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No More Drama; When did the fashion show lose its spectacle?

By Jackie Mallon

Oct 24, 2017

Nowadays, thanks to Instagram, anyone can feel like they’re sitting front row at any fashion show right alongside Anna Wintour. But most modern runways resemble conveyor belts of merchandise; blank, sterile presentations, often indistinguishable one from the next. Not so long ago, things were much different: fashion shows were spectacles, happenings. The truly memorable, even with the span of decades, still sparkle in fashion’s collective consciousness: Alexander McQueen’s chessboard runway of Spring ’05, or his spectral life-size hologram of Kate Moss twirling in frills to the haunting soundtrack from Schindlers List for the following Fall.

There was Hussein Chalayan’s Fall ’00 tour de force when he converted room furniture into clothes like a fairytale magician-carpenter-tailor. From John Galliano’s explosive tulle dresses squeezing between vintage cars as far back as Spring ’95 to his Christian Dior Spring ’03 couture show which featured origami, Kabuki, sword swingers, unicyclists, somersaulting dancers, and headwear the size of small Asian temples, those in attendance must have felt like they’d experienced the best of Las Vegas and Broadway put together. More recently Marc Jacobs’s final outing for Louis Vuitton had editors enthralled and every season Karl Lagerfeld seems determined to top himself since he created the 75 ft tall Chanel jacket runway centerpiece for Spring 2008.

There’s no business like show business

Currently in command of the most watched runways worldwide are more female designers than ever before ushering in new and necessary creative voices––and a wave of feminism––to some of the oldest houses, many of which were founded by females. However they’re not making themselves known for the sheer spectacle of their vision. In less-enlightened times, the implicit belief, generally speaking, was that male designers understood the showbiz factor of fashion, plucking ideas from fantasy and unleashing them center stage with utmost fanfare, even high camp, while female designers, on the other hand, understood how clothes moved with the body and felt on the skin; male designers experienced womenswear from an external point of view, female designers intimately inhabited their designs. Surely this somewhat old-fashioned thinking cannot still be driving the creative process. Can’t today’s female designers understand how fabric moves and understand how to move an audience?

Like no business I know

Labels helmed by Phoebe Philo, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Clare Waight Keller, present brisk-stepping models oozing joie de vivre, neither smiling nor pouting, the latest purse slung across body or loosely gripped. It is a straightforward parade of stylish outfits, without distraction of scenography or choreography. Female voices matters in our culture more than ever, and indeed they powered much of the current progress on diversity of race, size, and age on our runways. But along the way, while locked in these serious battles, did females––and fashion itself––lose the humor, the audacity, the sense of the absurd that makes it all fun?

Would any female designer today have come up with the armadillo shoe? a male designer friend asked me recently. I reminded him that Vivienne Westwood shot straight into fashion’s history books when Naomi Campbell fell on the runway wearing her 9 inch platforms in 1993. But the worry exists that female designers like Westwood, or Rei Kawakubo, are entering what must be their twilight creative years, and it’s difficult to discern who will brandish the torch for risk-taking and moment-making when they are no longer around.

Iris Van Herpen’s work displays awe-inspiring technical wizardry but as her garments are riffs on a singular idea, they lack the surprise element, and therefore don’t produce that collective gasp that follows the drawing back of the curtain. She is committed to her quest for how the technology of 3D printing can advance clothing not how the staging or lighting can transport a collection.

Everything about it is appealing

We are in a time when many question the need for runway shows. Some designers have been attempting to shake things up by moving their conveyor belt presentations from NYC to Paris or from London to Milan. But the better consideration might be whether the nature of the show itself is out of step with where fashion is heading. Selling product has always been the point of the runway, as evidenced in the Anglomania show of the early 90s which opened with a model slipping her hand from a glove to the strains of Mozart, and removing a timepiece from Westwood’s orb packaging, sliding it onto her wrist, and admiring it for the rest of her journey down the runway––while a baguette casually protruded from her tote.

The Storytelling behind the selling

In the urgency to sell, today’s designers may have forgotten the importance of storytelling. The designers listed in my opening weren’t engaging in empty theatrics; they were communicating in the purest way the narrative behind their collections; seducing us with the power of fantasy in a world of sometimes grim reality. McQueen was announcing his support for his friend Kate Moss by elevating her to an almost otherworldly deity as she struggled to emerge from her cocaine scandal. John Galliano had recently returned from a three-week pan-Asian odyssey. Chalayan was inspired by refugees whose life or death journeys often involve carrying their earthly possessions on their persons. Can modern designers weave dreams as well as ply us with purses? With maximalism in full tilt, it seems that the time could not be better suited for a well-placed prop. Bring on the chandeliers, baby grands, and vintage automobiles dotted about an atmospheric salon, while the faces of the front row are bathed with fuchsia lighting or tickled with dry ice… Our jaded palettes would certainly appreciate reinvigorating, even if our startled reactions disguised our delight.

Let’s go on with the show

And if it all comes down to money, let’s remember that time Viktor and Rolf layered every outfit onto one model, Maggie Rizer, who stood on a rotating platform under layers of heavy embroideries, ballooning sleeves and rich brocade until she had all but disappeared inside a fabric sarcophagus, and think how much that cut the casting budget.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos: Homepage image: Alexander McQueen SS ‘07 - PIERRE VERDY / AFP

Collage 1: Alexander McQueen SS ‘07 - PIERRE VERDY / AFP, Alexander McQueen Shoes - Jackie Mallon Hussein Chalayan FW '00 - Wikimedia commons

Collage 2: Vivienne Westwood SS '93 - Flickr: Vivienne Westwood (14) via Wikimedia Commons, John Galliano/Dior SS '03 - PIERRE VERDY / AFP