It’s a Monday morning at the end of February and the Louvre-Rivoli metro station in Paris looks rather unusual.
Every minute you see a tall, slim girl with a heavy bag and a black folder under her arm getting off a train.
In a dark, damp basement, just a few minutes’ walk from the station, a casting for Paris Fashion Week is taking place.
Dozens of models, shivering in the cold, are queuing in front of the heavy closed door.
Despite the freezing weather they are all dressed in tight black jeans and tight-fitting T-shirts – it’s the mandatory dress code for a casting.
They are waiting for a short casting - if successful, it can lead to a show.
Seventeen-year-old Anna Vasilieva from the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod is one of them. For her, like the others, fashion week begins with hours spent in casting queues.
Casting director Michelle Mode needs 30 girls for her show.
Within an hour she sees dozens of girls but seems to be unhappy with the result.
“They have to be perfect. The perfect body, perfect skin, perfect walk,” she says.
From the casting room comes the word: “Next”.
Anna rushes in, but in the blink of an eye is back out again. The casting she’s waited for for so long has only lasted 10 seconds. The teenager quickly swaps her high-heels for winter boots and heads back out.
Today Anna has nine more casting calls to make.
I tentatively ask Michelle what was wrong with Anna.
“You want me to tell you?” she asks. “Her body is not perfect. Her legs are not perfect. I need girls from 178cm (5.8ft), so she is a little bit small.”
Buckwheat and fashion
Anna arrived in Paris with a packet of buckwheat and a determination to get a modelling job.
Her dream is to walk the catwalk for her favourite brand, Yves Saint Laurent.
She remembers well the day she was discovered by an agency. “A scout from Nizhny Novgorod wrote to me on a Russian social media network called Vkontakte,” she tells me inside a Parisian brasserie over a cup of coffee and a Caesar salad.
“She said she liked my pictures and that I could be a model. She invited me and my mum for an interview.”
After an audition Anna was soon sent to South Korea on her first modelling assignment.
She was just 14.
“My parents were worried but the agency’s director and my personal agent there Ravida talked to them,” remembers Anna.
“They said it was safe and that the agency bookers take care of their girls. The youngest was just 12.”
Anna’s family is what can be described as middle-class. When I meet her, she is in her final year at a local school in Nizhny Novgorod - a city about 250 miles (402km) east of Moscow.
She admits that her modelling jobs – which can last for two months – can, at times, put her under pressure.
“The teachers are always pressuring me saying that I am missing a lot and I won’t pass my exams,” she says.
“Many of them say: ‘Why are you are taking so much time off?’
They think I am travelling on holiday but they can’t imagine what it takes to do 10 castings a day. At night all you can do is just collapse on your bed.”
For many Russian teenagers, the ideal scenario would be to get a free place at one of the local universities. But the number of government-financed places is limited, so most of the students will have to pay for their education.
An academic year costs around $900 (approximately £700). With an average monthly income of $500 (£400), combined with the lack of a student loan scheme, many families have to start saving from the time their children start school.
But for ambitious teenagers like Anna, who is already well-travelled, Nizhny can feel small.
Inspired by social media and Instagram in particular, young people in Nizhny are increasingly interested in creative jobs and some of them told me that the Soviet teaching style at local universities is too old-fashioned for them.
Moscow, just four hours away by train, has far better universities but the competition for places is extremely tough.
Anna says she is likely to enrol at the local university but dreams of studying design at Parsons School of Design in New York in the future.
Thanks to her modelling career, she believes this dream has more chance of becoming reality.
She proudly says she can afford to pay for her shopping and food (and occasionally send her parents flowers while she is abroad).
Like hundreds of other models in Paris, Anna is fully dependent on her agency.
The agency pays for her flights, her accommodation, and gives her a weekly allowance, or what is called “pocket money”. Most importantly, it finds the jobs. But if the model doesn't live up to expectations, it's the agency that will send her home.
All the costs, including printing portfolio pictures and catwalk lessons, are deducted from the models’ net earnings.
The agency I visit in Paris feels like a stock exchange. In a bright spacious room, 10 people sit around a long table endlessly making phone calls and loudly shouting at each other.
Girls who don’t speak the language look panic-stricken when they catch their name amidst a long stream of French.
The office is covered wall-to-wall with photographs of models. Every photo has the label "IN" under it – meaning "in town". Each model knows that if she isn’t successful at castings "IN" will be replaced with “OUT” under her photograph.
Anna is here for her weekly measurement check and to receive her pocket money.
Every Monday the agency’s manager Tatyana measures the chest, waist and hips of each girl. Being the “right” size is an entry point to the fashion world.
“The most important are the hips. They should be between 86cm and 88cm,” explains 19-year-old Ukrainian-born Tatyana.
“If the hips are bigger than 90cm, the girl won’t get work.”
Despite working with new models all year round Tatyana still gets emotional about the girls.
“I am almost the same age as them but I feel like their mum. I need to ensure they are working,” she explains.
“Sometimes they don’t get castings and they come to me for help. If they’ve spent all their money they come to me. The young girls are really just children. I get really worried about them.”
Every week Anna receives an allowance of $90 (£70).
This is meant to pay for transport, food and mobile phone bills for a week.
According to Anna’s accounts, a third of her allowance goes on her weekly metro card, leaving her with as little as $5 (£4) for food a day.
When I started modelling about 10 years ago, the agency was giving us the same amount.
How is it possible to live on this money today?
“It’s quite hard,” says Anna. “You should eat in the apartment to save money and buy food on the street so it’s cheaper.”
Yet for most of the models, the only way to avoid being hungry in Paris is to bring their own food with them. Anna is no exception.
Half of her suitcase was filled with groceries, including buckwheat, tea and instant noodles.
Anna takes me to her apartment, which she shares with six other aspiring models.
The apartment has a few lights and basic furniture. The “house rules” are attached to the entrance door. There are a few spacious bedrooms, which girls share between two, but there is only one bathroom. Every morning this becomes a little problem, especially when everyone has castings starting at the same time.
After a long casting day the girls gather in a small kitchen over a bowl of pasta. After noticing my surprised expression one of them looks guilty and says that they only “eat this type of food once a month”.
They talk about how the day went and wonder about a new model who was supposed to have arrived.
“The girls come and go so fast so we sometimes don’t even know who else lives here,” says Australian model Owey, who came to Paris after Milan Fashion Week.
“One of the girls is like a ghost in the house. She comes in and leaves whenever and no-one even knows her.”
I wonder what makes Paris so special that so many models fly in.
“There is a game-changing opportunity here,” says 26-year-old Bayana from Kazakhstan. “Imagine you come for the Yohji Yamamoto casting, he likes you, books you for the show, then gives you a campaign job and you become more well-known.”
However, the girls agree that with so much competition there is not much prospect of that happening. With many of the models being just 16, I wonder how they cope with the constant rejection at castings.
“It’s a cut-throat industry,” says Owey. “It’s an industry that says yes or no. And if you cry on your first casting you are not cut out for it.”
Every year the founders of the Silent modelling agency, Vincent Peter and Eric Dubois, bring dozens of new faces to the Parisian market in the hope that one of the girls will make it big.
With so much competition during fashion week, I ask the agency founders what makes a certain model stand out and get the job.
Eric argues that personality is the key to their success.
“This is also about attitude. The way you take a cigarette, the way you smoke, take a glass. You are so sure of yourself that people around you feel it,” says Eric, who’s been in the industry for a few decades.
“There is no-one more insecure than the designer,” he continues. “They don’t know if the dress is right or wrong until women buy it in the shop. The designer has to feel the energy in the model, find something that resonates with his collection, so then she has better chances to get the show.”
Watching the models passing by the agency, I wonder if this is still the look the industry wants in the age of diversity.
“The job of the models is to make clothes look nice,” explains Vincent Peter. “If the girl is tall and slim off course this will make the coat look even more beautiful.”
Can plus-size models be as successful on a catwalk?
“If you look at the Olympics, you don’t see plus-size models jumping,” he says. “You see athletes who are long and slim. Same in fashion. In order to wear a coat the nicest way possible you have to be tall and slim.”
Paris doesn't feel much like a city of love in February. The cold wind goes right through you and your hands hurt from the cold.
The weather doesn’t affect Anna’s determination. Following directions on her phone she heads to the next casting.
It’s not easy to find an address in the maze of winding streets. Finally Anna knocks on the right door.
The casting room is warm and full of life.
There is a crowd of make-up artists surrounding a model who is trying to hold it together.
She has only just been chosen from hundreds of potentials to act as a blank canvas for the make-up artists to test catwalk looks on.
There aren’t many girls in this casting. It gives Anna more confidence. She walks towards the designer with a smile.
“If he asks me to change my clothes, I will have some time to warm up," she says.
But the designer simply looks Anna up and down and says: "Thank you. Bye."
“They don’t tell you if they like you or if they don’t like you,” Anna says. “You can just read it in their faces.”
I have a quick chat with another model who has just arrived. Sarah,18, from Holland looks lost. She has done five castings with no success and has 10 more to do.
I ask her how she feels about the rejection.
“It’s so hard,” she responds. “Because you don’t know what is wrong and what you can improve. It sucks.”
“When you come to Paris you are sure that everyone will like you,” says Anna.
“But then you come to the first, second, ninth casting and no-one notices you. Your self-esteem drops, you start doubting yourself.”
She slowly begins to realise that this season she is unlikely to book any shows.
None of Anna’s flatmates is booked for shows either. The kitchen, where the girls used to gather in the evenings, is now empty. The girls sit quietly in their rooms.
In a cold, dark corridor I meet 17-year-old Alisa from Russia. With a touch of disappointment on her face she tells me that success during fashion week has nothing to do with the model herself.
“The casting-director has to wake up in a good mood, get a delicious cup of coffee and see a girl at the right moment,” she says.
“It’s a shame when your efforts are not appreciated, but this is life, this is modelling.”
After two weeks in Paris, Anna’s debt to her agency has reached more than 2000 euros (£1,800).
With no casting success during fashion week, she was sent to work in a designer brand showroom.
“You come, try on clothes, appear in front of the clients, they look at you, sometimes they can touch you,” Anna says of her new job.
“You are sort of working between the tables - it's not something I like.”
Fifteen people, including models and staff, are put together in a tiny room waiting for the fashion buyers to come.
Once the clients arrive, Anna’s job is to stay still in an outfit and smile. Turn and move upon request. In one day Anna can have up to a few hundred outfit changes.
“The most difficult thing is the hours,” she says.
“Working in a showroom takes up to 10 hours a day. Standing for so long is quite tiring.
“But when I have a free minute I can read my book,” she adds.
A model’s success during fashion week is measured by the number of shows she is booked for.
For the agencies it’s the amount of money they can make from these shows.
Anna’s manager Roman is not happy with the result. “I did my calculations yesterday. We made approximately 100,000 euros. Could be more,” he says.
Will Anna make any money during this trip? Roman doubts it.
“For models like Anna, the girl arrives, she works, then the agency gets back everything it advanced for her. So the agency is always a winner,” he says.
“Probably she won’t make any money, but she is not alone.”
“It’s not a question of agency or model, it’s just the market system,” he shrugs.
The last time I meet Anna she is late finishing work and I wait for her outside the showroom for a couple of hours.
To my surprise, Anna is fully aware that she might leave Paris empty-handed. And even more surprisingly she is OK with it.
In a few days Anna will head back to Nizhny for her end-of-year exams. Despite getting no shows this time in Paris, she still plans to try again next year.
She does have some work lined up - once her exams are over she is heading East.
“I work quite a lot in China. I have a good agency there,” explains Anna, who has worked there four times already.
Due to the country's vast production of clothes, the need for models in recent years has rapidly increased.
Local designers admire the Eastern European look, so it comes as no surprise that models like Anna can get work much more easily there than in Europe.
In China most of the girls work for catalogues, shooting anything between 20 to 200 outfits a day. At times it may feel tedious and repetitive, but, unlike in Paris, it actually pays.
“I already have many regular clients there. Sometimes I don’t even need to go for castings,” Anna says.
“To me going to China feels almost like home.”
Author: Alina Isachenka (BBC Russian Service)
Project coordinator and editor: Emma Wells
Design: Denis Korolev
Illustrations: Natallia Trayan
Images: Getty, Anna Vasilieva’s archive, Direct Scouting.
Find out more:
Listen to the Model X documentary podcast on the BBC World Service. Find the programme here.