Mercedes-Benz LA Fashion Week – Day 1

There’s not much going on in terms of runway fashion shows in San Francisco so when the opportunity came to shoot LA Fashion Week I jumped at it. LA Fashion week is a real industry event open only to people in the fashion industry. Produced by IMG, the same company that produces NY Fashion Week, these shows are professionally produced and not staged for selling tickets to the public. I made the drive from San Francisco to L.A. for this event and the timing for this day was tight due to a long delay caused by the closure of Interstate 5 at Santa Clarita. The detour was not exactly easy and took over an hour. I arrived at the parking area with just enough time to change, gather my gear and catch the shuttle to SmashBox Studios by 3:45 pm. The first show, Sue Wong, was scheduled to start at 4:00 p.m. so I knew I had to hustle. The check in for the press line was ridiculously slow. They had a small trailer with two people inside issuing credentials for all media so the line was not moving at all. By the time I got in line, it was already 4:10 so I made the decision to go in and shoot it with just the credentials I had from Sue Wong since I had gotten an invite from her P.R. team.

By the time I got to the riser, it was already packed with about 75 still and video photographers. I made my way up to the top level and found a spot. It was pitch dark so I had to setup my gear by touch along. Fortunately, I got settled just in time for the show to start.

The show started with some dancers so this was a great opportunity to setup my exposure. I was a bit startle by how bright the lights were. I had planned to shoot at ISO 400, 1/250 at 2.8. Instead, I had to quickly reset my camera to ISO 160, 1/400 at 2.8. This show took place at the Main Tent which is the largest of the three venues. It’s a traditional setup with a white runway, audience seats set at an incline, and two banks of lights down the middle of the runway. One bank points at an angle toward the models as they approach the end of the runway. The bank next to it points at the back of the models for back lighting. I make this important distinction because I have some seen other shows staged by less professional lighting teams who point the lights straight down at the models. This setup creates very unpleasant dark eye sockets in still and video photography.

The Sue Wong collection was huge with lots of bright, vibrant pieces and very interesting head gear to match. As expected, the models were gorgeous. In a press released from Sue Wong, her collection was inspired by 20th Century modern artist such as Alexander Calder, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miro and Victor Vasarely. Each artist is rendered throughout the collection in a series of hand-painted prints, color blocking, negative / positive reverse and embellishment all in bright, lively colors as well as an infusion of black & white graphic repeats.

As I was shooting the collection hearing all the shutter clicks around me, it became even more clear to me that there are three type of runway photographers. First you have the sports shooter’s rapid fire style of holding the shutter button down and hoping for the best. Second, you have the more experienced runway shooters who pick their shots and timing it for optimal effect. Third, you have the occasional shooter with a kit lens and a flash but those are pretty rare on the risers. Los Angeles Fashion Week is a bit different from others due to the celebrity factor. It was interesting to watch the dichotomy between celebrities and paparazzi photographers. At L.A. Fashion Week, photographers are basically broken down to two groups; those interested in shooting celebrities (paparazzi photographers), and those interested in shooting fashion. It’s impossible to do both because if you want to shoot fashion, you have to get on the riser early, claim your spot, and nest there until the show starts. This process can take anywhere from 30 minutes and over an hour. Paparazzi have to camp outside the entrance waiting for red carpet arrivals. Once the celebrities walk in, they follow them around the runway and front row taking pictures. Runway shooter might occasionally grab a shot of a celebrity as they walk pass the runway but basically, you’re pretty much stuck to the spot you claimed. In less popular show, it’s possible to step off and move around a little.

Shooting Fashion Week is a series of hurry up and wait interrupted by 40 minutes of intense focus and repeated over and over again. One of the biggest challenges in runway photography is managing resources. It’s a real balancing act trying to use the limited resources you have while still maintaining enough for the next show. If you shoot rapid fire, you will definitely run out of memory and power very quickly. Not to mention the extra time required to edit the junk out after the show. The way the runway is setup, it pretty much impossible to get full length shots when the model is at the end of the runway unless you are in the first or second row. Most of that space is taken by the video guys with the humongous tripods. So I ended up shooting most full length shots while they approach the runway and tighter shots at the end.

With the Sue Wong show behind me, it was off to the Nicky Hilton show. This would be a circus as she has one of the biggest celebrity factors and was showing at the smallest of the three tents. In the end, we manage to squeeze in and make it work. Fortunately, sister Paris did not make a showing to it was not as bad as it could have been. As for her collection, let’s just say it was more off the rack than designer fashion but maybe that’s her target audience. Who knows? It’s just not what I expected to see on a runway among more flamboyant designers.

Next up was the Yves Castaldi show. He started the show with a solo vocal performance that tested the patience of all in attendance. People are there to see fashion and anything other than fashion just detracts from it. I have no problem with the performance of a single song so I can test the lighting but I was not ready for a mini recital while packed shoulder to shoulder on the riser with a bunch of sweaty photographers. The show finally opened with Bai Ling as a celebrity model. I was rather impressed with the collection. His entire collection consisted of black, charcoal, and white.

The day ended with the headliner show in the big tent by Randolph Duke. It was a huge show with lots of celebrities present. Randolph Duke is known for elegant gowns and he did not disappoint based on the positive response from the crowd. As expected, the pieces were elegant and feminine.

By the time the show ended, it was already past 9 p.m. By the time I caught the shuttle back to the garage and check in to the hotel, it was already past 10 p.m. and I was exhausted. Luckily, none of the shows start before 2 pm so I could relax before the cycle starts over again. Having the first show behind me, it was now time to make an assessment of what I really needed. I had brought along a backup body and a couple of wide lenses and a flash for backstage shots. But it was just too much weight to carry around so for the second day, I just brought what I needed and a small compact camera for backstage.

Sue Wong Collection

Nicky Hilton slide show

Randolph Duke slide show

Yves Castaldi slide show