New York Fashion Week—now in full swing all over town with a preview of autumn's collections—conjures up images of statuesque models, pin-thin editors and size-zero frocks. But behind the skinny catwalk, the event has a chubby little secret: It is a nine-day smorgasbord of free food and open bars.
For every glamour puss sipping Diet Coke, there are throngs of others—low-level assistants, stylists, buyers, writers and hangers-on—more than willing to devour a high-calorie feast of mini tacos, spinach puff pastries and fried mac-and-cheese.
"You learn over time what to expect, foodwise, at different venues," said Nicholas Hunt, who works as a photographer for society chronicler Patrick McMullan. "Tribeca Grand? You're getting steak, pumpkin ravioli, all the good stuff."
Some runway models diet and work out for weeks in advance to shed the pounds necessary to fit into a sample size. For them and other calorie-counters, the obligatory vegetables, quinoa and juices are on hand. Never far away, though, is a fattier fashion plate.
Backstage at Lincoln Center, where most shows are held, this year's dishes include avocado-and-goat cheese sandwiches (797 calories), pole-caught tuna salads (558 calories), and peanut-butter cream'wiches (205 calories) provided by Tom Colicchio's 'wichcraft sandwich joint.
"Fashion Week is actually a huge foodie event," said Jeffrey Zurofsky, the chief executive of 'wichcraft. "Restaurants are packed."
An American Express outpost is serving steak carpaccio with Parmesan cheese, and a squash-mascarpone-ricotta crostini sandwich.
A Mercedes-Benz lounge offers truffle-infused, fried mac-and-cheese canapés and grilled shrimp. A Champagne bar has been pouring a seemingly endless stream of bubbly for attendees.
"You see a lot of repeat customers here," said Manny Molina, one of the Lincoln Center bartenders. "I've been here 30 minutes, and I've already seen three customers come back."
Walgreens, whose aisles are more synonymous with candy and cough syrup than fashion, is providing a daily spread to Milk Studios, a popular fashion-event location. On the menu: hundreds of provolone-and-ham sandwiches and pounds of rotini pasta with feta cheese.
In a particularly odd juxtaposition, delicacies are on hand during some of the shows.
At Rafael Cennamo's presentation on Saturday, angular models stood around for an hour while guests ogling their outfits inhaled chocolate truffles.
Some people remember designer Betsey Johnson's February 2009 Fashion Week event for its whimsical black and pink tutus. Mr. Hunt remembers the cheeseburgers.
"They were delicious," recalled Mr. Hunt, who served the snacks while working as a waiter at the Manhattan studio where Ms. Johnson showed her wares. "I scarfed them down."
It wasn't always this way. Fashion Week used to resemble a trade show more than a party, says Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large for Barneys New York.
Shows were typically held in designers' garment-center showrooms; department-store buyers filed in to take earnest notes. Celebrity-filled front rows were hardly de rigueur.
Over the past decade, the event has evolved into a festival of A-listers and corporate sponsors. Rich foods amp up a party's luxury factor.
"[Fashion Week] has become this insane Mardi Gras of meeting and greeting," Mr. Doonan said. "The shows have become like dolce vita parties."
Event producers estimated that some designers spend as much as $4,000 on backstage catering alone.
Of course, what one eats depends on where one sits on the fashion food chain.
Young and broke folks may stuff themselves, but veterans of the twice-a-year event said they are too wise—or too tense—to gorge. Some turn to almonds or green juice to satisfy cravings.
Up-and-coming industry types are subtly encouraged by mentors to think twice before being seen with a mouthful of funnel cake.
Cameron Corrigan, a model walking in shows for designers including Zang Toi and Alice + Olivia, said she isn't "chowing down."
"I try to keep it clean and simple: fruit, protein, salads, veggies," said Ms. Corrigan, 19 years old. "And I don't drink on the job."
Contrary to suspicions that models subsist on little more than air, Ms. Corrigan added that she is pretty health-conscious. "The girls who don't eat anything before the shows tend to faint," she said.
Jack McCollough, half of the fashion team behind high-end label Proenza Schouler, said he doesn't eat much during Fashion Week, despite the time and money that goes into his catering. "I'm a nervous wreck, but I hope other people do," he said.
Of course, that only leaves even more treats for fashion's hungry worker bees and anyone with a naturally high metabolism.
"If I'm at an event sponsored by a designer, I pick at the really chic food passed around," said Lauren Shane, a 28-year-old stylist who goes by the name elshane and works for celebrities such as pop-star Carly Rae Jepsen. "Because you're drinking, you need to fill up."
Todd Plummer, a freelance fashion reporter, said he is always happy to get free food, even if he is the only one eating.
Mr. Plummer was hoping to cover some events at a new nightclub—not just for the high celebrity quotient—but because "they have really good grilled cheese."
A version of this article appeared February 13, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Fashion Plates: Here's the Skinny On Off-the-Runway Pigging Out.