Audrey Smaltz has been a central part of New York Fashion Week since 1977, before there was even a name coined for the semiannual collection of fashion shows that present designers' visions for the following season.
When New York Fashion Week began Thursday, Smaltz was in the middle of the action. She had five shows on her schedule for the first day of the festivities, which run through Feb. 16 at Lincoln Center and other venues around New York City.
No, Smaltz isn't a designer. She's not a model, either, though some longtime fashion fans may recognize her from back in the day when she was a model or when she was the coordinator and commentator for the legendary traveling Ebony Fashion Fair show.
Instead, Smaltz has made her mark behind the scenes as head of the New York City-based fashion-services company called the Ground Crew. The Ground Crew's mark is measured in the details that make a fashion show a success: an organized and smoothly flowing procession of models, clothing perfectly tailored and arranged on each model, accessories exactly placed.
"It takes a lot to put on a show that lasts just 12 to 15 minutes," Smaltz said, describing the role of her army of backstage fashion worker bees. "Most people who are not in our business have no idea what it takes to put on a show.
"We're the ones who make sure the right outfit is on the right model at the right time, that the models are ready, that the handbag isn't on the wrong hand. We're the ones who remind the models not to switch the handbag to their other hand."
They're also often the people who handle all the little problems that can create backstage drama — the shoes that are way too small for the assigned model, the tricky zippers, the show order that doesn't allow enough time for a model to change.
It's the kind of painstaking detail that has made Smaltz and her company sought after, not just during New York Fashion Week but throughout the year in every fashion capital around the world. The Ground Crew handled about 225 fashion shows, showroom showings and other events last year, including the annually televised Victoria's Secret show. Other major clients include some of the biggest names in fashion, like Donna Karan, Michael Kors and Oscar de la Renta.
With all those fashion events, Smaltz and her employees have a front-row seat to everything that happens in the world of fashion, including the many changes that have affected the fashion industry over the years.
"You have more shows, that's for sure. Frankly, you have too many designers out there trying to show. There are designers out there that shouldn't have big shows because for one thing, they can't afford it," Smaltz said.
But Smaltz said the biggest change has been in another element of the fashion-show equation: the models.
"The [female] models today are not nearly as elegant, chic or sophisticated as the girls of the '80s and the '90s. The girls in the '80s and the '90s knew what to do and were where they were supposed to be," Smaltz said. "Today, these models are really girls. They're giddy and giggly and young. Here you have a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girl trying to walk in platforms, and she has no idea.
"And they don't have personalities now. It's the nature of what the directors want now. It's 'have a sour face, walk out and come back.' These models today don't even know the proper way to take off and put on a coat on the runway. They can't do it. It's sad."
The male runway models, she added, are generally sweet and true gentlemen, but a bit slow when it comes to changing their clothes.
And Smaltz and her crew have also encountered a growing number of show directors and designers who don't really know how things should be handled backstage, either. There was, for example, the designer's assistant who didn't want to tell the crew the order of the show even though the crew was supposed to dress the models. Then there was the show that only had three pairs of shoes but 28 models.
"We just had to create a system. Shoes off at the exit, pass them over to the model at the entrance. We kept things running," Smaltz said with a chuckle.
As for the best of the big changes over the years, Smaltz has one favorite.
"We don't have to worry about panty hose much anymore. That's huge for us. For so many years we had to change panty hose. We used to layer it sometimes," she said. "Now the designers don't bother with it that much anymore for the runway. It just shows how things change."
Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey-based writer.