It’s difficult to watch a fashion runway show without being caught up in the elegance, the glamour, and the cutting-edge music and visuals.
Regardless of the designs on display, runway shows have a bulletproof reputation for being visually impressive and engaging, even for viewers who aren’t completely versed in the top designers of the day.
We’re going to take a behind-the-scenes look at fashion events, through the eyes of a top-tier major live event producer.
Event Producer Calvin Mitchell on the magic of live events
Calvin Mitchell is no stranger to live event production. With more than 10 years of experience in this field, he has regularly produced live shows with an average audience of 15,000 and broadcast TV audiences of roughly 5 million.
This includes extensive work on WE Day events in Canada, for which Mitchell has been nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards. This past year, he pitched and produced a virtual WE Day event/graduation ceremony for the class of 2020 as well, which was aired as a primetime special, with performances from artists such as Meghan Trainor, Shawn Mendes, Alessia Cara, and Lilly Singh.
Even with all these high-profile events in his professional background, Mitchell got his start in live show production working on fashion events.
In fact, Mitchell has produced more than one hundred runway shows since 2012, for emerging designers as well as international designers and major corporate brands.
“During an internship with Canadian fashion label Joe Fresh, I was brought into the world of fashion production as part of the planning and execution of the label’s headline fashion show at Toronto Fashion Week. For several seasons I would orchestrate the backstage production of Joe Fresh’s fashion shows – from working on castings and model fittings, to outlining show structure and show calling.
Just to touch on a few notable examples of his fashion production experience since that time, Mitchell produced a series of runway shows for Target during Toronto Fashion Week in 2014, he produced a fashion showcase in 2015 for the digital launch of Canadian brand Roots’ holiday collection, and he also handled a livestream and broadcast event for the launch of the Team Canada uniforms for the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
We discussed Mitchell’s experience in fashion production during a recent interview, and we’re excited to share excerpts from that conversation here today.
For musicians especially, this should be an interesting window into the effort required to put together a live event.
Fashion production vs. other event types
Since Mitchell has produced many different kinds of live events, we were curious to know how fashion events differ.
After all, Mitchell has produced concerts and performances for major artists, as well as large-scale charity events, and each of those events has its own set of complications.
Mitchell said that the tone and the stakes of fashion shows can often feel quite different, especially since the designs themselves need to remain the audience’s focus throughout, even in the midst of many compelling elements.
“There is definitely a sense of polish and formality that comes with fashion production. You are using the show as an opportunity to profile a fashion designer’s life’s work. So, you have to make sure that your production elements including lighting, music, and special effects, don’t pull focus away from the clothing but enhance it. It’s a very delicate balance.”
Compare this to major concerts and other performances where everything automatically contributes to a single spectacle. It’s definitely a challenge to keep the audience’s attention on the models and the outfits, but after so many shows, Mitchell has become an expert at doing exactly that.
A hectic backstage
One very specific challenge of working in fashion production, and certainly something that sets it apart from other types of live shows and events, is the sheer number of different teams, designers, models, wardrobes, and other staff who all need to share a backstage space and coordinate properly.
“The demand definitely kicks into overdrive when it comes to managing the backstage environment. You are turning over a group of 20+ models, a support team, and a design team every hour, often five to six times a night. By the end of it, you’ve got no voice left and your feet hate you.”
This is yet another aspect of fashion production that requires a great deal of planning, expertise, and, perhaps more than anything, a sense of grace under pressure.
Toronto Fashion Week
Many of Mitchell’s fashion production events have taken place during Toronto Men’s Fashion Week and Toronto Women’s Fashion Week, which are major biannual events for the fashion industry in Canada and beyond.
These shows are regularly streamed globally via Facebook Live, bringing the viewership into the millions, and the events have also been featured in major fashion publications such as Vogue Italia and GQ.
To put it lightly, there is a huge amount of expectation and responsibility attached to these events, and between live audiences and livestreaming, mistakes of any kind must be avoided at all costs.
As we touched on earlier, fashion events can also be incredibly complex when it comes to logistics. The pace is always fast and there’s rarely a chance to rest.
Mitchell remembered how demanding those first few events were, and how long it took fashion industry veterans to warm up to an outsider. Still, Mitchell put in the time and reaped the rewards.
“At the start, it was a challenge to learn the ropes in such a fast environment. There are also a lot of personalities and many of them aren’t so open to new people since fashion is a small and very competitive industry, so it took a while to prove myself and build up that confidence to share my thoughts and opinions.”
Like any industry, it takes a great deal of time and effort to learn how to operate efficiently and effectively. But Mitchell feels that the brief adjustment period was worth it in the end, since he learned many valuable lessons about live production and how to work with large teams.
On working with Victoria Beckham
In 2019, the world-renowned fashion show production company ‘The Image Is…’ enlisted Mitchell’s help to produce a special showcase of British designer Victoria Beckham’s collection. It would be an exclusive Canadian runway presentation.
But more than just showcasing the work, the event also raised funds for two Canadian charities that aid children diagnosed with cancer.
“It was really exciting to be able to work with such a prominent brand. When you get those opportunities, you really have the chance to elevate the overall production value of a show.
Victoria Beckham and her team were such a pleasure to work with and we were able to make the show a seamless success.”
The only seams, we presume, were in the clothes themselves.
Jokes aside, Mitchell communicated during our conversation that he rarely, if ever, feels intimidated when working with a giant multinational brand or a famous designer.
While it’s exciting, he never wants any personal feelings or sensations to distract from the work at hand.
That kind of consummate professionalism is especially important in fashion production, where the clients are often some of the biggest and most influential designers in the world.
The pressure of livestream and broadcast events
Before we finish up, we want to highlight some advice Mitchell gave based on his experience producing events that were livestreamed, broadcast live on TV, or both.
This advice is applicable to event producers as well as performers and musicians who are looking to plan their own virtual events, which has rapidly become a viable and desirable option for many musicians over the last year or so.
Mitchell feels that while planning is crucial, improvisation is one of the most important skills to practice and utilize.
“Great planning is the initial key to success, but you need to be comfortable with, and even enjoy, improvising on the spot. The reality with any show is that something will go wrong, but as a producer, you need to know how to improvise in a very limited amount of time to ensure the audience never knows that something didn’t go according to plan.”
In the end, a successful event, whether it’s an in-person event or purely virtual, is about combining planning and logistics with on-the-spot thinking and quick reactivity.
Thankfully, this is a concept that many musicians are already familiar with, albeit in a slightly different sense.
Improvisation can be both musical and practical. Gigging musicians in particular will know how important it is to keep the audience’s attention, even in between songs.
Whether you’re playing to an audience of strangers or producing a major fashion show for live television, it’s incredibly important to stay in the moment and make decisions based on what would make for the best experience for the audience.
If you can do that, the audience won’t even know how hard you’re working, they’ll just have a great time and remember that event for years to come.