Most fashion shows last less than 10 minutes, but have the power to transport an audience to another world. There’s an intensity to a great show, a distillation of a designer’s extraordinary vision.
Once upon a time, though, things were a lot humbler. The intimate salon shows of Chanel in the 1950s bear no resemblance to Karl Lagerfeld’s fully-stocked supermarket in the vast Grand Palais in 2014. The main change is scale – along with location, set production, and budget. From John Galliano’s historical dramas at Christian Dior, to Hussein Chalayan’s theatrical impossibilities and the late Alexander McQueen’s gothic, heart-stopping wonders, we chart how the fashion show developed from low-key to king.
In a show in the 1860s, Parisian-based designer Charles Frederick Worth, the so-called “father of haute couture”, introduced the idea of presenting collections on live models. Like other couturiers of the age, he launched his collections at Longchamp Racecourse. Though not quite a fashion show, it was certainly good publicity.
The early 20th century saw the advent of “fashion parades”. In London, leading British designer Lady Duff-Gordon regularly showed collections at her Hanover Street salon, giving her models romantic names in order to make them sound more exotic. In turn-of-the-century Paris, designer Paul Poiret staged fancy-dress balls where women could dress up in his eastern-inspired looks. He would also tour theatres and department stores in Europe with mannequins in tow. In New York, the Ehrich Brothers department store began hosting their own shows in-store. Others, including Wanamaker’s in Philadephia, followed suit from the 1910s-20s.
- A salon presentation in New York, 1925.
The 1920s saw the dawn golden age of haute couture in Paris, particularly with the dominance of powerful women such as Gabrielle Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, queen of the bias cut, and Elsa Schiaparelli.
- In Paris, clients would attend intimate couture salon shows, and place orders with their all-important vendeuse who would develop a close relationship with the clients.
During the Great Depression, fashion designers started selling patterns to be made at home as many incomes shrank. But somehow, haute couture continued to flourish. In 1931, Elsa Schiaparelli showed a collection on a catwalk at Saks in New York. Photographers were not allowed to attend, to stop designs being copied, so the collections were sketched by artists.
New York, New York
In 1943 saw the launch of what would become New York fashion week: under the umbrella of “Press Week”, fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert set up shows at the Pierre Hotel and the Plaza. Until then, US fashion had been dominated by European designers. But with American press unable to travel to Europe during the war, this became an opportunity to promote homegrown talent, including minimalist pioneer, Norman Norell.
New York’s shows continued from then on, interrupted only by the terror attacks of 9/11, which happened on the first day of New York fashion week.
After the war ended in 1945, the French fashion industry needed to be rebuilt. Couturier Nina Ricci’s son, Robert, had the idea of inviting fashion houses to create miniature versions of their designs, as a way of showing their potential without wasting valuable resources. It became known as Le Petit Théâtre de la Mode, or the miniature theatre of fashion.
On 28 March 1945, 200 mannequins, a third of human size, wearing scaled-down designs by couture houses such as Balenciaga and Jeanne Lanvin, went on show at the Louvre before touring around Europe. The following year, with a new set of immaculately made clothes, the mannequins were shown in America. It was a fashion show of sorts, a pragmatic solution using limited resources.
New Look, new rules
Before the war, couture shows were usually presented in small salon spaces, often at the designer’s headquarters, selling directly to the client, who would return for a series of fittings over a period of about six weeks. In those early days, before the advent of the catwalk, the emphasis was on the client rather than publicity. Photographers were not allowed in.
In 1947 Christian Dior became one of the first designers to allow photographers to document his first collection, which Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, famously named “The New Look”.
The rise of Italy
The Italian shows began in Florence in the early 1950s, with couture houses from Rome, Turin, Milan and Capri – including Simonetta Visconti, Schuberth, and Emilio Pucci – showcasing collections at the grandiose Sala Bianca.
- Models in evening wear at a fashion show in Florence, 1951.
Founded by Giovanni Battista Giorgini, the shows were an attempt to compete with Paris, and rebuild Italy’s textile, fashion and craft ateliers after the war. They were promoted as a stop-off for American editors on the way back from the shows in Paris, when the European fashion season required a voyage from New York by ocean liner. Guests – a mix of store-buyers and society – were transported from Rome to Florence to be wined and dined in luxury as they immersed themselves in the grandeur of Italian fashion.
It was in 1958 that the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana was founded, and the shows moved from the windy streets of Florence to the more commercial business centre of Milan.
New model army
In 1952, Hubert de Givenchy showed his first collection. Givenchy’s relationship with Audrey Hepburn, who he dressed for her roles in Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, would become one of the first great celebrity fashion partnerships.
- Givenchy at a fashion show promoting his latest designs in Paris, 1970
Throughout the 1960s, fashion shows remained closed affairs. In his book, Catwalking, photographer Chris Moore recalls, “at that time, they did just think we were spies”.
In 1956, the pioneering designer Gaby Aghion, who founded Chloé, invited press to the Café de Flore in St Germain to view her first collection. It was an informal presentation that brought the models into an everyday cafe setting, away from the controlled environment of the designer’s salon.
The rise of pret-a-porter
- French couturier Pierre Cardin in 1963. Right: Yves Saint Laurent after a show in 1963.
Although couture dominated, in 1960, a group of couturiers including Carven and Nina Ricci began to show their pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) collections two weeks before the haute couture collections. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent launched pret-a-porter his Rive Gauche boutique.
- Throughout the 1960s, the sexual revolution was also transforming elements of the fashion industry, with André Courreges slashing skirt lengths in 1965, and a new wave of designers including Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne designing for a more youthful customer.
Beginning of the modern runway show
In the 1970s, ready-to-wear took over from haute couture, and the catwalk became the new medium for designers’ collections. In Paris, so many designers were showing their collections twice a year that in 1973, the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, was founded to coordinate the shows. This was the birth of Paris fashion week.
- The main attractions of Paris fashion week included the Japanese designer Kenzo, Sonia Rykiel, and Chloé (designed by Karl Lagerfeld) with models including Pat Cleveland and Jerry Hall prowling the catwalks..
During the early 1980s, London became known as the capital of creativity. Vivienne Westwood burst on the scene with a mix of historically researched clothing, sex, and anarchy and a band of followers who were as fanatical about music as fashion. Westwood’s shows were irreverent, rude and raised a one-fingered salute to the grand traditions of the fashion show.
- In 1984 London fashion week launched.
A year after the British Fashion Council was founded in 1983, the British Designer Show and the London Designer Collections, which had been organising shows since 1975, were centralised under one roof. Shows took place in a tent in the car park of the Commonwealth Institute.
London became a key city for press and buyers looking for the Next Big Thing. Other key designers who reinvented the concept of the catwalk show included the progressive label BodyMap, which made a specialty of diverse casting in terms of age, size, colour and gender. The New York Times succinctly described the atmosphere of a BodyMap show in the 1980s: “as bizarre as any rock star’s video”.
- In Paris, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and Jean Paul Gaultier showed alongside the revolutionary Japanese designers, Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, and the old-guard French houses, Dior, Chanel and Givenchy.
If London was the place to discover new talent, the 80s and 90s cemented Paris as fashion’s cultural heartbeat. In April of 1981, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto arrived from Tokyo with their debut show. Held in Paris’s Intercontinental Hotel, Comme des Garcons and Yamamoto brought a new more disheveled, asexual attitude to fashion, contrasting with the dominance of high-gloss power-dressing.
At the same time, New York’s show scene was given a shake up in the mid-1980s when Stephen Sprouse showed his edgy arthouse fashion in crowded lofts to a fashion/music/art crowd. Regulars included artist Keith Haring and Debbie Harry of Blondie.
The era of supermodels and slickness
In the 1990s, attention turned from the shows and the designers to the models, with supermodels gaining prominence. Versace’s autumn/winter 1991 show was the pinnacle of the phenomenon, with Linda, Cindy, Christy and Naomi singing the words to George Michael’s Freedom as the show’s final; a moment Donatella Versace relived in tribute to her brother for her spring/summer 2018 show.
Tom Ford’s Gucci upped the ante for a new style of slick, controlled show that was all about sex, status and glamour. The autumn/winter 1995 show used lighting like no other, a single spot following the model along the catwalk focusing the attention on the sheen of Amber Valletta’s velvet hipsters, the sensuousness of Kate Moss’s silk blouse, and – most importantly – the “It” bags that became the other stars of the show.
Location, location, location
The mark of a really edgy designer was the ability to attract the fashion crowd to see a collection in the most obscure, out-of-the-way venue. In 1989, Belgian designer Martin Margiela became one of the first to completely ignore the conventions of fashion shows (then largely held in a tent in a courtyard of the Musée du Louvre until they moved in 1993 to a series of purpose-built runway theatres under the Carrousel du Louvre) when he took over a rundown children’s playground on the outskirts of Paris. There was no seating plan, the locals and their kids were invited to watch. The models walked as they would normally down the street. The stage was set for a less hierarchical, more democratic approach.
- No designer understood the atmosphere of a show location more than Alexander McQueen.
In 1996, Alexander McQueen’s Dante show was held at Hawksmoor’s Christchurch in Spitalfields, a landmark moment when the fashion show became as much about the location, the atmosphere and the setting as the clothes.
The show setting was of utmost importance to John Galliano, too, particularly after his move to Paris in 1993. His first show was facilitated by society hostess Sao Schlumberger, who lent the designer her Left Bank home for his Japanese-inspired show. Five years later, for his spring 1998 Dior haute couture debut, he took over the Opera Garnier in Paris for the ultimate fashion show spectacular. Joan Juliet Buck, then editor-in-chief of French Vogue called it “an excess of beauty”. It was one of the most lavish shows ever, a serious statement of one-upmanship from one of fashion’s most powerful houses.
- In Hussein Chalayan’s Autumn/Winter 2000 collection, a table was transformed into a skirt
From internet to Insta show
Technology has had the biggest impact on the evolution of the fashion show, although at times, the conservative industry has had to be dragged into the digital age. In 1998 Austrian designer Helmut Lang was one of the first to embrace the internet, and presented his autumn/winter show online.
“I sensed at the time that the internet would grow into something much bigger than imaginable, so I thought it was the right moment to challenge the norm,” he said.
In 2010, Alexander McQueen became the first designer to livestream his show, Plato’s Atlantis. By the next year, designers at New York fashion week were livestreaming their shows. Now it is possible to watch most shows in real time, if not via livestream, through Instagram.
- With the advent of social media, fashion shows have arguably become more democratic spaces
Some designers seek to attract the public in real life, too: in 2015, Riccardo Tisci used a lottery to invite members of the public to his Givenchy show. For autumn/winter 2016, Tommy Hilfiger opened his Tommy Pier fairground show to around 1,000 guests who could access free tickets online.
They could also buy some of the collection there and then, part of the “see now, buy now” trend, designed to leverage the publicity around showtime into sales. This was a format that Burberry also launched in September 2016, making its shows into exhibitions open to the public. It is a model that Mulberry is taking for its presentation for AW18 when it takes over Spencer House.
In keeping with this revolution, Instagram has become the medium the fashion industry now most relies on. Hence the three-day resort-show “holiday” phenomenon, where designers take their audiences on all-expenses paid trips of a lifetime. Dior jetted off to the remote mountain Californian mountain resort of Calabasas for its resort 2018 show. Chanel has flown its international audience to Havana, Salzburg, Edinburgh and Los Angeles. Louis Vuitton travelled to Tokyo for its 2018 Cruise show, and to Rio the year before. These trips are designed to be Instagram frenzies. The clothes are almost an irrelevance.
- Whether it’s the size of the hair or the attention to detail, post Instagram, the shows are all about being insta-fabulous
The world of fashion might have become a more hard-nosed, commercial space, but it is no less extravagant for it. With livestreaming, (and endless opportunities for Instagram, fashion’s social media obsession) the scope is much grander – it is now possible for anyone to see the shows as they happen. But despite all this, there is no substitute for actually being there. A fashion show is a multi-sensory experience.
- Donatella Versace with Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen at the end of the show in Milan
The front row – or Frow as it is affectionately abbreviated – has become its own entity. In the early salon show days, guests sat in clusters around tables, permitting the creations and construction to be appreciated up close. As the industry got bigger, the number of invitations increased, forcing practical benches in neat rows to become the norm, and so a seating hierarchy formed.
Generally its a commonsense one: top magazine and newspaper editors, who can report and promote the collections, take precedence alongside head buyers for department stores and online boutiques, who will place orders after the show. In recent years, the rise of the internet and social media has meant bloggers and influencers are also guaranteed a spot on the Frow, as are celebrities, famous friends of the designer, and high-profile family members.
Undeniably, seating is a status issue . For example, at couture shows, clients are known to demand a front-row seat as close to the beginning of the catwalk as possible so that they can be the first to nip backstage post show and get first dibs on a one-of-a-kind gown to which they have taken a shine.
Some designers have been known to do away with the FROW entirely, as when Chanel created a Parisian neighbourhood for its Metiers D’Art show in 2015 and sat attendees on wrought-iron café tables or when The Row made showgoers stand around a New York loft to present its AW18 collection. Undeniably, however, there’s nothing quite like a front row seat.