My life in haute couture hell

GEORGINA NEWBERY, former assistant to Dior designer Galliano, recalls the madness of the fashion world

Sometimes I look back and wonder how on earth a country girl like me could possibly have ended up working for American Vogue, and then Galliano for five years. It's only now, four years later, that I find I have any perspective at all on that time I spent in Paris. And still my memories have a dreamlike quality, perhaps because the busy times were surreal, or, more probably, because, during them, we lived on Diet Coke and coffee and huge bars of Fruit and Nut and didn't have time for sleep, proper food or reality checks.

Then there are the collections: four times a year we'd roar into high gear and not take a breath until they were over. They were mad times inspiring truly bizarre behaviour. Did I really call my Catholic godmother in desperation to find out which saint I should pray to when I lost Steven Meisel's boyfriend's invitation to a Claude Montana show? Can I have been so in awe of Anna Wintour that I suffered an upset stomach for 24 hours after being blamed for her car's late arrival at a show? (Road-works - I should have known, I was told.) Wintour didn't know she owed me big time for saving her pale blue satin Manolos from dog shit in the conference room, a fate they would have undoubtedly suffered had we not been ready with swooping handfuls of Kleenex.

In a blur of early spring sunlight I see myself and the other girls at the office standing in dutiful line while Christy Turlington does a sort of royal walkabout before having her hair and make-up done at another lucky girl's desk. It was exciting, silly, exhausting.

Of course during the shows we were all tired, all the time. High fashion is an all-consuming business, and until those weeks were over we'd eat little, sleep less, giving in to flights of paranoia which led to absurdities like locking up Ozbek hats in a safe in order to prevent other cat burglar- tempted magazines from stealing them in the dead of night.

But I'm not complaining. As lowly little people, we were allowed to help at parties, asking giraffe-like girls in 10-inch heels and taller hairdos to sign livres d'or - a book you have to sign when you arrive at parties - while their escorts, Karl Lagerfeld and the like, kissed our hands which we swore we wouldn't wash for a week. And there were all sorts of goodies divided out among us; make-up, scent, sometimes clothes, and the loan of a chauffeur who would collect our dry-cleaning when we'd not made it out of the office in a week.

Eventually I left Vogue; it was time, I decided, to see how the other half lived. John Galliano offered me a job at his new company and I took it, foolishly imagining that it was enough just to work in the fashion industry and that I wouldn't mind being the only person in the business who didn't have a creative role.

At Galliano I loathed my job. I sat trapped behind my desk 15 or 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week for a year, struggling to turn myself into an accountant, lawyer, shipping expert and personnel director, while on the other side of the door another world revolved where satin-backed crepe arrived in an array of the most immaculate shades of pink; where dresses for Linda Evangelista were put together with hand-dyed feathers and 200m of tulle; where Bruce Weber photographed John and Shalom Harlow in the atelier while music bounced off the walls and I struggled with that month's overtime allowances.

Only during the shows did I manage to put away my spread sheets and join in the slight hysteria of preparing for a Galliano party. I went to one party only to find Naomi Campbell asleep on the other side of my desk. I asked her if she'd like anything and she said she wanted a margarita, so I rifled the petty cash and sent my boyfriend, who'd taken a week off work to help with the show, to see if the bar down the road would lend us a jug and some glasses. Smitten with her obvious charms, he applied himself to this task and dines out on the story of being butler for Naomi to this day.

Another night, Kate Moss arrived, laden with American porn mags to cheer us all up. At this stage I was perched, cross-legged on a cutting table, hand-sewing the frill onto the flamenco dress Elizabeth Hurley later wore to the Baftas. Andre Leon Talley and Michael Roberts were there too, auditioning boys for the show. They sat ensconced in armchairs while students stood behind them, their hair carefully kept out of their eyes with Kirby grips, Polaroiding the models who pranced about before them with rather carefully choreographed gay abandon.

All this for the show where I found my job was to stand on an orange crate while arc lights sliced the sky and a crowd too thick and slightly threatening pushed against the crash barriers which we'd used to block the road. I scanned the people for those I knew had invitations. "Let Paloma Picasso through!" I screamed to no avail until a posse of Vogue editors came to her rescue and forged a path to the front of the melee.

At the next show I was backstage helping to pacify a girl who was refusing to go out and show off the dress she'd been allocated because somebody else had another she thought prettier. We plied her with champagne and anything else she wanted, eventually peeled off the clothes she'd come away in from Chanel, and sent her out into a worshipful crowd which waited on rickety chairs on snow made of salt in an old warehouse somewhere the wrong side of the Gare du Nord.

When I went back to Paris not long ago I went to a Vogue party at the American Embassy. My erstwhile colleagues frowned at me, confused; it was as if, as I no longer worked in fashion, I had no place among them.

"What are you doing?" asked Andre Leon Talley, friendly as ever, 7ft tall and resplendent in a feast of pale pink Prada shantung. I told him I wrote novels. He nodded vaguely, frowned a little, and turned away. .

I still watch the shows fondly and keep an eye on the clothes - once you've caught a passion for the seaming on a piece of Chanel couture, you never lose it. There is something magical about these pieces which I will never be able to afford, let alone get into: gossamer-fine, hand- painted clothes fit for a fairy queen.

And, though I scoff with the rest of the ordinary world at the fuss made of skirt lengths, I still secretly nurse an ambition to be invited to one of Karl Lagerfeld's legendary Fashion Week dinner parties. But not as an assistant who'll help at the door. For once I want to sit down and be counted in my own Chanel dress.

`Sand and Slingbacks' by Georgina Newbery, published 12 August, Warner books, pounds 5.99.

ABOUT OUR COMPANY

John Galliano

Chief whip

Christy Turlington

HRH of the office walkaround

Naomi Campbell

The cocktail queen

Karl Lagerfeld

The Patron Saint of fashion

Steven Meisel

(Very) artistic director

Kate Moss

Office joker

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