The Invisibles of Fashion Week: Putting a Face on the Volunteers Who Run the Show


Photo via Ben Le Hay.

Behind the glitz of the runways and beyond the Anna Wintour-Nicki Minaj-insert-hottest-celeb-of-the-moment-here infested front row, there are the invisible faces of Fashion Week. They march to the beat of silhouettes and sacrifice themselves for the sake of fashion. Here are the faces you don’t find on Page 6, clad in Hermès or Chanel. They are instead wearing black attire and comfortable footwear. And they’re tucked away, backstage, steaming dresses, accidentally grazing models’s nipples while changing them at speeds of light, or rearranging chairs and handing out programs to guests.

“No crossing your arms, looking bored, twiddling your fingers, chewing gum, ogling at VIPs, celebrities or designers or talking back,” said Deborah Payton-Jones, volunteer coordinator at the Fashion Institute of Technology. These are only a few rules she shares with hundreds of students in a Fashion Week etiquette meeting.
Ms. Payton-Jones acts as gatekeeper by assigning thousands of students as volunteers to agencies and designers each Fashion Week. Since starting the program in 1989, the amount of companies who accept FIT volunteers have grown significantly over the years. “50 percent of the people we currently have I approached myself, the other 50 percent came from word of mouth.”
The program has expanded so much that close to 2,000 students line up during the fall semester, 1,600 of which are placed as volunteers. Spring semester sees close to one-third of the fall semester turn-up, with 400 students and 500 available volunteer positions.
Meticulous and thorough planning is key to a successful volunteer experience for the students. “Fern Mallis [credited as the creator of New York Fashion Week] herself used to come here and talk to the students and let them know exactly what they were looking for.” Today, Ms. Payton-Jones penetrates potential volunteers during Orientation Week, allowing the possibility of volunteering to percolate and for students to study their schedules before committing to an agency or designer. “Volunteering does not in any shape or form replace classes. Classes come first, volunteering comes second. I won’t have them stand in line though if there are no spots.”
An FIT alum, who asked to be quoted off the record, remembers first volunteering at Fashion Week in 2006. She did not, like many students, find the opportunity through the college but instead through a colleague at the fashion e-retailer internship she was part of at the time.
“I worked front of house for two shows-Betsey Johnson and Carlos Miele-while NYFW was still at Bryant Park. I spent four hours total per show and handled guest check-in and seating.”
These lowly front of house tasks which include ushering guests, weeding “fashion crashers” or cleaning after the show, may not seem as glamorous. But Ms. Payton-Jones argues that, “Students must understand that if they are working front of house that it does not diminish the quality of the job,” and stressing that a good work ethic is what’s important. Volunteers hired to work pre-fashion week are protected through the guidelines provided by the Career and Internship Center at FIT. Known as extended volunteers, these students work pre-production, production and post-production that extends for a maximum of three weeks. Agencies must go through the process of attaining these students months prior to Fashion Week.
When asked if students find benefits, like landing internships or jobs, Ms. Payton-Jones exclaims, “Yes, yes, yes and yes! We’ve had hundreds of success stories!” One of which was the FIT alum who explained to The Observer that, “The networking with the team I was working for has proved invaluable, and I count this particular colleague as one of my biggest mentors.” She has made large strides since her volunteering days at the tents, including the launch of her own PR agency in 2006
Jack Burns, a senior fashion design student at FIT, believes the opposite. “ I wouldn’t say there are any real benefits of volunteering other than getting to see the show. You can’t network because you’re not allowed to talk to anyone important,” he said. Mr. Burns volunteered at Y3 and Diane von Fürstenberg as a freshman in 2010. “You don’t really learn any new skills other than how Lincoln Center herds the masses of fashion cattle from one venue to another. I don’t think ‘fashion week volunteer’ is important enough to put on a resume.” Ms. Payton-Jones stresses the differences between working with larger companies as opposed to smaller names, insisting that starting small is an opportunity to get your feet wet for future volunteer opportunities with the upper echelons of the fashion industry.
“Some students are not open minded and have a fairytale idea of what volunteering at Fashion Week is like and that they’re going to be discovered,”said Wilnecia Rochester, a transfer student at FIT who has been involved in countless volunteer opportunities through Ms. Payton-Jones’s services. “Those who look for the big names are not going to be shaking Michael Kors’s hands.”
“There is only one way to be discovered and that’s anonymously,” said Ms. Payton-Jones. “You can’t put yourself in the position to be discovered. However, your work ethic can make you stand out, and will get agencies and designers to call you back. It’s what you put into it that determines what you get out of it.”
Volunteers must check in their attitude and do whatever is asked of them without their egos getting in the way. Ms. Rochester chuckled at one point and mentioned two girls at a weekend show who disobeyed the instruction of the agency and had theirs names written down (principal’s office style). “I’ll be getting their names soon from the agency,” commented Ms. Payton-Jones, shaking her head. “If you’re professional enough and you do your job and you do it well, they notice that. You don’t have to go above and beyond,” said Ms. Rochester.
“They want people like that to come back instead of looking for someone new. They trust you and they give us free stuff at times. Or they’ll tell you about internship or job opportunities at the company.” Ms. Rochester was offered an internship position through previous volunteer work but declined due to a school scheduling conflict. Yet she continues to be personally sought out by agencies from working past shows, receiving two calls and two emails this past Fashion Week alone.
But do the volunteers receive enough credit for the work  they do backstage or front of house? “Depends on the agency,” said Ms. Rochester. While many agencies only look for manpower during the hustle of bustle of the prepping and post show, others closely examine dressers or volunteers who may serve as potential candidates for internships or job positions.
“You volunteer to gain quick experience and hope to make a few contacts,” said the alum. “It’s a great way to get your foot in the door and add quick resume boosters. Of course, volunteering at one-off events here and there doesn’t replace the experience you get at a full or part time internship, but it’s a start and a value-add.”
Mr. Burns does have fond memories of being a part of Fashion Week. Hailing from a small town in Rhode Island, Mr. Burns said, “It was really exciting to see a runway show in person, something I never would’ve been able to experience otherwise.”
Albeit finding no benefits as a volunteer, Mr. Burns indeed encourages students to partake in the experience. “My advice to young fashion students would be to definitely take advantage of the opportunity, it was a lot of fun.”
Louboutins or no Louboutins, the all-black-wearing army of volunteers continue to breathe life into each Fashion Week and serve as the main pulse for designers and companies alike.
All-black was never this chic or empowering.
The Invisibles of Fashion Week: Putting a Face on the Volunteers Who Run the Show