It’s hard to imagine fashion without the runway shows we see each year to signal new waves of collections. The sight of models streaming down a catwalk, assailed by flash lenses and the vacant gazes of industry heads and celebrities, has become as staple a style diorama as the starched collars of Karl Lagerfeld or Anna Wintour’s bob.
In reality, the history of the fashion show barely stretches back further than a hundred years. And few have chronicled it. “The omission is curious,” says Slate’s Amanda Fortini. “The fashion show is not only the promotional linchpin of a multibillion-dollar industry, it was also central to the development of the American department store – and to the rise of American consumer culture.”
Shows at the turn of the 20th century bore little resemblance to their trippy, technicolour modern counterparts. The concept began in 1800s France, as designers began paying “mannequins” to wear their clothing at society events, which would be noticed and reported on by the media. This soon evolved into fashion “parades”, which gathered many designers together to showcase their wares to fans, high society and more than a gaggle of journalists.
By 1903 American designers had begun to take note, and the country’s first fashion show was staged by New York City’s Ehrlich Brothers department store. It spurred a nationwide interest in holding fashion shows, as rival stores saw a chance to drag in industry insiders and consumers. “In the early 20th century, the desire to see clothing in motion flourished on both sides of the Atlantic,” explains fashion historian Caroline Evans. “Models tangoed, slithered, swaggered and undulated before customers in couture houses and department stores.” As it turned out, America’s chance to shine would come during one of the world’s darkest moments. Until 1940 the world’s designers had turned to France – in particular the ateliers of Paris – for their style inspiration. Then the German army invaded and the country was off-limits.
No longer could designers, buyers or socialites study French clothing. New York publicist Eleanor Lambert saw an opportunity. In 1943 she organised a “Press Week” in an attempt to showcase American design unmoored from its European rivals. Her show, which continued into the 1950s, gave breakthroughs to future stars such as Oscar de la Renta and Pauline Trigere.
Early fashion shows were heavily policed by designers desperate not to allow their creations to be copied. “Fashion pirates” were a staple of the industry, and could sketch a design in New York then sell it to buyers all over the world. To put a stop to it, many shows resorted to banning sketchpads – something to which some shows still actually adhere.
By 1954 Vogue editor Edna Woodman Chase noted that, “Now that fashion shows have become a way of life… a lady is hard put to have lunch, or sip a cocktail, in any smart hotel or store front from New York to Dallas to San Francisco without having lissome young things… swaying down a runway six inches above her nose.”
Soon the fashion show framework was exported all over the world and today it is a global phenomenon, bringing billions of dollars, and millions of jobs to cities that now rely on it for huge portions of their economy.
New York City might just be the king of this fashion-economic complex. In the 1970s and ’80s, when the city was a depressed, economic mess, New York’s designers and fashionistas began hosting their own shows in loft spaces, old warehouses, apartments and anything else they could find. Eventually the craze became so popular that designers were hosting huge crowds in cramped, unsafe spaces. In the early 1990s, after a series of mishaps and close shaves, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) sought a single space in which to house all of the city’s most exciting catwalk shows. By 1993 New York Fashion Week was created in its current guise. The event now attracts more than 230,000 people annually, and generates a little under a billion dollars for the local economy. It makes more money than the US Open tennis and the NYC Marathon.
New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has said: “Fashion doesn’t just make us look good, it helps our nation’s bottom line.” She was not wrong. America spends US$380 billion on fashion apparel per year, and the industry currently employs more than 1.8 million Americans.
London Fashion Week is a smaller affair, but still a major boost for its city’s economy: 2016’s edition brought 105,000 visitors and US$350 million in revenue. Paris relies hugely on its catwalk shows. Last year Paris Fashion Week brought in US$1.41 billion in revenue. The city has six shows per year, meaning that the city makes around US$8 to US$9 billion per year from its style showcases.
Recent additions to the show calendar, including African Fashion Week in Lagos, Nigeria, and the twice-yearly China Fashion Week in Beijing, have shown how fashion can not just bolster a city’s style credentials, but put it on the fashion map altogether. They also show how, as the global economy has shifted and diversified, fashion is not simply the reserve of a handful of wealthy cities scattered across Europe and North America.
Other major money-spinning cities include Berlin, São Paulo, Los Angeles, Sydney and Istanbul, whose Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, albeit a newcomer, contributes much to the city’s economy. “Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Istanbul is the official fashion event in Turkey that brings all the leading fashion pioneers together,” says fashion director Banu Bolen. “The event showcases emerging as well as established design talent to an international audience.”
Controversy over the clothing showcased in Istanbul has even led to the emergence of a rival show, Istanbul Modest Fashion Week, which aims to highlight the latest in Muslim attire, a market set to grow to US$327 billion by 2020. Designers include the UAE’s Annah Hariri and Rabia Z and Sweden’s Iman Aldebe.
The modern bible for fashion show fans is the Fashion Calendar, produced by the CFDA and first created by publisher Ruth Finley 65 years ago. Each year thousands of die-hard influencers and industry professionals consult the calendar, as they look to follow the best fashion trends around the world.
Katherine Ormerod, editor at London-based Work Work Work, is one of them. Shows can be “about so much more than the clothes”, she says. “The most special transport you to another world, with a sense of fantasy and imagination. As fashion changes so often, designers are uniquely placed to make a commentary on contemporary life, acting as a barometer of culture change in an ultra-responsive way.”
“By drawing inspiration from across the creative industries, you often are provided with a strong message through the theatre of a show, which goes far beyond dresses and shoes,” Ormerod adds. “It’s that poignancy and ability to provide a mirror on our times that can make a fashion show so special.”
As with most things in the fashion world, the history of its shows brims with moments of excess, shock and admiration. Some of the most iconic shows include Vivienne Westwood’s 1993/94 collection, whose oversized clothing caused Naomi Campbell to take a tumble; and Dutch duo Viktor and Rolf’s fall 1999 collection, which eschewed a traditional catwalk display in favour of a single model, Maggie Rizer, who was dressed onstage by the designers. Vogue writer Andre Leon Talley described it as “the Viagra of couture week”.
But as the fashion calendar congests, is the very concept of the fashion show in peril? Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour recently stated that, for young designers, “an interesting creative presentation is just as effective as a fashion show”, parroting a growing call for fans and professionals to swerve the catwalk in favour of more cutting-edge mediums. Certainly shows have become more accessible as their organisers clamour for increased external audiences and advertising dollars. But today, with the advent of 360-degree filming and virtual reality, the essence of the fashion show itself appears to be under threat.
Alexander McQueen became the first fashion designer to live-stream a show back in 2009. Technology has raced on apace since then. Balenciaga, Hussein Chalayan and Dior have all 360-degree-filmed recent shows – in Dior’s case combining it with 3D-printed glasses made available to viewers – and some have even questioned whether in-person shows will soon be obsolete.
“I think they are defunct in the sense of their original intention: to show bi-annual collections to a small, elite group of editors for dissemination to the masses,” says Ormerod. “These days they are part of a brand’s marketing machine, which certainly means there’s a heightened sense of commercialisation.”
But Ormerod believes that the fashion show is still an essential part of the fashion industry – and the ability to experience fashion up close and personal is still an inimitable part of the industry. “The fashion show continues to offer a creative platform to express ideas and aspirations and nothing can ever mimic the power of a live performance – just look at the music industry and the boom in live tours,” she says.
“The attention and buzz that a fashion show can now generate on social media and the content that can be created around a show now make them worth the investment, especially as fashion is such a crowded market and it’s so difficult to get your voice heard,” Ormerod adds.
“I would think that, for any big luxury brand, the fashion show isn’t going anywhere imminently.”
Be a Fashion Tourist
Following the style calendar means visiting some of the greatest cities – and architecture – in the world
1. Tempelhof Airport, Berlin
Tempelhof is a giant airport that ceased operating in 2008, and whose sweeping, alabaster facade was a creation of the Nazi government. It is also home to the influential Bread and Butter fashion show. The airport acquired added legend in 1948 when, under Soviet control, Allied planes dropped thousands of tonnes of supplies in the Berlin Airlift. Today a huge public space home to skaters and barbecuers, the airport hangar is a perfect place for navel gazing (and catwalk shows).
2. Somerset House, London
Located right in the heart of London’s West End, Somerset House has hosted some of the British capital’s most elaborate shows since its conception in 1776. More recently, the neoclassical mansion has found a home on London’s cultural scene, playing host to live music concerts, modern art exhibits and, of course, London Fashion Week. Worth a visit for its grand design and pretty fountain garden, the building is a perfect place to watch models strut by.
3. Sydney Opera House, Sydney
It’s only fitting that one of the world’s most iconic buildings should serve as one of its city’s premier style venues – if only, usually, as a backdrop to open-air shows. Next year the building, conceived by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, celebrates its 45th birthday, and it’s never been busier, hosting more than 1,500 events annually. In 2007 its shell-shaped expressionist design was designated a Unesco World Heritage site. Which, even for the fashion industry, makes for a rather exciting place to call home.
4. Grand Palais, Paris
Paris’ Grand Palais is as much a part of its fabric as the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Elysees, the famed street at the foot of which it sits. Inaugurated in 1900 for the Universal Expo, the glass-vaulted building has seen many uses – from war hospital to sports stadium, and is one of Paris’ leading fashion venues. Karl Lagerfeld, creative director at Chanel, has made the Palais his fashion week home of choice in recent years, constructing casinos, an airport terminal and, for his 2010-11 fall show, a giant, gold lion.
Words: Sean Williams