Mt. Wilson fashion show raises forest fire awareness

Sara Cummings, clad in an arctic-white anorak, baggy forest-green cargo pants and thick-soled white hiking

Sara Cummings, clad in an arctic-white anorak, baggy forest-green cargo pants and thick-soled white hiking boots, is about to step in front of the camera at the Reese Cooper fashion show and lookbook shoot. This, in and of itself, isn’t noteworthy; this is the third job the L.A.-based model has had since the COVID-19 pandemic began 10 months ago.

On the second Saturday of the new year, the catwalk Cummings is about to step onto is a narrow metal grate curving around the domed exterior of Mt. Wilson Observatory’s 100-inch Hooker telescope, 36 feet in the air above a parking lot that is itself 5,735 feet above sea level, in the middle of a fire-ravaged national forest currently inaccessible to the public.

There’s one problem, though. Cummings, who has a face mask firmly in place over her nose and mouth, is afraid of heights. “But I’ll get over it,” she said.

Cummings steels herself and steps gingerly into the cold mountain air at the top of the world to be photographed. Minutes later, she steps back inside the telescope’s domed enclosure, joining 14 other models milling about the rotunda. Some are queued up by the door. Others lean against work benches or stair railings or pace in the shadow of a gargantuan telescope. They hold their cellphones aloft, searching for an elusive signal to alleviate their backstage boredom.

Like Cummings, they’re dressed in pieces from Cooper’s fall and winter 2021 collection; a workwear-inspired, outerwear- and cargo pants-heavy assortment festooned with images of pine trees, antlered deer and the outline of the U.S. Forest Service shield logo. But for the behemoth telescope behind them and the nonexistent cell service all around them, it’s a scene that could easily be any backstage at any fashion show anywhere in the world.

Except, in this case, there wasn’t anything easy about pulling this shoot together.

The finale of the Reese Cooper fall and winter 2021 men’s and women’s runway show was filmed on location at Mt. Wilson Observatory on Jan. 9. The show will make its debut online Jan. 23 as part of the official Paris Fashion Week Men’s calendar.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“We found out last night that one of the models was afraid of heights,” Leah Cooper, president of the L.A.-based label and mother of its 23-year-old namesake founder and creative director, said a few hours later during a break in the day-long Jan. 9 shoot. “She’s wearing the strongest look [in the collection], and she’s closing the show. I guess we should have asked the casting director earlier if any of the models were afraid of heights, but who thinks about that for a fashion show?”

Persuading an acrophobic model to hit the catwalk high up turned out to be the least of the hurdles Reese Cooper & Co. had to overcome in the four-month campaign to stage and film a runway show in the fire-scarred Angeles National Forest to debut online Saturday as part of men’s Paris Fashion Week. That slate of shows, like most fashion weeks around the world, has pivoted from all in-person runway events to a mix of live and digitally presented collections as a result of the pandemic.

It’ll be Cooper’s sophomore fashion show on the official Paris calendar, which will give the 3-year-old retro-nostalgic label the kind of international exposure to top press and buyers that’s as important to a young, on-the-rise brand as oxygen is to a fire. The first runner-up to the 2019 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund made his official — though virtual — Paris debut in July with his spring and summer 2021 River Runs Through streaming show, which had models walking a rock-lined runway down the middle of a woodland stream just outside Los Angeles. Cooper told The Times last year that there was a definite upside to beaming his site-specific runway shows out to the world this way. “More than 176,000 people watched it in less than six weeks,” he said, comparing it with the 250 people in the room for his show the previous season.

That’s a significant jump in exposure for Cooper’s wares, which range from $85 T-shirts and $458 flannel button-front shirts to $778 nylon bomber jackets festooned with cargo pockets.

Cooper chose the location — the grounds of the observatory and parts of the surrounding national forest adjacent to the Bobcat fire burn zone — not only because it fit with the vibe of the collection (allover photo prints of burning embers on a forest floor, embroidered silhouettes of smokejumpers rappelling from helicopters, appliqued patches and screen prints riffing on the Forest Service’s shield logo) but also because he wanted to hammer home the effects of climate change and the value of forest-preservation work.

Beyond raising awareness, he also hopes to raise funds for a handful of charitable organizations, including the National Forest Foundation, One Tree Planted and M.A.D.E. Sports Foundation. But to realize that vision Cooper had to not only safely pull together a 60-person film shoot in the midst of a raging pandemic but get the Forest Service to issue a special use permit for what agency representatives think might well be the first-ever fashion show staged in the Angeles National Forest. That’s no small feat for a young brand without the deep pockets and name recognition of luxury brands like Dior (which staged its 2018 cruise collection on a Calabasas hilltop) or St. Laurent (which brought its spring and summer 2020 menswear show to a Malibu beach).

COVID-19 concerns

According to Leah Cooper, addressing COVID-19 concerns turned out to be the easiest of the hurdles to clear despite Los Angeles’ status as a pandemic hotspot. “Since it’s technically a film production, we need to follow [L.A. County’s] health protocols,” she said.

That required paring the number of models from 50 to 15, shooting most of the show outside (part was filmed inside the telescope dome), strict observance of mask wearing and social distancing, and rapid testing for all involved. Protocols also required the presence of COVID compliance officers, two of whom checked temperatures upon arrival and spent the day dispensing generous squirts of hand sanitizer and, on occasion, picking up a bullhorn to warn crew members and models who absentmindedly started to drift within six feet of one another.

Although the protocols provide limited circumstances under which talent (in this case, the models) may briefly remove their face masks, Reese Cooper, at the time 3½ weeks recovered from the virus himself, was adamant that the models remain double-masked (wearing Reese Cooper-branded gaiters layered over disposable masks) for the duration of the event.

“The models’ agents and the casting people are so pissed at me,” he said during a set break. “But if we’re going to do this now, let’s double down on it. I don’t want to half-ass it and have them without masks right when they’re going to be walking around each other.”

Masked models stand next to a video camera.

Models Sara Cummings, left, and Nathaniel Dam during a break in the action at the fashion-show shoot. Cummings, who is afraid of heights, wasn’t enthusiastic about shooting on the catwalk of the 100-inch telescope. “But I’ll get over it,” she said. Dam said he was grateful for having everyone wear masks during the shoot and for having a paramedic and COVID-19 compliance officers on set.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Given the danger of disease transmission, not to mention the very real risk to life and limb of having 50-plus people (almost all driving their own cars) trek to and from the snow-dotted Mt. Wilson in the dark (the model call time was 7 a.m., while production didn’t wrap until almost 5 p.m.) via harrowingly narrow and winding roads, I asked Cooper why he felt compelled to forge ahead with the planned shoot when he could have accomplished nearly the same thing shooting against a green screen in a downtown Los Angeles studio.

“There’s no way to actually replicate the feeling,” the lanky, soft-spoken designer said during a break in the action as the wind tousled his blue-gray hairdo (the result of a holiday-season hair-dyeing adventure). “Plus, this location is so special. Unless you see this place, you can’t really feel it, so it was really important for me to get everyone involved with the project actually just out here to do it for real. There’s no way to get the message [about the forests] across unless you do it for real. You could try, but I feel like people could see through it. I could see through it.”

Locking down a location

The last hurdle in “doing it for real” meant convincing the Forest Service that there was an upside to a little-known fashion designer’s request to send models tromping through the forest, which saw 16% of its acreage char in the September Bobcat fire that crept within 500 feet of the observatory. At the beginning, it was an uphill battle, nearly as steep as the 4-mile-long access road from Angeles Crest Highway up to the observatory.

“Getting the Forest Service on board was definitely the hardest part,” Leah Cooper said. “[When you’re] navigating COVID, film permits and the weather, you just kind of muddle through. But we went through several rounds [of emails and phone calls] because they were reluctant at first.”

A camera crew watches models walk through a forest.

Masked models walk through the Angeles National Forest not far from the Bobcat fire burn-scar zone on Jan. 9.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Angeles National Forest Public Information Officer Andrew Mitchell confirmed that initially reluctant response. “It’s usually not our brand — the Forest Service’s — to host fashion shows in the forest,” he said. “Especially in a burn-closed area. [We weren’t sure if] they were trying to romanticize the fact that it had burned or what. But as we talked about it more, it turned out to be quite the opposite. They wanted to show what happens after the fire.”

Mitchell said that while there’s no shortage of attention focused on the forest when a fire is raging, it drops off precipitously in the aftermath, especially when fire-damaged sections are closed to hikers and other pleasure seekers for long stretches so that burned areas can recover. “The Bobcat fire burn-scar area is 114,000 acres — a significant part of our forest, which is 700,000 acres total,” he said. “And right now, that [area is] closed through February 2022.”

It’s usually not our brand — the Forest Service’s — to host fashion shows in the forest.

Andrew Mitchell

Mitchell pointed to something else that worked in Reese Cooper’s favor: He’s a twentysomething with 75,900 Instagram followers and a locked-in date with an international fashion calendar.

“Me and my boss [Angeles National Forest Public Affairs Officer John Clearwater] talked about it, and we thought this would be a great opportunity to reach a demographic we normally do not get to reach — the 18-to-24 crowd, and internationally, for that matter,” Mitchell said. “So we ran it up the chain [of command] both here and back in D.C., and [it] seemed to work out really well.” (He said it was Clearwater who suggested the observatory venue for the fashion shoot.)

“Back in D.C.” meant getting the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service national partnership coordinator, Cynthia McArthur, who enthusiastically embraced the idea and helped put the wheels in motion. (Although the observatory itself is managed independently under lease, it’s on Forest Service land.) She said Reese Cooper’s fashion show shoot — and the collection it would be presenting — ticked all the right boxes. “It’s nice to have a younger perspective,” she said. “And it’s fashion and art as inspiration, and that’s not something we normally highlight. It’s about being able to reach a whole new culturally diverse audience and not our usual suspects — the tree huggers.”

People stand on the catwalk at Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Reese Cooper, left, waves from the catwalk of Mt. Wilson Observatory’s 100-inch Hooker telescope at the finale of his fall and winter 2021 fashion show.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“These are public lands, supported by taxpayer dollars, but not everybody can visit them or even knows they’re there,” McArthur added. “There are plenty of people in Los Angeles — and Paris too — who don’t even know there is an Angeles National Forest. So we’re hoping that people will watch the fashion show — or even read this article — and say, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’”

Tom Meneghini, executive director of the Mt. Wilson Institute, said the Forest Service’s stamp of approval made it an easier decision on his end to let the models clamber about the historic domed building housing what was for four decades the largest telescope in the world.

“Otherwise, I would have judged it on more of a business basis,” he said. “But we have a good relationship, and there’s a benefit for the Forest Service, so I’m all for it.” The currently closed observatory, which has lost revenue as a result of the fire and the pandemic, is one of the beneficiaries of some see-now, buy-now hooded sweatshirts and T-shirts Cooper will be selling via his website, reese-cooper.com.

Two hoodies and a T-shirt from the Reese Cooper charity capsule collection.

Pieces from the Reese Cooper see-now, buy-now capsule collection that will benefit charitable organizations including Mt. Wilson Observatory and the National Forest Foundation.

(Keith Oshiro / Reese Cooper Inc.)

If using the aftermath of a forest fire as a springboard to new growth — whether it’s to sell luxury-level clothes or the notion of national forestland to a new generation — strikes you as unnatural, you might want to brush up on your forest ecosystem. Adapting to and thriving as a result of a forest fire is so much a part of nature, there’s a word for the plants that have evolved to become fire-tolerant. They’re called pyrophytes.

Not coincidentally, that’s also the name Cooper has given his fall and winter 2021 men’s and women’s runway collection, which can be viewed in its entirety on the Paris Fashion Week website and Reese Cooper’s YouTube channel starting at 8 a.m. Pacific on Saturday.