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How Runways Became A Space For Creativity

by Miriah Wegener 

The turn of the 20th century saw business-savvy Parisian designers hosting fashion parades. Catering to a select group of wealthy clientele and socialites, these private events showcased "living mannequins" leisurely strolling through salon showrooms, with each gathering lasting up to three hours and held daily.

In 1947, Christian Dior changed fashion forever with his Corolle collection, AKA "The New Look." By this time, fashion parades had become a wildly familiar concept. Models perfecting the famous expressionless walk had replaced the informal stroll of the past, and audiences were crammed into small rooms, seated behind journalists from major publications. 


High-profile fashion houses had yet to realize the potential to position themselves as cultural institutions. Fashion parades would soon become runway shows that displayed heritage, craftsmanship, and creativity, and elevated fashion houses like Dior, Chanel, and YSL to the status of artistic and cultural influences.


Fashion Week


Eleanor Lambert revolutionized the industry in 1943 by creating the blueprint that continues to shape fashion week worldwide. Designers had to tailor their shows to be extravagant and immersive enough to fully captivate their VIP guests within the 15min stage time they were allotted.


The first Paris fashion week was held in 1973 and opened with the Battle of Versailles. This pivotal Show displayed a clash between five renowned French designers and five unknown American designers. 

The three-hour French portion, with an orchestra, elaborate sets, and more than one live rhinoceros, couldn't live up to the American's 30min performance. They had a lineup of almost entirely black models, Liza Minnelli, and dancing models vogueing on stage. The American designers created a show with such flair that the crowd threw their programs into the air twice in a show of excitement and support. It was a defining moment that challenged traditional norms and called a new era into the world of fashion.


Consequently, Fashion shows only became more extravagant. This new 80s era felt a shift towards creating immersive experiences. Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier introduced avant-garde elements, futuristic designs, and theatrics to the runway. Icons like Yves Saint Laurent embraced drama and spectacle, incorporating innovative staging and music into his presentations.


These runways served as a platform to showcase new artistic visions and establish a distinct brand identity in a dynamic and captivating manner which was becoming necessary if designers wanted to stand out in the increasingly competitive and crowded industry.


Evolving Media Landscape

Paris shows witnessed a significant surge during the 90s, with nearly a fourfold increase in journalists and photographers in attendance from the recorded figures of the ‘70s. Fashion shows began to reach a global scale and designers began to recognize the power of supermodels such as Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer. 


The early 2000s embraced an era of digital innovation and pushed the limitations of tradition. Designs moved off the runway and on location. In a remarkable example, Karl Lagerfeld staged Fendi's 2007 show atop the Great Wall of China, costing 10 million dollars and a lengthy debate with the Chinese government.


In the present day, fashion shows are more dramatic than ever. Custom-built thematic sets, runways transforming into supermarkets and merry-go-rounds. Sunnei had their models crowd surfing in Milan and Coperni spray painted a dress onto Bella Hadid’s body live during fashion week 2023.


A Subject of Debate


Alexander McQueen blurred the line between fashion and performance art. For his 1998 fall collection, he concluded with a masked model in a blood-red dress encircled by a ring of fire, paying tribute to the collection's namesake, Joan of Arc.


Victoria's Secret achieved a $1.2 billion profit in 2015. This success can be attributed to their televised show and strategic inclusion of musicians engaging with the models mid performance. The focus shifted from the products to the personalities by fostering interactions between the models and showing exclusive backstage content.


Catwalk theatrics have always been a subject of debate, questioning whether fashion shows are genuine artistic celebrations or just capitalist spectacles.

Edited by Emily Duff

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