed and shoved for the doors, hardly pausing to grab a goodie bag. Of course, the virus had not been mentioned directly, but word of a battle with a “short unknown illness” was enough to trigger alarm: can a healthy 19-year-old really just… die? During fashion week?

The panic was enough that street style photographers scrubbed their feeds of the afflicted, as if the virus could spread through an iPhone. (There was soon a rumour that it could). “She was at the Versace party” gained a new, sinister meaning. “Were you at the Versace party?” People demanded. They pointed fingers: “He was at the Versace party!” 

Doctors were summoned by high ranking buyers and editors to five-star hotels to test for signs, while trembling assistants dutifully shone iPhone torches into the eyes of their bosses, fearfully searching for a hint of lilac. People demanded seating charts from PRs to ascertain who, having sat in a radius of fifteen feet from the deceased, was to be judged high risk and ostracised. 

No one, then, could have known what we do now: that it was possible to be infected and not know, for the virus to lie dormant and undetectable inside your body for days, weeks, that you could transmit it while being immune yourself. That it was too late. As we sat at shows that season, or gossiped over dinners, most of us were already infected.

Other absences were swiftly noted. Had anyone seen that editor today? What about yesterday? Wasn’t that model, the campaign girl, supposed to walk in that show? On an anonymous Instagram page swiftly established to monitor the situation, word spread about those who had collapsed – at a dinner, at a Valentino in-store cocktail celebrating a studded trainer. An entire cast of models took ill, with one new face – concealing her eyes behind contacts for fear of missing her big break – rumoured to be accountable. It was reported that a designer had dropped to the floor moments after taking his final bow, and not from exhaustion. One Juul, passed drunkenly from hand to mouth and mouth to hand and back again at the Balenciaga after-party was later linked to five cases. (Of the five, one survived to attempt an unsuccessful lawsuit against both the Vape manufacturers and the brand.)

As the numbers and hysteria mounted, any remaining shows were hurriedly cancelled and people scrambled to escape. Flights to New York were overbooked. A Birkin was traded for an economy flight to Newark. A black market for Eurostar tickets emerged. One top model, supposedly infected, was rumoured to have bribed airport ground control staff to let her leave on a private medical jet, hiding her eyes behind dark glasses. 

I was one of the last groups who made it to Calais and across the water.

When the travel ban came into place overnight — an attempt especially designed to stop our industry spreading whatever it was further at all costs, to stop us taking it home — one legacy publishing house rented a chateau two hours outside of Paris for its stranded editors to wait things out. The belief then was that things would be under control in a matter of weeks. The chateau was where the Mona Lisa had been stowed during the war after being taken from the Louvre – which was, like all public buildings, closed. It was supposed to be safe. 

What happened once the snow came, we all know.

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