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Memoirs of a Stylist

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Creating a cover story in Hong Kong might have had its complications, but the epic images – and wrap-party tequilas – made it all worthwhile

Words: Alexandra Fullerton Photography: James Meakin

September 2012

Stylist fashion director Alexandra Fullerton begins her diary of the shoot…

It all starts at the shows: an Oriental print, a wide-sleeved silhouette, a padded Obi belt… As I study the catwalk, sketching and scribbling from the front row, it becomes clear… spring is an Oriental odyssey. It’s the perfect trend for our next fashion issue.

But it’s not just the clothes. As well as Eastern-influenced looks on the catwalk, China’s luxury goods consumers are transforming the fashion industry with the way they shop. This serious edge gives the theme much more scope for exploration and I feel the issue would come alive with an epic location shoot in China.

I need the shoot to transport the reader to a fantasy land full of extraordinary clothes and exotic locations, so I call photographer James Meakin. James’ unique vision makes him the ultimate choice for this story and he is just as eager as me to shoot in China, despite a fractured shoulder and a conflicting job in Cape Town…

ABOVE: After weeks of planning and hours of hard work, the final product

BELOW: Monday, 8.30am: shooting Marni on Victoria peak

November 2012

I start my research, taking in everything from traditional costume to the new Bond film, Skyfall, which has scenes in Shanghai and Macau. Over Christmas I read Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington – the creative director of Vogue US describes shooting in China in 1979 and the thought of following in such legendary footsteps makes me fizz with excitement.

I have lunch with Chinese designer Huishan Zhang and tell him my plans for the issue. He suggests I shoot the fashion story in the southern city of Guangzhou – famous for its gardens – as it will be warmer at this time of year, so I start to plan our shoot there...

But Guangzhou is so vast that Cordelia, our China-based producer, suggests we move to Hong Kong instead, as it has every location I had hoped for: neon street signs, elegant pagodas, towering temples, scruffy neighbourhood canteens, green space and chaotic street scenes. We book the flights and hotels, and the journey begins.

Friday 11 January 2013

While I check in at Heathrow, I get an email about our model, Miao Bin Si. There is a problem with her visa. Instead of arriving on Saturday afternoon (giving us two full days to shoot) she won’t get to Hong Kong until Sunday morning. Oh dear…

ABOVE: Monday, 11am: The flower market, Stylist’s Alex adds the finishing touch

BELOW: Sunday, 4pm: Thankfully the Lions didn’t bite

ABOVE: Sunday 7pm: A beautiful sunset, captured by crouching in a car park

BELOW: Sunday, 1pm: Photographer James gets a better angle

Saturday 12 January 2013

Fitful is the best way to describe my sleep on the plane. My fears are well-founded. James, our photographer, and his assistant Craig (who are both coming from Cape Town) have missed their connecting flight due to someone being taken sick on their plane. All I want is for the model, photographer and clothes to be together in the same country!

Cordelia meets us at the airport and after a month of exchanging 100 emails a day it’s brilliant to stand on Hong Kong soil and hug her. Cordelia is an ex-Elle cover girl and actress (she was a regular in Jackie Chan movies) and now produces shoots and events for brands including Roberto Cavalli, Gucci, Tiffany and Giorgio Armani all over Asia – she even has a bodyguard licence!

Driving into the city, the skyline looks like a scene from Blade Runner. We dump our cases at the hotel and take it in turns to wash in the toilet – our rooms won’t be ready until after lunch but we need to get out to recce locations. Planning every shot will be crucial as we only have two days in which to get 12 shots. This would be an easy task in a studio but negotiating Hong Kong’s notorious traffic jams could cause problems to our schedule, which is already more than tight...

Heading out into the city with Cordelia as our guide, Stylist’s art director Giles and I are in a daze. There are fines for dropping litter so the streets are clean but they stink. Incense mingles with dried fish and drains and we pass shop windows crammed with shark’s fins.

When we stop at Cordelia’s club for lunch, I’m so tired, I think I’m going to collapse. The food comes to the table – dim sum, broth made from chicken feet (which are served up with your soup), turnip cake and pots of green tea. I’ve never been a fan of dim sum but I’m so tired, I’d eat anything – almost. I stop at the chicken feet.

Back out on the streets we keep walking. We want to see every possible location for our story, from tiny back alleys, shops and market stalls to epic views of the Hong Kong skyline. We take pictures of everything and I try to work out which outfits could fit with each location. After dusk we drive out to Jumbo, a floating restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour that can only be reached by boat. In the darkness, thousands of light bulbs illuminate the sky, it’s beautiful. Afterwards Giles and I head back to our hotel with the satisfied glow that comes from knowing we’ve discovered a set of totally brilliant and utterly unique locations.

ABOVE: Monday, 4pm: On the look-out for an angry cyclist

BELOW: Monday, 10pm: Lanterns cover the team’s tired eyes

Monday 14 January 2013

After a breakfast of runny oatmeal and power smoothies, we start day two of shooting. My heart is set on including a traditional pagoda in the story – the most beautiful one, covered in gold leaf, is in a park next to the Nan Lian monastery. It’s open to the public but professional photography is frowned upon so we devise a complicated charade to get the shot. James and I pretend to be tourists with me ‘posing’ for James in the foreground, while Miao goes off with Kevin, the production assistant, and pretends to pose for him in the distance. We feel like spies shooting undercover surveillance footage. Finally James proclaims, “We have it.”

Next, I decide a push-bike is essential and set Cordelia the task of finding one. It has to be old-fashioned and a bit beaten up. I imagine Miao whizzing down the street on it, in the Gucci chrysanthemum-print ensemble, with her pink-streaked hair flying behind her. Nothing Cordelia finds is quite right, until walking back to the van she spots a bike propped up against some railings. It’s perfect! The only small problem is that we can’t find an owner so Cordelia covertly wheels it around the corner for Miao to ride. Then we realise it’s not just been left for an hour, it’s been abandoned. The wheels don’t move so my dream action shot has to be shelved, but with James crouched down in the gutter and Miao swishing her hair, there is a brilliant energy to the shot.

At last we reach our final shot: neon lights at night. Jetlag has kicked in and we are all slightly dazed but Miao takes the initiative and leads us up onto the Mid-Levels Escalator – an 800-metre, 20-minute journey rising up through the city. Looking down over the neon lights of Wellington Street, Miao finds the perfect place to pose. She’s wearing a sherbet lemon-coloured Christopher Kane dress and while most commuters on their way home push past us, some stop and stare and others even insist on taking their own pictures.

Finishing the shot – our last of the shoot – we all grin at each other before a round of hugs and whoops of joy. We dump the kit back at the hotel and after a quick change are all due a celebratory drink, or several...

Every night Hong Kong puts on a light display over the city and Sevva, on the top of a skyscraper in central Hong Kong is the perfect bar to watch the lights and start our wrap party… which quickly descends into a tequila-shot slamming bar-crawl.

Jet-lagged, tired and hungover, we disperse around the world and head back to reality. With two months until the autumn/winter 2013/2014 catwalk shows it’s almost time to start planning our September fashion issue. I’m thinking Greenland, Bhutan, the Congo...

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