By SHANNON HETH
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 6, 2018
Earlier this year, my communications agency was tapped to open a fashion café in Vancouver for a label named Laurence & Chico. I chose a pair of the brand's sleek black pants with a bright green stripe and pearls down the side of the leg to wear to the event, where the designers would display their collections and whimsical takes on high tea. Laurence Li, half of Laurence & Chico with Chico Wang, apparently liked how the trousers looked. "You should walk in our runway show in New York," he said, "but, first you have to audition for Chico."
Never one to back down from a challenge, I straightened my back, held my head high and walked the length of the café. Li and Wang whispered to each other. "One more time," Li said, "but with less swish." I turned and tried again, keeping the swing of my hips in check.
"Okay," Chico said, "you can walk in our show."
A rush of euphoria was quickly replaced with the reality of the situation. "But Laurence," I said, "I'll be the oldest model on the runway." "It's okay," he replied.
"We'll cover your face."
I'm nearly 41 and proud of the career I've built. I manage my own communications agency where I work with brands that I love. I am a mother of two beautiful boys. Twenty years ago I did some modelling - mostly smaller shows in malls, none of it too serious. Back then I was told that if I really wanted to make it as a model I needed smaller hips, wider eyes and better skin: become someone else entirely and maybe you'll have a shot.
Nowadays all I notice are the first real signs of aging.
Wrinkles are slowly forming and muscles are beginning to slip away from bone. Earlier this year, I asked a friend if he still thought I was beautiful. "Yes," he said, before asking, "do you think you're beautiful?" The truth is, at a time in my life when I expected to settle into a comfortable confidence about my appearance, I'm not so sure about it at all; about anything really. The fashion world, where looks and youth still matter most, is probably the last place I should venture to deal with these insecurities. Still, in early September, I found myself in Manhattan during the early days of New York Fashion Week.
When I arrived for my fitting two days before the show, I was made painfully aware of my maturity: A queue of young lithe models were waiting to try on their clothes too and none of them were even close to "nearly 41."
Racks of outfits, 33 in total, filled the fitting room. Wang looked me up and down and picked out a black mesh and baby pink nylon tracksuit. The spring collection was sportsthemed, but the designers' take was much more about capital "F" fashion of athletic apparel than its function. The mesh ran from my ankles all the way up to my butt.
I suited up, which included slipping into a leotard that covered my hands, and as promised, most of my face. The bodysuits, which were worn by several of the other models as well, covered our mouths and noses, leaving room for just our eyes. I was fitted with a wig that towered a foot above my head and slipped on a pair of seven-inch platform booties. I stood up and immediately toppled over. "These are the highest shoes we've ever made," Li whispered. "Please don't fall down on the runway."
On the day of the show, I felt panicked. Backstage I sat down next to a lovely girl named Lauren. "So," she asked, "who are you with?" referring to the modelling agencies that provide the catwalk talent for these shows.
"Oh no, I'm not actually a model," I stammered. "I mean, I am but, I'm not, like, a professional.
I'm not even sure I belong here."
Our collective anxiety about the shoe situation hung over the room - the runway was actually a basketball court and we were all worried that it would be slippery.
"You know," Lauren says, "what can any of us do but try our best.
If we fall, we fall."
Three people dressed me. A woman barked: "Are your shoes tight enough?" I couldn't answer because of the turtleneck covering my mouth. I shook my head no and suddenly she had dropped to her hands and knees, ripping the laces apart and pulling them tighter.
Someone else smushed a wig onto my head and we all marched to the court where 300 people had gathered to watch the show. We were supposed to pause after our first few steps onto the runway and I realized I hadn't asked anyone how to do this, the most basic of model poses. "Hey, what do I do when I stop?" I asked Rachael, a redhead behind me. "Oh, just pop your hip out a bit," she said.
The model next to her chimed in, "and count to three - in your head." The support from the younger models - and their nonchalance - eased my anxiety and replaced it with excitement. We all felt a bit giddy as the music started thumping, signalling the beginning of the show. One by one, the models marched out and, in a flash, it was my turn. I walked out onto the runway, popped my hip out, counted to three and sauntered forward. A crush of cameras greeted me at the end of the court and I stared them down.
In 20 seconds, it was over. We all wobbled backstage to celebrate. The designers were ecstatic. I walked over to Wang. "Did I do okay? Was my walk all right," I asked. He smiled, nodded and said, "you can model in all our shows."
In the weeks that have passed since the show, images of me walking the runway have appeared in Women's Wear Daily, Nylon and Paper magazine and on fashion websites such as The Cut and Go Fug Yourself.
Because of how covered up I was on the catwalk, none of these outlets know my age; to them I'm just another model on the runway. But despite that anonymity, the experience ended up being profoundly personal. I'm now a woman who feels she can embrace her age by stepping into her forties one foot in front of the other, trying her best not to fall down.
Shannon Heth getting prepped for the Laurence & Chico show during New York Fashion Week.
COURTESY OF LAURENCE & CHICO