The Endless Runway

November 22, 2018

Live broadcasting, myriad VIP celebrities, Hollywood-style film sets and world-famous landmarks… how on Earth did fashion shows become so extravagant? More importantly, why?


French fashion house Saint Laurent certainly know how to throw a party. In September 2017 they staged perhaps their most ambitious show ever in Paris’s Jardins du Trocadéro. While models glided down a moodily lit catwalk, the Eiffel Tower lit up the city skyline just across the other side of the River Seine. The various outfits on display – lots of leather, feathers, sequins, velvet, suede, big-cat print and perilously high stilettos – and the beautiful models they adorned couldn’t begin to compete with the dramatic backdrop of the French capital at its finest. Saint Laurent later repeated the trick in New York City with the Manhattan skyline sparkling in the distance.

All the world’s top fashion houses are now mining every available resource in their attempt to stage jaw-dropping fashion shows. Chanel is the most outrageous of them all. Guided by the ever-inventive Karl Lagerfeld, over the years they have decked out Paris’s Grand Palais with spectacular scenes ranging from real Arctic icebergs, a fairground carousel and a bomb-damaged theatre, to a 150-metre-long cruise ship, an airport, an Indian palace and even a space station with its very own rocket blasting off. In 2014 they spent two months and a reported US $1.7 million building a catwalk on a man-made island off the coast of Dubai.

The other big names in the industry have done their best to keep up with all this extravagance. Earlier this year Louis Vuitton chose Japan’s Miho Museum and the surrounding mountains as a backdrop for their cruise show, while in 2016 Fendi placed a plexiglas runway across Rome’s Trevi Fountain so that it appeared as if their models were walking on water. Back in May this year Christian Dior hired out the stables at the gloriously opulent Chateau de Chantilly, not far north of Paris, turning the runway into a Mexican-themed rodeo, where the horses looked almost as beautiful as the models.

  • Chanel fashion show
    Chanel at Le Grand, Paris, 2018

The world of fashion hasn’t always been this opulent. The origins of the catwalk date back to the 19th century when couturiers used to throw humble tea parties designed to present their latest creations to a handful of wealthy clients, fashion editors and industry insiders. It was all about the garments. The setting itself hardly mattered.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, and the rise of mass-consumerism and ready-to-wear fashion, that these traditional parties were transformed into full-on fashion parades. The discreet runways were replaced by much larger shows organised by high-end department stores as a new way to elevate their reputations. They used hotels and the odd eye-catching location, with models flowing down the catwalks to energetic musical styles. The numbers on the guest lists gradually increased, but they were still exclusively selected from among the industry’s most recognised retail buyers and journalists.

Fendi at Rome's Trevi Fountain

Fendi at Rome’s Trevi Fountain, 2016

It was British designer Alexander McQueen who elevated fashion shows to the status of theatrical performance, and the catalyst was his 1998 London show, Untitled, which combined fashion, music, film, theatre, performance art and merchandising to stunning effect.

More recently, broadcast and communications technology has advanced fashion shows further still. Now anyone at home with an internet connection has the power to experience the catwalk from a front row seat, and to view next season’s styles long before they grace the pages of glossy magazines.

In today’s connected world, in which terabytes of information are created every second by consumers on their smartphones, and then shared instantly all over the world, bringing bold and disruptive ideas to fashion runways has become a necessity for the brands’ survival. Technology allows fashion houses not only to experiment with digital innovations but also to tell the story of their brands. Add to the mix the enormous social media presence of the models on the catwalk, plus visiting VIP celebrities on the front row, and suddenly each outfit reaches a gargantuan audience of consumers.

  • Gigi Hadid
    Gigi Hadid models for Versace at Milan Fashion Week, 2018

The first fashion show that truly went global was in 1998, at Paris’s Stade de France, just before the kick-off of soccer’s World Cup Final. With 80,000 fans watching live from the stadium, and 1.7 billion more viewing via television, Yves Saint Laurent staged a 15-minute show to celebrate his 40 years in the industry. There were 300 models backed up by a team of over 200 technicians, 130 dressers, and 70 make-up artists and hairdressers. It was a game-changer.

But instant global viewing disrupts the industry in other ways. By watching new fashion lines unfurl live on the internet, rival retailers have been able to copy the luxury designs they see, and bring them to market under their own brand name within weeks.

Now major fashion houses are fighting back. In 2013, as they broadcast their show live over the internet in 3D, British brand Burberry simultaneously allowed consumers to purchase clothing on the catwalk immediately via the internet. It led to a phenomenon now known in the trade as “see now, buy now”.

In the age of the millennial consumer, this instant gratification is crucial. For luxury brands, bringing online consumers to fashion shows via their websites is easier and cheaper than sending them to a high-street store. Show them a good time and then let them buy what they see with a simple click.

A great example of this was the recent collaboration between American designer Tommy Hilfiger and American supermodel Gigi Hadid. They both co-designed the collection, and Hadid walked the runway in it. But it was Hadid’s vast social media following (currently 43 million on Instagram) that comprised the lion’s share of the marketing.

Chanel fashion Show

Chanel Fashion show in Paris, 2017

What of the future? How can fashion shows further evolve? Every new season ratchets up the pressure on designers to come up with ever-more extravagant displays. How long can this sartorial space race continue?

Back in 2007, Italian fashion house Fendi turned a section of the Great Wall of China into a huge catwalk for their following spring/summer collection. Afterwards, one of the company’s directors, Silvia Fendi, was asked where their next show’s venue might be.

“Maybe the moon,” she said. “Why not?”


The greatest showman

Karl Lagerfeld

More than any other designer ever, Karl Lagerfeld has helped the humble fashion parades of the 1960s evolve into the internet-viral Hollywood-style extravaganzas they are today, especially in his role as creative director at French fashion house Chanel. But what are the secrets of his stagecraft?

He loves all things Parisian

In 1953 Lagerfeld moved from his native Germany to Paris where he quickly established himself as a major player on the fashion scene. There followed contracts with Balmain, Jean Patou, Chloé and Fendi.

But he also remains an outsider

“I am a foreigner and I intend to stay a foreigner because foreigners see Paris and France through a different eye,” he explained when he was awarded the top Medaille de la Ville de Paris by the city’s mayor. “And when you are not French, you look without nationalism or patriotism. Long live Paris.”

He has the eye of a photographer

A professional photographer and filmmaker himself, he knows exactly how to get camera shutters clicking. And he’s been an expert at this since long before the era of social media.

Chanel give him artistic licence & budget

You can’t imagine Chanel quibble too much when Lagerfeld requests eye-watering budgets for their fashion shows. Just how much does it cost to bring a real iceberg to Paris, anyway? Or a space rocket?

He refuses to grow old

Always elusive about his age – he reveals only that he was born some time in the 1930s – Lagerfeld remains young at heart, and has the eye and taste of designers half his age.

He embraces change

“Fashion is about change, and I like change,” he says. “I do it like I breathe. I wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea. I put it on a card I have next to my bed, and I make the sketches in the morning before I forget it.”

He’s eccentric

And fashion loves nothing more than eccentricity. Always immaculately turned out in black and white, with trademark leather gloves, sunglasses, and shock of ponytailed grey hair (plus his creepy pet cat, Choupette, whom he would marry if it was legal, he says), Lagerfeld could be mistaken for some kind of Bond villain.

Originally published in issue 19 of Populous Magazine. Subscribe for free to receive a copy.

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