For decades, she’s assisted Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, and many of the top designers at NYFW while giving guidance to the world’s top models. Meet Audrey Smaltz, founder of The Ground Crew and storied backstage dresser—the sassiest unsung hero we’ve encountered.
First things first: What do you do?
The Ground Crew is a backstage management corporation that takes care of everything you can think of when it comes to backstage. We know how to set up a show! We do fashion shows, fashion shoots, and fashion videos. We do hair, makeup, dressing, pressing, styling, sewing, seamstress work, tailoring—we can call a show and set up your entire backstage. We work for both young designers who have never done a show before and established designers.
How long have you been in business?
Thirty-eight years. We started our business on the seventh day in the 11th month of the 77th year—7/11/77. We’ve been doing backstage for 32 years, and it’s just been wonderful. We started on Seventh Avenue, where we did shows in showrooms. Our very first show was Donna Karan’s. There were only three or four a day, and we’d be in a stairwell, dressing models as they went out.
What other challenges did you face?
Back in the day, we’d have three or four girls on the runway at once. Now, the lineup is not so difficult because it’s just one girl going out and one girl coming back.
Why has that changed?
I don’t know. It’s costing more to have more models. But when you had Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and all those top girls, they used to make three or four changes. It was easy—boom, boom. They were so good and they were so fast. Most of these girls today can’t walk.
What makes a good walk in your eyes?
Someone who has the right posture and attitude, who doesn’t just put one leg across the other leg. When you walk, you walk on a straight line. The girls today cross over each foot and they’re awkward—that’s how they lose their balance. If you walk on that straight line and if you’re looking straight ahead at those photographers, you can’t lose your balance. And you have to have a little something that the other girls don’t have. And these girls don’t have that.
But many do! Karlie Kloss?
She’s a pro now, but she has personality. The nice models always did well. Girls who were difficult are just difficult. But we enjoy it!
How do you deal with difficult girls backstage?
Let ’em be difficult. It takes two to make an argument. So if you’re nice and they see how nice you are…they can still kick off their shoes, and they can throw things at you.
Have you ever had anything thrown at you?
How did you deal with that?
You just catch it. There was a model—I’m not mentioning any names, but she was top back in the day. She said, “Audrey, don’t touch me.” Fine, you can dress yourself. I just handed her things. She’d just throw them back at me. If you treat them with kindness and respect, you get it back and they thank you afterward. If we have a problem girl, we can turn her around.
Do you think models are nicer now than they were in the ’90s?
In the ’90s the girls were a bit older. Now, it’s a lot of teenagers.
Which designers have you worked with?
You name them, I’ve worked with them: Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Bill Blass, Patrick Kelly, Mary McFadden, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Karl Lagerfeld. Everybody you can think of! The one we’ve been with the longest is Donna Karan, from her very first show until her very last show. I worked with Bill Blass until his last show.
Which memories stand out?
Barbra Streisand backstage at Donna Karan! We were in the Tents and she came in through the backstage door. So Barbra Streisand comes in, she’s in her hat, all dressed up. I told the crew, “Don’t say hello to Miss Streisand. Just look at her, say nothing.” She was divine. She smiled at everybody. She had stayed backstage for a good while, so we got a really good look at her. They escorted her out. The show was really sensational. Afterward, we were packing up, and one of the PR girls came backstage crying. I said, “Sweetheart, what happened? The show was fabulous!” And she said, “Anna Wintour wasn’t there.” They started the show without Vogue, without Bazaar, without Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue…they were so excited that Barbra Streisand was there!
Where do you find the people who work with you?
They find us. In the beginning, I would find people and then I’d say, “I know you have a friend…” But now, they call us from all over. We get people from Paris, London, California, Atlanta, Florida. They come in just for Fashion Week. Because we pay—we have no volunteers. We pay everybody and we train people. We tell you everything we expect of you—you wear black, you must have a prop kit, and you can’t be late.
What are some encounters you’ve had with designers?
There was one designer at a show at the Plaza Hotel and we couldn’t get the dress off the girl. The zipper wasn’t working. The designer pushed me and said, “Get out of my way!” and ripped the dress off of her. I couldn’t do that! The designers have a lot on their minds. You gotta leave ’em alone, stay outta their way. One time, we had to cut a boot off a girl. At another show we had 20 models, and I think I had five or six pairs of shoes for them to wear. Some designers don’t have enough shoes—they don’t have the right sizes. They’re young.
Any other headaches?
We had one show at Milk when it first opened. The client was from England, and it was an early morning show—9 o’clock. So we were there before 8. My niece was in charge, and she introduced herself to the designer. We always introduce ourselves. She said, “May I have your run of the show?” He says, “I don’t have a run of the show.” When she looked at the racks, there were no numbers. Nothing. “Well, I need a run of the show so I know when the models are going out because we’re gonna dress them.” And he said, “I want to surprise you.” He was serious! So my niece said, “Okay…” And we made a run of the show. We figured it out. He didn’t want us to know? We’re backstage!
What do you think of the show scene these days?
Too many shows! And the designers really can’t afford it. It’s an ego trip. Who’s producing those clothes? Who’s manufacturing the clothes? They just want a show for their friends. Have a video, get some publicity, and then that’s it. You never hear from them again. It’s very difficult to be a designer. Very difficult. Year after year after year, you need to have someone who really knows production who works for you. The designers are the creatives, but you need to have the person who’s the businessman or businesswoman. You can’t do everything, sweetheart. I just adore those people who design. And we see so many new people, and you don’t think you’re gonna hear from them again. I can just look at my records and see how many people I worked for, and you wouldn’t even know their names today.
Who are the favorite girls you’ve worked with?
Alek Wek! She was my baby. At her first show in London, I said, “Sweetheart, you’re gonna be fine. You’re gonna knock ’em dead, girl.” I would juice those girls up. “Girl, you’re gon’ kill ’em, kill ’em out there.” Then I saw her in New York and she said to me, “Audrey, I’ll never forget you.” I love Naomi. I love Linda Evangelista. I love Dalma [Collado]. In between shows, the girls would go to Bill’s Tavern. They were feeling no pain after. They were strutting down that runway. Linda used to bring a friend of mine champagne. In those days, the models would give whatever the designers gave them—the gifts—to our team. They would give us bathrobes. Whatever. It doesn’t happen anymore.
What’s the Victoria’s Secret show like?
We’ve been doing it for 15 years. Those girls have good personalities. Those older girls—they’re hot. We know all of them. They’re so happy to see us. They tell us who they’re married to or not married to anymore; they talk about their children. We hold their phones—“Sweetheart, I gotta hit the runway. Hold on.” I used to stand backstage holding everyone’s cigarettes. They took a drag, hit the runway, and came back to finish their cigarettes. None of that anymore.
How does it feel to have dedicated your life to the fashion business?
It’s a hobby, and I get paid. It’s not like I’m driving a truck or I work at the post office or I have to sit at a desk and answer a phone. Every day is new and different. It’s something I look forward to; it makes me happy. I make other people happy. It’s the best thing that could ever happen to a person, a woman, I don’t know, to me. I’ve been doing it my whole life.
How do you feel on the eve of Fashion Week?
We start before. We’re prepared. The designer is on the line. This is their day. Don’t look at them, don’t talk to them. We say a silent prayer and the prayer is very simple—we pray they have the best press, the most buyers, that it’s so fantastic, and that they hire us again. Someone once said something nasty about us: “I see y’all praying.” It’s not easy out here. They don’t know how difficult it is to survive in this world! And people are so jealous of each other. Knock it off!
So you’re writing a book?
I’m writing my memoirs! I’m going to have some fun stories.
No doubt! Remind us of your age, if you don’t mind.
I’m 78 years old. Born in 1937. Never nipped, tucked, or ’toxed.
What’s your beauty secret?
Moisturize, moisturize… [Laughs] You know what it is? I was in the era when everyone was doing weed, smoking, cocaine—just high. Drinking…I didn’t do any of that. All I did was smoke some Newport cigarettes. So many young people abuse themselves. Then, of course, to have the right mother and father, that helps—good genes. You can tell people who’ve done a lot to themselves as they get older, can’t you? I don’t have anything against women getting face-lifts and neck lifts—I’m just not there. I’m pleased with where I am. I have the most beautiful young wife. Did you hear about it? Oh, she’s 17-and-a-half years younger than me. Gail. A former Olympian. She does the cooking. But all my life, I had the most fabulous men. I was with Lionel Hampton for over 14 years, so I got to know Benny Goodman. You name the jazz people…those were my buddies.
You didn’t realize you were a lesbian until later in life?
At 61. I swear to God. So I go to my shrink and I say to him, “I got something to tell you. And you know you’ve been listening to me for the past 11 years. You have to tell me what’s going on. Guess what? I have fallen in love with a woman. What do you have to say to that?” I’m talking to him on the phone because he had released me by this time—I had gotten well. He said to me, “Audrey, you’re on your journey.” Our first date was in May 1999. And the rest is history. I’m happy.
PLUS! Donna Karan Weighs In on Audrey
“Audrey’s in a class by herself. In the beginning it was just her—a one-woman show. She did the back and front of house. She wrote editors’ names on little white cards, and we’d place them on the seats without any seating chart. Then she made sure every girl was dressed and ready to walk the show, which she called. She handled it all. I can remember her teaching her dressers how to wrap and tie the skirts and deal with the bodysuit snaps. She was warm, yet no-nonsense. Everyone—from her dressers to the models to my PR and design teams—loved her and did whatever she asked. A good dresser can make or break a show. You’ve got seconds to make the changes and make them right. Audrey was the conductor, making sure it ran smoothly and professionally. To me, she was family. When Audrey appeared, it was ‘showtime!’