Despite the fact that a New York Fashion Week runway show lasts, on average, from 10 to 12 minutes (not counting the seemingly inexhaustible wait beforehand), the planning and work leading up to that start almost a year in advance.
Show producer extraordinaire Laurie DeJong lives and breathes all things fashion runway. As the CEO of LDJ Productions, she manages two separate teams, totaling 15 full-time employees and 200 contractors, all entrenched in NYFW. There's the "show team," which produces shows for individual designers; this year includes Mara Hoffman, Lela Rose, Marcel Ostertag, Leanne Marshall, longtime client Christian Siriano, who's moving uptown to The Plaza Hotel ("it's a huge move") and Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan, the first to present a collection with hijabs for spring 2017 at NYFW. (And who, according to DeJong, will feature "some really great celebrity models" this season, so stay tuned.)
LDJ is also the "agency of record" for WME | IMG NYFW, meaning her other team helps run the shows in "the tents" at Skylight Clarkson Square. The former Calvin Klein executive also runs The Paper Fig Foundation, the philanthropy arm of her agency that supports the East African communities with hands-on education and training opportunities. So yeah, she's crazy busy, but took a break in between NYFW prep meetings (and a quick trip to Africa for a United Nations conference) to break it all down for us, from what happens when a wayward designer disrupts the show calendar (ahem, Kanye) to the nitty-gritty of model castings.
How and when do you start preparing for NYFW?
We start preparing a week after the previous season. We always say, 'Fashion Week is all year.' Our show team produces in the range of six to eight shows per season for women's and two to three for men's. The first thing that everyone is always thinking about are venues. All year long, we've got people in our office that are scouting locations and keeping up to date on what's new and what could be coming up, and that involves a lot of strategy; [we work with] real estate holding companies to find out about empty storefronts because sometimes a designer will want an empty storefront to show in. Some designers will show in the central showcase [WME | IMG's Skylight Clarkson].
[The next step is] locking in the dates, which is very strategic because it could change at any moment. If one of the big designers decides to change their time slot, the trickle-down effect affects everybody. Sometimes it's almost cart-before-the-horse because it's hard to lock down a venue without being 100 percent confirmed about your show date and time. Sometimes we will have to hold multiple venues in multiple time slots, so it's kind of like chess. There's a strategy to it, especially for our designers who show off-site. It's not only their time slot and their venue; it's the designer before and after them, because the press is spreading all around town. So we try and group [shows] as close together as possible. Especially if a designer is younger, we really want to make sure that they're showing somewhere convenient that editors will definitely go to. One thing about our job in general is that we need to be able to turn on a dime on a moment's notice and pivot and change very, very quickly.
How do you work with the central showcase to coordinate with the designers, PR agencies and their own runway production companies, which are sometimes different?
That's also a year-round endeavor. We'll have 65-plus designers in Clarkson and we're the conduit between the main producers at WME | IMG and the individual producers that are coming in to do every show. We're already in load-in mode there.
We always say that our client is WME | IMG, but we actually have 65 other clients because every single designer comes with their own team. It's a full-service venue, so our job is to make their lives easier. At every venue, we have a venue manager [who] is the keeper of all of the information. So a house scenic vendor, lighting vendor, audio vendor and our venue manager will hold the meetings with the vendors, the designers, the producers and the PR company for every single designer, and we do that for the month of January. So sometimes LDJ is the client for LDJ because our show teams are completely separate teams than our IMG teams.
So what is the bidding process with designers like?
We also do castings, fittings and all of the production management elements and show direction. Our show team is full-service. Oftentimes the designers will bid to three producers and three PR teams. We get into bids like everybody else does. You win some and lose some. But we have long-term relationships with the designers we've been working with. We don't take a lot of shows, because we don't want to bite off more than we can chew; we don't really take more than eight shows a season.
We pride ourselves on giving really, really personal service to every one of them, especially [with] international designers that come in from overseas. We've really developed a nice workflow. They'll work out of our office. They'll do castings and fittings out of our office, and they'll become part of our team for the two to three weeks they're here. I would rather focus on a few designers and really take more of an interest in their overall business than do a lot of shows — just kind of, 'one-hit wonders,' as we say. And some of our designers do bridal and swim, too, so it's really year-long relationships that are nurtured through the years. I feel like we want to be part of their team, and their success doesn't just depend on their 12-minute show; it's a lot longer than that. We're pretty invested in their business. We've been working with Christian Siriano since his first season that he showed right after 'Project Runway.'
So what goes into producing a runway show?
The timeline for the actual fittings and castings has been very condensed through the years. One of the reasons is models come in very close to show week, because that's when they arrive from overseas. There's a lot of competition between designers, as far as casting models and making sure there's enough time for each model to get from show to show and that there is enough backstage time.
To use Marcel Ostertag as an example, if we're casting on Thursday, we'd usually do a three-hour casting and make a decision on the spot. And then we'll do three days of fittings, where each model will come back each in an allocated hour and he will physically fit the clothes on the models at that moment, and we'll have seamstresses on hand to make all the alterations.
Designers like to use celebrity models. How does that affect your job?
I would say that with celebrity models, they usually, almost always, 90 percent of the time, come the day of. So we have to have a team ready to fit them on the spot and do any alterations on the spot. From a logistics standpoint, it's a bit trickier, but it's common. As long as we know ahead of time, which we don't always know, but we usually plan on it now. It's definitely getting more and more common, and the models are celebrities in some cases.
If the models are celebrities, like the Hadids and Kendall Jenner, are they doing the fittings like all the other models are doing?
Yeah, but usually it's a much more condensed timeframe. They'll come and do it often on the day of.
So in general, once the model fittings are done, what happens?
From there, we start building what we call a 'rotation,' meaning model one can't be model five because she needs to have enough time to come backstage and change. The rotation is tricky because designers usually have their heart set on using a model for a specific look. Sometimes it's done by groups, so if the red group needs 10 models and the black group needs 10 models, but they can't be same models; then we need 20 models. Some of it is just thinking through how long the runway is and how long it takes each model to get down the runway and back, go backstage and change, and get back in line. There's math that has to be done when it comes to figuring out what the rotations need to be, and that all happens during the fittings process.
Once we finish the rotations, we’ll pick and listen to music and think through with the designer where the scene changes are going to be. I always look at it as theater, and oftentimes there's several scenes in the show. We'll look at the scene changes and figure out where the breaks need to be, and usually there's multiple changes going on with the rotation and swapping out and then troubleshooting.
We'll usually sit with the director and designer and think through the show choreography and breaks. And the shows are shorter and shorter. The order in which the clothing goes out is important — you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The opening is a really important moment.
Everyone's thinking of that Instagram moment.
[The runway show is] 10 minutes — they're really short — but it really has to last the full season. Designers are counting on social media and marketing tools to come out of the fashion show to help them with their business for the rest of the season. The video aspect of it has become more important. With so many cameras now, we have to take extra care in making sure that the finishing is there — and when I say finishing, I don't even mean only the collection. Obviously the clothing itself has to be impeccably finished, but the runway, the lighting, just the minute little seams on the runway — everything has to be perfect. It's a competitive market and the level of expectation is so high. We deliver it time after time. It's so much harder for designers.
But it's an interesting time to be in fashion and an interesting time to be working on so many runway shows, just seeing the trends through the years and the designers that have decided not to show.
Every season, there's always talk that the calendar is too packed, people are trying to change the format, Instagram is changing how people are viewing the shows — how is that all affecting your job?
Certainly social media has changed the game. I actually think it's helped a lot as far as exposure for the designers. Especially for our newer designers and our international designers, [social media] increases their audience by millions, so it's really important for our designers. I'll work with really great PR companies so that they make sure they have the right people and the right influencers in the audience. That's definitely been a game changer for us.
I also notice that some of our off-site designers are looking for more intimate settings. They used to say, 'I need 500 to 700 to 1000 people.' Now people are looking for more of an intimate setting, where the audience is much more curated, rather than inviting everyone. You don't have to have everybody in the room because the audience is so widespread because of social media. And, at the end of the day, budgets are hard, budgets are tight. It's a really scary time right right now, because of what's going on with our government and the world. People are definitely concerned with the price tag.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.