Spellbinding spaces, colourful creations, famous front-row fixtures and a parade of beautiful peacocks—fashion shows are always a spectacle, but when it comes to the greatest show on earth, Victoria’s Secret is the hottest ticket in town. This year, the mega lingerie chain’s 17th show opened with a circus-themed act that included acrobats, stilt dancers and a sword swallower. The Angels, led by sexy ringleader Adriana Lima, donned velvet trapeze-artist corsets, balloon wings, tiger jackets and snake-charmer body pieces as they whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Despite the fact that this production took place in New York one week after Hurricane Sandy unleashed her wrath on the East Coast, and the same day as the first nor’easter storm of the season, the VS team managed to pull off their spectacular feats without any noticeable snafus. When there are 38 models—and 38 travel schedules—to coordinate; 80 stage hands on call; 28 sets of couture-worthy wings feverishly being finished; 2,154 guests to be seated; Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars and Rihanna performing; a prime time slot on CBS booked, with TV viewers from 185 countries; and millions of dollars on the line, it’s clear the show must go on.
Backstage, the energy is palpable as the Angels—I spy Doutzen, Candice, Alessandra, Behati and Miranda—are transformed into heavenly creatures by a glam squad (22 hairstylists, 18 makeup artists and seven manicurists) headed up by hair whiz Orlando Pita and makeup maestro Tom Pecheux. All of the one-name genetic wonders are clad in pink satin VS robes sprinkled with Swarovski crystals, and pink flip-flops. Veteran Angel Doutzen Kroes, a five-time VS walker, admits she still gets nervous, while newbie Cara Delevingne, a 20-year-old British ready-to-wear model and the star of Burberry’s fall campaign, hams it up during her interviews, making funny faces and dropping the occasional F-bomb, before stepping out onto the glittery VS runway for the first time. “It’s a completely different deal,” she says, referring to the difference between her regular modelling jobs and this extravaganza. “I’m not going to say no to a Victoria’s Secret show. They’re sexy women and I want to be one of them.” Judging by the outfit she is slated to wear in the “Pink Is Us” set—a striped latex roller-girl dress (“I’ll be lubed up to the max”)—I’d say mission accomplished.
Hilary Rhoda, another established model making her debut as an Angel this season, reveals that the VS casting process is intimidating. “With ready-to-wear, we go in and see the designers very quickly, but [for this] it was walk in, get dressed in your underwear and walk out to a table of people,” she says. “And it was being filmed.” It’s no secret that near-perfect bodies help seal the deal for a coveted spot on cloud nine but personality also comes into play. Unlike a standard ready-to-wear show, where models are instructed to look as expressionless as possible, Angels are encouraged to flash big smiles, blow kisses, wink and generally look like they’re having (gasp!) fun on the runway—not always an easy task given the weight of some of the show-stopping costumes.
Of the 65 looks dreamt up this year, the deco gowns were among the most challenging to execute. “It really is a feat of architecture to keep those beaded, voluminous numbers moving and easy for the model to walk in,” says Todd Thomas, collection designer for Victoria’s Secret. “It takes some engineering. ‘How will we build the train? Will there be boning or wiring in it to keep its beautiful form?’” Given how many hands work on these intricate pieces (like the Swarovski 10-year anniversary gown worn by Cameron Russell in the Silver Screen Angels section, which required a draper, a pattern maker, a beader and several people to build the structure) it’s not surprising that Thomas calls the one-of-a-kind creations “haute couture.” Anyone unconvinced need only read the show notes to realize the craftsmanship is miles above the mall: there are hand-painted textiles, feather and crystal pieces, custom latex, hand beading and embroidery. As for that stunning ringleader outfit worn by Lima, it took several weeks to hand-sew the metallic gold embroidery onto the duchesse satin. “Our embroiderer, who also works for the couture houses, said to us, ‘We just don’t do this anymore.’ It is a dying craft,” Thomas says.
During the show, Thomas stays backstage to assist with last looks on Angels about to take flight. “We have very particular dressing modes,” he says. “These [pieces] have crazy hooks and asymmetrical closures. They are strategically engineered to reveal and frame our product but they are also very delicate.” Typically, there’s one dresser per model, sometimes more depending on time and potential emergencies, but generally the process of peeling off latex boots and putting on corsets and wing harnesses is all done in a matter of moments. Clearly, steady hands and a never-let-them-see-you-sweat attitude go far behind these scenes.
Out on stage, the Angels walk the 102-foot runway to heaven serenaded by Rihanna, the Biebs and Bruno Mars, who has a seven-piece band. “Everyone makes a big effort for their shows but we make it an entertainment event,” says Monica Mitro, the show’s executive producer. “We’re not trying to sell our clothes to buyers—we do a show once a year. It builds the brand and excitement. Everyone knows what the Victoria’s Secret show is.”
Several hours before Kroes hits the runway in her feather wings and cage corset, she’s sitting in a director’s chair getting primped. “It’s almost like you’re a performer—the crowd is screaming and cheering you on,” she says. “It’s so much more than a fashion show.” Ladies and gentlemen, step right up. Come see the most beautiful creatures in the world.