If a fashion show took place and nobody shared it online, did it happen?
We might not discover the answer to that question anytime soon. This past year, in a post-pandemic frenzy to make up for lost time (and money), fashion brands have done everything in their power to capture our attention. We have witnessed the fashion industry transform into a Netflix of experiences: a fashion show can be a private concert, or a performance art piece, or a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And to everyone who isn’t invited (read: most of the population), we can just stream the spectacle on our phone screens, watching one viral runway moment after another.
But the idea of fashion as entertainment isn’t a new one; it stretches all the way back to 1901, when Lady Duff Gordon, the English designer of the label Lucile, decided to include lighting, scenery and music into her fashion shows, turning them into exciting social affairs that were talked about.
Lady Gordon would have been impressed by Louis Vuitton’s Fall/Winter 2023 men’s fashion show, which saw the Spanish pop star Rosalía performing on top of a car, demonstrating her powerful vibrato, all while models walked around her and through a set that resembled a house. Similarly, for Valentino’s Spring/Summer 2024 presentation in Paris, the British musician FKA Twigs hypnotised the audience with her high-pitched, whispery vocals. But, being a dancer first, the artist also led a crew through a poetic performance that involved rolling in the sand.
Performance popped up elsewhere at fashion shows this year. The Italian fashion label Sunnei put on a rock concert for its Fall/Winter 2023 show—not with music, as you’d expect, but with movement. Models, upon reaching the end of the runway, turned and fell backwards into the audience, recreating the rockstar ritual of crowd-surfing. It’s one of many Tiktok-friendly tricks that has been pulled by Sunnei, which has also gone viral for having its models sprint down the runway and, more recently, by handing out signs for its audience to rate its collection in real-time.
Of course, we can’t talk about viral fashion shows without mentioning Coperni. Last year, the Parisian label catapulted into a new sphere of visibility—far beyond fashion’s already big bubble—when it had scientists spray-paint a dress onto Bella Hadid. That moment, which memorably closed Coperni’s Spring/Summer 2023 show, generated a media impact value worth US$26.3 million, according to WWD. Coperni’s designers, just like Alexander McQueen before them, would again tap on technology and theatrics for their Fall/Winter 2023 show, where models interacted with robot dogs. The futuristic mood of that season was also present at the Anrealage show. There, designer Kunihiko Morinaga inspired gasps and applause from the audience with his seemingly all-white creations, which changed colours and revealed patterns as soon as they were struck with ultraviolet light.
In this light (pardon the pun), the fashion show is the perfect medium for brands to entertain and educate—on, say, the possibilities of technology—while still selling clothes. But for others, such as Avavav, the fashion show is pure performance art. In fact, you may know the Florence-based label for its runway antics—seemingly taken out of Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia’s playbook—more than its clothes. For Spring/Summer 2023, models tripped in spectacular fashion as they made their way down the runway like so many Ghillie-heeled Naomi Campbells. The staged falls, explained designer Beate Karlsson, was a “parody of fashion, of how we dress to mediate status through wealth.” Then for Fall/Winter 2023, she presented clothes that tore apart as models walked the runway—a dig at luxury fashion’s seriousness according to Karlsson, although Tiktok commentators also believe it is a statement of fast fashion. Avavav’s latest fashion show was pure chaos: models in various states of distress (and undress) hurried onto the runway, reflecting the stressful reality of being a fashion designer today.
Indeed, the job now demands much more than making nice clothes. Designers have to be masters of marketing, business-minded networkers, and now, even a tour guide. Appeasing both the world’s surging wanderlust and its appetite for beautiful clothes, the destination fashion show—that is, one that is held in some far-flung, Instagram-worthy location beyond Paris, Milan, London and New York—has never been more popular. In the past year alone, Chanel held its first fashion show in Africa, while Gucci took over the historic Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. Dior Men, too, went places: Kim Jones’ presentation for Fall/Winter 2023, set against Egypt’s majestic pyramids, outdid Saint Laurent’s menswear fashion show at a Moroccan desert just a few months prior.
Perhaps no European designer since Paul Poiret has harnessed the power of the exotic quite like Maria Grazia Chiuri. Her tenure at Dior has been marked by her curiosity and appreciation of other cultures, and she has previously staged her fashion shows in Mexico, Spain, Italy, Greece and China. This year, she took the fashion world to India—likely the luxury fashion industry’s next favourite Asian destination, thanks to its growing economy—for Dior’s Fall/Winter 2023 show. Models symbolically crossed the historic Gateway of India in Mumbai dressed in Chiuri’s collection, which reflected India’s love of vivid colours—Rani pink, for one—and the country’s craftsmanship, which has been so deeply, yet invisibly, embedded in European luxury fashion.
It goes without saying that the fashion show boasted star power too—this time from both Hollywood and Bollywood. Indian celebrities like Sonam Kapoor, Anushka Sharma and even the revered Rekha made appearances at the show, bringing diversity to the collision of fashion and entertainment.
But never has the already blurred line between the two worlds vanished altogether, like it did at Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2024 men’s fashion show. The show marked the debut of the French brand’s new creative director, Pharrell Williams, and if you were on your phone that day, you knew all about it.
Pharrell-as-designer sent out models in chequered and pixelated camouflage looks for the fashion show. Pharrell-as-tastemaker made sure those models wore sunglasses from his unreleased collaboration with Tiffany and Co. Pharrell-as-influencer had all the right people on the front row to see it: Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Zendaya, Song Joong-ki, Lewis Hamilton, to name a few. Pharrell-as-producer livened the runway with a gospel choir and a live orchestra. And, finally, Pharrell-as-superstar went on stage to perform with Jay-Z—the closing act of a fashion show that cemented Louis Vuitton’s new positioning as a “cultural brand”.
Between the bold theatrics and the colourful characters and the ever-changing settings, it’s easy to see why the fashion industry is often compared to a circus. But even a circus has its moments of stillness. Think of the hushed silence that surrounds an acrobat, suspended 20 feet up in the air, while an awestruck audience watches their every step across a tightrope. That was the kind of attention that the reclusive couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga commanded with his clothes at his fashion shows—no music, no gimmicks, no famous faces necessary. Perhaps it’s time for fashion brands to learn how to pull off that trick again.