NEW YORK - It was difficult not to blush or feel a sudden giddy swoon when designer Zac Posen rounded the corner carrying a box of beautifully crafted cookies backstage at the Bryant Park tents. The 27-year-old wunderkind designer was wearing a bow tie and a sheepish grin. He looked as if he were on the way to the prom last Thursday instead of two hours away from showing one of Fashion Week's most important collections.
The cookies were for the willowy models, who were sitting statue-still as their hair was pulled, twisted, and coated with a slime that looked like a prop in the "Alien" films. While he ensured that his models were eating, Posen momentarily forgot about the people who were doing the labor in this heavily guarded backstage area: the hairdressers.
Even without the confections, however, Boston's Serge Safar was having no problem managing the hair on his model - a 19-year-old pro named Elsa Sylvan. Safar, a Newbury Street mainstay who's owned a salon on the stylish strip for 28 years, worked with confident precision, spritzing his model's hair with a liberal amount of Evian before repeatedly running his fingers through her hair as he worked his magic.
"I don't really feel the pressure," said Safar as he sculpted Sylvan's hair. "To be able to take care of people, to make them happy, it's a gift."
Although he has styled hair at fashion shows in Europe, most notably at shows for Prada, last week's Posen show was Safar's first time doing hair at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. He was lending a hand and styling one of the 46 models who would walk the runway later in the evening at the request of L'Oreal, which is responsible for styling the models. Under the watchful eye of Odile Gilbert, a master stylist who was responsible for Kirsten Dunst's altitudinous coiffures in the film "Marie Antoinette" and who has created catwalk hair for Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Yohji Yamamoto, and Jean-Paul Gaultier, Safar carefully replicated the blueprint that Gilbert created for the show.
The look - a tight chignon adorned with cashmere pompoms - appeared to be relatively straightforward. But because many of the models sauntered in late, some of the stylists were starting to feel the stress of replicating the sexed-up Minnie Mouse hairstyle. Models were needed in makeup, and Gilbert was starting to pace, looking for models ready to be transformed into a look that resembles the ladies of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video.
"Higher," Gilbert told one stylist who hadn't managed to pull the ponytail to the right spot on the model's head. "It's important to be consistent."
Safar brought along his daughter Rebecca and Omid Maxey, another stylist from the salon. While the Safars worked silently and swiftly, Maxey scanned the room for signs of activity and celebrity, offering frequent updates such as, "Look over there - you can tell she's a supermodel because she's super tall and super skinny."
"He gets the calls to do the shows," Maxey said of Safar. "And I get excited because I know the names."
In Boston, Safar and Maxey have most recently worked on shows for Carmen Marc Valvo, and a few weeks ago styled the hair of Spice Girl and budding designer Victoria Beckham. In just 25 minutes, they've nearly finished with Sylvan's hair and were ready for the crucial final step of adding shine to her scalp with a product that everyone simply referred to as goop.
"I feel like I'm on Nickelodeon," Maxey said as Rebecca Safar squeezed the gel into his hand. "I'm getting slimed!"
The pompoms were tied into the model's hair, Gilbert nodded her approval, and Safar took a final look. In another hour, Sylvan - wearing her Safar 'do - will be the first model down the runway.
"Hair is hair," he said, wiping off his hands. "When you've been a hairdresser for so long, you tend not to get distracted by the surroundings, you just focus on the job at hand."
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org