A Canadian in Paris: Our spellbinding photo shoot and film wrap model Amanda Nimmo in haute couture at the legendary Hôtel de Crillon
An Ottawa model, a Toronto-bred photographer and a Paris hotel room packed with haute couture. What a perfect way to illustrate FASHION’s mandate—bringing the international world of fashion home.
BEHIND THE SCENES
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Frill Seeker: Amy Verner goes behind the scenes at FASHION’s haute couture shoot in Paris.
On an unseasonably overcast and chilly morning in Paris this past July, passersby outside the Hôtel de Crillon figured they were witnessing a celebrity photo shoot. The blonde ingénue surely looked the part; from certain angles, she even resembled Taylor Swift. But this was not a chart-topping songstress or famous debutante. This was Amanda Nimmo, 19, an Ottawa native who began modelling just last year. Every time she donned another dress—Givenchy, Atelier Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel—each more extraordinary than the last, she transformed into a dramatic, remarkably different character. That’s the beauty of haute couture. At its best—that is, neither needlessly poufy nor bizarrely conceptual—it represents painstaking effort, carte blanche creativity and fantasy in wearable form.
Orchestrating an haute couture shoot means accepting two key points: 1. It is far more demanding than a standard magazine editorial. Let’s compare it to inviting friends for dinner versus preparing a meal for chef extraordinaire Alain Ducasse. 2. While the images can convey the dream, especially in a setting as stunning as Paris, they can never quite capture the minute, handcrafted details that make couture so exceptional. But as it happens, the photographer leading FASHION’s foray into such haute territory, Benjamin Kanarek, has been shooting couture since 1986. The Canadian expat, now based in Paris, describes couture as the F1 of fashion. “It’s a totally different mindset,” he says. “Being on a couture shoot doesn’t allow you the luxury of keeping the clothing all day, to develop mood boards. Everyone is vying for [the same dresses]. You have to think on your feet and be creative. It’s a real challenge.”
It didn’t seem that way when a small crowd started to assemble around him on the sidewalk as he instructed Nimmo to run a few steps while clutching the sides of an intricately embroidered gold Elie Saab gown. “Wunderbar! Bene, bene! Goy-geous! The best so far!” Kanarek shouted, while seated cross-legged, steps from the hotel’s gilded entrance. Right behind him, Frédérique Renaut, Kanarek’s creative and life partner, was filming the day from start to finish. Taking a cue from their enthusiasm, people began snapping pictures with their camera phones, not just because Nimmo looked so luminous, but because they realized this was a moment that was uniquely Parisian.
It was even more amusing to watch those sitting on the upper level of a double-decker tour bus put their amateur Doisneau skills to work as they caught our statuesque model in a one-shoulder ruched and ruffled Giambattista Valli couture gown against the backdrop of the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette was put to death in 1793. Here, we had the accompaniment of a natural wind machine plus the ceremonious soundtrack of an orchestral ensemble rehearsing for the forthcoming Bastille Day parade. Balancing on the stone wall, Nimmo rose to the occasion: “Maybe a bit of yoga is coming into play.”
When I arrived at one of the Crillon’s three presidential suites, stylist Sohei Yoshida and his three assistants had stationed themselves in the bedroom. I imagine this is how it would feel to be an actress on Oscar night, surrounded by dozens of garment bags and boxes of shoes. Just days earlier, all of these dresses were making their way down runways as part of Fall 2012 haute couture fashion week. The action, however, continues after the shows end, as this is when magazines rush to get the looks into their fall issues. The ensuing negotiations are akin to baseball teams signing free agents and trading players. Editors submit their requests and then the fashion houses decide whether to grant exclusives (so the same dress doesn’t appear in competing publications) and how to schedule the loans, often sending an intern to accompany the dress while it gets shot.
Thankfully, the mood remained entirely upbeat and playful on our set. Just ask the doorman who posed alongside Nimmo, towering a full head above him in Jantaminiau platforms that reminded me of boat hulls. “We’ve done this before but it’s one of the fun parts of the job,” Nourdine Seddik said coolly before attending, once again, to the luxury cars and limousines parked outside. Later, in a moment of comic relief, Eric Waroll, one of the wardrobe assistants, delighted in trying on the bejewelled fencing-inspired mask by Maison Martin Margiela, which he paired with the Crillon’s plush white bathrobe. By mid-afternoon, the team was eager to refuel and sat picnic-style in the suite’s crimson living room, dining on takeout Thai noodles.
Kanarek points out that couture has lost some key players in the past decade—Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix—but that Dior’s newly minted designer, Raf Simons, offers much-needed newness. This was evident as soon as Nimmo stepped out in Dior haute couture’s chopped-off ball gown and cigarette trousers. “I feel like an alien ballerina,” she said as we chatted on the balcony of the hotel’s Salon des Aigles.
At that point, those foreboding skies couldn’t hold back. Before the rain had a chance to make contact with the Dior, hairstylist Patrice Delaroche lifted Nimmo off the table, where she had perched like a thoroughly modern Dégas dancer.
There would be another three hours of shooting in the hotel’s decadent salons before the team called it a day, but Kanarek was particularly buoyed when he saw Renaut’s playback. “That’s the difference between shit and a great photo,” he declares, having strategically positioned the gilded dome of Les Invalides between Nimmo’s legs. Like the broader message of couture, it’s the kind of shot that seems too perfectly executed, too gorgeous, too Parisian to be real. But trust me, it is.
VIDEOS FROM THE SHOOT
The Suite Life: A look beyond the doors of legendary Parisian landmark, Hôtel de Crillon.
See the photos of Hôtel de Crillon »
Of all the vantage points in Paris, the Hôtel de Crillon’s views rank among the finest. Situated at the northwest corner of the Place de la Concorde, the hotel looks out onto the Luxor Obelisk, a veritable treasure from ancient Egypt, and is positioned almost directly across the Seine from the grand golden dome of Les Invalides. Commissioned by King Louis XV in 1758 and realized by master architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the Crillon was conceived as one of two identical buildings to anchor the square on both sides of Rue Royale. Until its transformation into a hotel in 1909, the palace belonged to the descendents of the Count of Crillon for several generations. Their presence can be felt in the grand salons (it is said that Marie Antoinette took piano lessons in the one that now bears her name), which have since served as decadent backdrops for political dinners, society balls and fashion shows. Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and Miuccia Prada are among the luminaries who have graced the Crillon’s guestbook in more modern times.