Top writer hits out at fashion for 'inhumane' schedules

Up-and-coming designers lose out to the 'big advertisers' as catwalk shows are fixed for couture journalists
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Of all the events that could be called "inhumane", the champagne-fuelled extravaganza of Paris fashion week would hardly be at the top of the list.

But such was the accusation levelled at the event's organisers yesterday, when one of the fashion world's most formidable commentators complained about the brutality of having to sit through more than 14 hours of catwalk shows a day. The attack has come from Suzy Menkes, the undisputed grande dame of couture journalism, famed as much for her diligence in seeing every single collection, every single day, as for the breadth of her influence.

Even Ms Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, has drawn the line at having to sit through up to 13 shows in one day.

The action-packed schedule was drawn up to satisfy the needs of Anna "Nuclear" Wintour, the steely British editor of American Vogue, who did not want to spend too long away from New York. Obediently, Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the French fashion industry body, decided to squeeze all the shows by the top names into the first five of the event's nine days.

But in a letter to Mr Grumbach, Ms Menkes accused organisers of imposing an "inhumane and unacceptable" schedule to satisfy the whims of big business.

While all the top houses – ranging from Dior to Alexander McQueen – will be seen by the US publications, many up-and-coming designers will be missed. This, according to Ms Menkes, flies in the face of French democratic traditions.

In her letter, obtained by the trade bible Women's Wear Daily, she wrote: "The attempt to compress the shows of the big and powerful groups into just five days works contrary to the spirit of Paris fashion. It has always welcomed all designers in a democratic way and has allowed small talents to root and to grow. I abhor the idea of a two-tier system."

She added that the main fashion conglomerates were in the first five days at least partly because of their status as "major advertisers". Referring to the hectic 94-show schedule, starting from 8.45am and normally ending beyond midnight, Ms Menkes continued: "On Tuesday March 12, there are 13 shows. This is an inhuman and unacceptable schedule."

American Vogue confirmed that Ms Wintour had been "one of several" editors lobbying for the tighter schedule – before suggesting that long days in Paris were nothing new. A spokesman said: "She certainly had a role in shortening the French collections. It was too long and no one has the time or budget any more to remain for long periods overseas."

Mr Grumbach was left musing on the impossibility of reconciling the requirements of two luminaries of the fashion world. He told Women's Wear Daily: "You can't make Anna Wintour happy, because she wants to go back to New York, and also please Suzy Menkes, who wants to go to all the shows she loves."

Yes, some days can be less than fabulous

It would be foolish to describe a job that is spent watching and writing about designer clothes as a hardship. It is clearly, to use fashion's most overused phrase, a fabulous way to make a living. That said, reports of champagne constantly flowing, of free gifts (commonly known as bribes) falling from the rooftops and long lunches in expensive restaurants are vastly exaggerated.

When Suzy Menkes complains that the Paris schedule is "inhumane", however, those in the industry are forced to sit up and listen. This is not least because she is the world's most respected fashion journalist ­ her paper is read by every other front-row expert worth her salt and anyone missing a show swears by her descriptive reviews.

Menkes attends each one, while still somehow managing to file upwards of 1,000 words a day to her newsdesk. She is the only newspaper journalist to do so faithfully and this despite a career that spans more years than most young upstarts have had hot dinners.

The autumn/winter Paris calendar is clearly not for the faint-hearted, then. It's never easy ­ between 10 and 12 shows take place back to back each day, often involving hours of travel in between. The difference this time is that the big names have all been jammed into the first five or six days ­ as opposed to the full nine. The last few days have been filled with designers who, not to be too unkind, are hardly of the must-see variety.

This means a conveniently short stay in the French fashion capital for the editors of glossy magazines, who will be ferried from show to show in chauffeur-driven limousines, then promptly flown back to New York on Concorde.

Those of us forced to stoop to the humble Metro as a less expensive mode of transport and/or make daily deadlines are likely to be less impressed.

By Susannah Frankel