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New York Fashion Week: Patrick McMullan on the Early Years

The legendary photographer reminisces about running here, there, and everywhere around the shows, in the tents, and backstage at Bryant Park.

Name a scene, and chances are Patrick McMullan has been all over it. Throughout his career, the legendary New York photographer has carried his camera downtown (nightclubbing with the likes of Andy Warhol), uptown (to high-society galas thrown by the grandest of dames), and to every A-list event in between. And when it comes to that whirlwind known as New York Fashion Week, McMullan was there from the very start — back in 1993, when it was a few dozen shows called 7th on Sixth, and Fern Mallis, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, invited him to come capture it. "We got to be very friendly," McMullan recalled in a recent interview with FOTO, "and she said, 'You know, you're good at photography, you're fun, you're upbeat. I want to give you an opportunity — I can't pay you anything, but I'll give you access to shoot all the shows.' So I went everywhere — from the front rows to outside putting up the tents.... I just became a fly on the wall."

Twenty-five years later, a scrum of photographers scrambles each fall and spring to catch actors and rock stars mingling among those pretty people, in multiple cool venues spread across the city. But in the early days of New York Fashion Week, when McMullan was among the first to get an authorized look inside those Bryant Park tents, the shows had a special kind of magic. "It was a really fun time for the fashion consciousness, when people were excited by supermodels and designers were the big new stars," he says. Here, McMullan shares with FOTO his pictures and memories of Fashion Week from the '90s and early 2000s. (Pictured above: Gisele Bundchen backstage at the BCBG Max Azria Show, September 1999.)

Nadja Auermann, Shalom Harlow, Kate Moss, and Amber Valletta at the Todd Oldham Show, October 1994 Patrick McMullan Nadja Auermann, Shalom Harlow, Kate Moss, and Amber Valletta at the Todd Oldham Show, October 1994 "In the days that we're talking about," McMullan recalls, "there would maybe be two or three photographers around backstage — there really weren't that many that were doing that kind of work." And because of that intimacy and the lack of rulebook, McMullan got an in-depth understanding of the keys to maneuvering backstage. "It was dance, like a ballet of knowing where to go. You'd see people doing the hair, and the models, who'd ask about the nights before... There would be this Fashion Week mentality, a familiarity with each other. It was nice — like going from class to class in school, in a way, only you didn't know exactly what was going on." Naomi Campbell Backstage, April 1994 Patrick McMullan Naomi Campbell Backstage, April 1994 "I always like when possible a sense of irony," McMullan says of his favorite photos (including this shot of supermodel Campbell turning a camera on him). "Beautiful models not all dressed up and wearing grungy clothes, there was an irony to that too — there was that whole grunge moment that happened [in the 90s]." Caroline Riberio Hiding in the Racks at the Donna Karan Show, September 2000 Patrick McMullan Caroline Riberio Hiding in the Racks at the Donna Karan Show, September 2000 What X factor does a photographer look for in a room of stunning people? "The perfect model looking beautiful, the designer with the models — you want to get the obvious," says McMullan. "But sometimes, the less than obvious is more fun.... Finding someone who had an interesting style and who stood out. We've all gone places and thought, Ooh, I wonder who THAT is. That person. The way they're dressed or the way they carry themselves..." Carmen Kass, Gisele Bundchen, and Maggie Riser Getting Fixed Up By Ralph Lauren, February 2000 Patrick McMullan Carmen Kass, Gisele Bundchen, and Maggie Riser Getting Fixed Up By Ralph Lauren, February 2000 "I like to make people feel comfortable," says McMullan. "I make an effort to [ask], you know, 'Can I help in any way, is there something I can do?' If you are backstage during a show, there's a lot of drama, so if you're a friend of the designer you can help if you see something like a string hanging off — an extra set of eyes never hurt. So that made the designers really trust you and like you, if they knew you were looking out as well." Chrystele and Shalom Harlow at the Philip Treacy Show, April 1997 Patrick McMullan Chrystele and Shalom Harlow at the Philip Treacy Show, April 1997 Gaining that kind of trust was key to McMullan's access and the kind of pictures he could take. "There is such joy in having everyone so comfortable with you that you can take pictures without them thinking... [Backstage] I had a kind of a status. They knew me and liked me, more or less. [So if] I had moments with people that weren't always fun — like, I'd be in a rush and some security person would say, 'Who are you?' — everybody would be like, 'No, no, it's all right.'" Chrystele and Veronica Webb at the Todd Oldham Show, October 1995 Patrick McMullan Chrystele and Veronica Webb at the Todd Oldham Show, October 1995 Heidi Klum at the Victor Alfaro Show, September 1999 Patrick McMullan Heidi Klum at the Victor Alfaro Show, September 1999 Carmen Dell'Orefice at the Isaac Mizrahi Show, October 1994 Patrick McMullan Carmen Dell'Orefice at the Isaac Mizrahi Show, October 1994 "I think she had just one outfit for this show," says McMullan of model Dell'Orefice, "and she was ready and sitting very comfortably. And we didn't have cell phones back then... We'd just sit and take in the atmosphere. So she was looking off, and I snapped a picture. I thought it was just beautiful." Carmen Kass at the BCBG Max Azria Show, September 1999 Patrick McMullan Carmen Kass at the BCBG Max Azria Show, September 1999 Kate Moss and Chloe Sevigny at the Miu Miu Show, November 1995 Patrick McMullan Kate Moss and Chloe Sevigny at the Miu Miu Show, November 1995 "Kate, I always loved," says McMullan. "She was always nice, not a diva at all." And Moss was also part of a trend that brought big star wattage to the tents. "What happened is a lot of the models started going out with movie-star boyfriends — like Cindy Crawford had Richard Gere... and Kate had Johnny Depp. During Fashion Week there'd be the parties, and Johnny Depp was a big star in our day. Everybody was a little bit shy of him." Shirley Mallman and Linda Evangelista at the Anna Sui Show, March 1999 Patrick McMullan Shirley Mallman and Linda Evangelista at the Anna Sui Show, March 1999 These photos and hundreds of others appear in McMullan's 2004 book "InTents," a photographic chronicle of this era on the New York fashion scene. "My feeling was always to shoot like a documentary," says McMullan. "It's not about the picture, it's about the pictures. Getting a shoot that tells a story."