- Petra Vujevic took a year off from pursing her computer science degree to try modeling
- A typical day for a Fashion Model lasts 12 hours, with no breaks for food
- Agencies grapple with trying to create a big name in post-supermodel era
"Release the models!"
The stage manager's voice fills the backstage area, busy with hairstylists and makeup artists wielding the tools of their trade over a row of girls in front of brightly lit mirrors.
"It's time for a quick run-through."
It takes an extra moment for Petra Vujevic to break free from her chair, where she is surrounded by three stylists trying to tame her long blonde hair into a "punky ballerina" bun. The head stylist is teasing sections of her natural hair while another tends to neon pink extensions woven into her ponytail. A third handles clips and brushes.
Vujevic winces. It hasn't been a good hair day for the 20-year-old Croatian model. It's the second time today that her head has been pulled in a million directions, loaded down with gooey products and hairspray.
But she refrains from pouting because it's part of the job. Anyway, modeling isn't her life -- not yet, at least. It's just something she decided to try by taking a year off from university in Croatia, where she's studying computer science. She started exactly one year ago, making the rounds in Milan, Paris, London and Spain before arriving in New York three weeks ago for Fashion Week.
"When you're tall and thin, everyone says you should be a model, so I thought: try it for a year," Vujevic said in accented English, which she learned in school and from television. "It's been good. I decided to model because it was completely different. How would I know if I didn't try?"
She hit the ground running in New York, averaging 15 castings a day and scoring not only a few shows during New York Fashion Week but jobs for catalogs and ads campaigns while in town. She plans on returning to her parents' home outside the Croatian capital of Zagreb to resume school in October.
Vujevic may not be the typical small-town girl trying to make it in the big city, but her story underscores the bigger picture in the post-supermodel era, when girls are cycled in and out with each season and only a rare few stick around to become bold-face names.
But her agency has high hopes for her. Lots of girls are tall, thin and beautiful, but Vujevic has an "X presence," said Louise Roberts of APM Models, which represents Vujevic in the United States.
"Our clients look for that classically beautiful girl that has a different edge to her, something that no one can define," Roberts said.
"We loved the spirit in Petra's photographs, the connection she had with the camera. In her eyes, you just saw there was a sparkle there. When you look at her, you have a sense that this girl can be successful."
But Vujevic is simply living in the moment. And right now, it's time for a quick practice walk on the runway.
The stage manager yells again for the girls, and Vujevic joins the line of models near the backstage runway entrance. With their hair and makeup in various states of readiness, they look like a disheveled flock of flamingos stepping to the beat of singer/designer Avril Lavigne, who is nowhere in sight even though the show bears the Canadian rocker's name and her brand's imprint, Abbey Dawn.
The collection, a swirling motif of skulls, rainbows, pleather and studs, isn't exactly Vujevic's speed, but she's still excited to take part in this kind of production. It's completely different from Rachel Antonoff's garden party-themed presentation Sunday, in which Vujevic's prop was a badminton racket, or the Christine Alcalay presentation earlier that day, which was staged in a 1,000-square-foot studio in an office building.
For that job, she wakes at 7 a.m. Monday, showers and puts on just a bit of mascara and concealer. She takes a cab to the Garment District, arriving at the 11th floor whitewashed studio about two hours before showtime.
It's not a runway show but a "presentation," in which the models will be dressed and positioned on the showroom like living mannequins. For now, the corner studio with lots of natural light pouring through the windows is a backstage area for hair and makeup. Eventually, it will transition into a showroom with music from a live violinist, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of an art gallery.
Vujevic takes a seat, and a makeup artist gets to work on her face while a nail technician applies heated "nail shields" that behave like stickers. As she moves on to hair, the benches and makeup tables are removed, and risers are brought in to begin setting up the showroom.
Twenty minutes later, her hair is done, and the tables are pushed back to a wall. A curtain goes up, creating an impromptu changing area for the designer to dress the girls. She emerges in a set of light blue shorts, blazer and shell.
"It's not really my style, very businesswoman," she says. "Maybe in 10 years."
Once the models are clothed, a set designer arranges them on the floor while stylists dart around with spray cans and makeup brushes, putting on the final touches.
Then, it's time for the girls to stand in place for an hour as fashion editors and store buyers survey the collection. When a camera focuses on Vujevic, she narrows her eyes ever so slightly. About a half-hour in, she leaves the floor for the curtained changing area and returns in a tan calf-length skirt and lace cut-out halter top.
She stands some more, occasionally shifting her weight to keep the circulation flowing. As the clock hits noon, some of the girls relax their rigid poses and wait for the cue to leave.
Vujevic thought she would have a stretch of time for lunch -- modeling makes her hungry, she says -- but as she's leaving the studio, her agency sends an e-mail letting her know that she has a fitting for Gerlan Jeans, so she heads downtown.
On the ride over, she talks about this being her first time in the United States. She has noticed that fast food is really cheap, healthy food is expensive and everything seems to be labeled "organic." She wishes she had more time to eat in restaurants and try new things but since she arrived in New York, she's only had two days off to explore.
In the studio on Bowery, she tries on two looks for the designer's "Gerl Power" presentation, which is part Minnie Mouse, part activist, designer Gerlan Marcel says.
Vujevic's childlike features and height make her ideal for the show's cartoon-y look, Gerlan says.
As she tries on two of the designer's neoprene looks, a bright yellow dress and a blue coat, Gerlan squeals in delight.
"When I was a little girl my favorite doll was named Petra and I carried her around with me everywhere," the designer explains as Vujevic struts down the narrow path in between racks of clothing and accessories littering the floor. "Petra has come to life!"
Gerlan and her team agree that the yellow dress is too short for the 5'11 model and settle on the blue coat. Vujevic bids them farewell and runs downstairs to head over to the Metropolitan Pavilion for Lavigne's show.
The contrast from the morning's gig couldn't be more severe. The intimate austerity of the open studio has been replaced with a massive showroom of folding chairs surrounded by booths for Monster Energy drink and thinkThin energy bars, with a bright white runway in the middle.
Getting her hair to cooperate and putting on her face leaves about 10 minutes to breathe before the show. On the way to the bathroom, she picks up a salted caramel chocolate from the Stoli Vodka booth.
Lavigne eventually shows up about 30 minutes before showtime to thank the girls and pose for pictures. As they line up, she walks around adjusting their bows and belts and other small details.
The show is over in 10 minutes, and Vujevic is already 30 minutes late for her next job in SoHo. She fills a plastic cup with vegetables before hustling outside to grab a cab to the Soho Grand Hotel for a presentation by menswear designer and self-described "urban emperor" Dominic Louis.
Again, the setting couldn't be more different. She walks up a flight of stairs to the hotel bar, which has been transformed into backstage hair and makeup area. The constant loop of "Sk8er Boi" and "Girlfriend" has been replaced by Siouxsie and the Banshees and Coldplay playing softly in the background. A woman is ironing pants where the waiter station would normally be; models rest their hands on the marble-topped bar to get their nails done.
She takes a seat on a plush stool of dark wood while two stylists set to work blowing out her hair to remove product. She picks at a plate of cheese in her lap while they pull her hair into a tight ponytail at the crown of her head and fashion it into a bun. The tip of her hair is pulled into an avant garde cowlick.
A makeup artist hands her a cloth to remove her makeup while she waits for a seat at the bar. Eventually, her face is transformed into a pale, white-lined canvas best summed up as extraterrestrial. There's no private changing area here, so she quickly strips and changes into a black top and pants with its calves cut out.
She's paraded out with the rest of the models to a corridor and placed on a riser against a column. She stands there for an hour while an art house film plays and attendees in leather black shorts and vests take her picture.
Eventually, she moves to the stage in front of the film screen with other models who are growing impatient. Finally, one of the models starts clapping, and the audience follows. The models seize the opportunity to step down and leave the corridor.
It's 11 p.m. now, and Vujevic is tired. Modeling is exciting but exhausting, she says.
Will she return to modeling after she finishes school?
"It's possible," she says. "But maybe not for New York Fashion Week."