60th anniversary. Ten years to John Galliano. Under the marble ceilings of the orangerie at Versailles - a palace built solely to house the king and queen's orange trees over winter. Fabulous was John's intention and I don't think he could've missed the irony, the aptness, of hosting one of the grandest statements of fashion in such a place of indulgence. The mirror of decadence was hard to miss, and compelling for its dazzle. This is going to be a show of historic proportions.
The music is charging and I've seen the length of the catwalk long enough to fear it. I'm girl 44 of 45 in the show - which means half an hour of agonising waiting backstage. Half an hour to reflect on the hours of meticulous labour and back-and-forthing that went into producing this moment. Half an hour for my heart to match the beat of the music (the London Community Gospel Choir and the Loyola Boys Choir from a Catholic prep school in Essex sing, so think dramatic). Half an hour to contemplate the number of people, and to notice my ankles curling inwards, begging to meet somewhere on the floor in between…
It is not often I credit this job with being particularly hard, but walking a Dior show is one of those rare moments I can really feel, as a fashion model, I've justly earned my bread and honey that day. That, to me, is what being part of Dior couture is about. Putting 'super' back into the show. Where most pret-a-porter shows have become largely homogenised affairs, the couture collection gives the designers the time to create fantastic and unique pieces with the drama and aspirations of art. Couture is fashion’s theatre, where fantastic but pure design ideas are allowed to flourish. Dior is synonymous with couture. And the show is John's platform for his genius.
Night before the show, 5am, the fittings in Paris... leaving a trail of girls in corsets behind me. The procedure is meticulous. The girls are pinned, corseted, dressed, then crowned before being brought down to John, who greets you with a smile and makes the final hands-on adjustments to the dresses. The studio walls are mirrored and covered in Renaissance images, and the soundtrack for tomorrow night's show belts out loud and dramatic; you're in a cavern of late-night creativity and inspiration. There is an inherent friendliness there, though, among all the glamour; a closeknitness amid the scale that makes you not just inspired, but happy to be hanging out there these late hours. The Dior family is here; the team which has consistently worked together since I did my first Dior show eight seasons ago and I'm sure a whole lot longer. There is not one inch of the 'notorious' fashion bitchiness.
Forget clothes horses: the only horses in this show are the statues. Every model has her own image and personality for John, and he takes the time to match each dress to each girl accordingly. All the outfits reference an artist's technique and inspiration - Naomi Campbell's is Alma-Tadema; Linda Evangelista's is Caravaggio; Gisele Bundchen's ensemble is inspired by photographer Irving Penn, Amber Valletta's is Renoir and mine is Tiepolo. We have images to meditate on the evening before.
Yet there is a sombreness to it all. Steven Robinson, Galliano's right-hand man and head of studio for both Dior and John's own eponymous fashion line, died four months ago in April at the age of 38. He'd worked beside John for two decades, and was brought to Dior as part of the deal. This is the first show John has staged since his passing. Everyone feels the loss of Steven's energy - his absence pervades the general mood. He had such a distinctive voice, such a powerful presence backstage, a hole is left.
Someone jokes that they still reckon his sense of humour has hung around; Shalom fell over in the fitting (green dresses are apparently bad luck in couture, but John loves green) and they joke it was Steven who pushed her! I really admire the strength and vigour of the 'Dior family', creating this show in spite of the circumstances. Perhaps it's because of the circumstances. The show is dedicated to Steven: a fabulous ode to a fabulous man.
Forward eight hours, and I turn up on the green lawns and sunshine of Versailles, a refuge from Paris's clogged streets. My eyebrows are glued down, my eyes taped back. (Naomi and Linda discuss whether to get taped - hilarious.) My eyes are decorated with silver and purple glitter right up to my high-painted brows, double-layered false lashes are applied, and my hair is braided with crystal stars. Hair and make-up is nearly as important as the clothes in this spectacle, and John works closely with make-up artist Pat McGrath and hairdresser Orlando Pita in the lead-up to the show. Really, there are several geniuses involved here ...
The glitter around my eyes frames my vision backstage; frantic and busy, ribbed with magic. It's an exhaustingly long process but so exciting. My face afterwards is always a complete surprise to me and I love the contrast of the midway point backstage; the sparkle of made-up faces, hairdos to challenge Marie Antoinette's and milliner Stephen Jones's crystallised creations - hats, brushes, crowns and stars all floating above a sea of organised chaos, jeans and leather jackets, iPods in jewel-adorned ears. Girls sit patiently as they are painstakingly transformed. I read my book (Shantaram) and try to ignore my Blackberry.
Forward five hours and I'm standing at the edge of the runway, congratulating myself on making it to the end, worrying about my awkward face of contorted pain showing through the inch of make-up I'm wearing, and I see Shalom approach gracefully from behind. Girl 45 - the finishing number. I'm standing next to a statue of a horse, waiting to pose with her and John when he arrives. And here she comes in a jade silk dress, walking so lightly she could have stepped out of one of the Renaissance paintings by Michelangelo which inspired her outfit. Head high, lips curling softly into a smile, Shalom moves her arms into the air, shifting her bodyweight with the lightness of a bird in flight. Shalom, as peaceful as her name. Now that, I think, is a supermodel.
Apprehension, the long build-up: we wait for the master, the showman, to make his entrance. Shalom and I turn different positions next to the horses. John arrives and takes a slow bow, certain and confident, drawing out the time. There is a way that most (good) actors have a way of claiming the time, not feeling rushed to deliver a line but owning the pauses in a way that only really can come from confidence.
He turns on his heel, gives Shalom and me courteous nods and smiles. Then he marches off, leading the way. As I run around backstage the atmosphere is warm, excited, beautiful. The biggest couture show this decade is an undisputed success. I run into legendary stylist Edward Enniful, Dior show staple Dita Von Teese and my agent.
At the party afterwards there are hundreds of people, jugglers throwing fire, mountains of fresh paella cooked in pans the size of wagon wheels, drinks and the opportunity to dance off sore feet. Angela Lindvall, Irina Lazareanu and I kick our shoes off and do a good stint on the dancefloor before ambling around the gardens. A film of the show is projected on to a fountain, so all the girls appear in the jets of water as ghostlike holograms. In the 18th century, it was that kind of decadence that lost them their heads. This time round, the audience keep their heads, but their minds are blown.
This article was published by the Observer and Guardian in 2007.