catwalk shows are here to stay
Life is but a (catwalk) show. Get rid of them and fashion’s bubble of dreams will burst. Anders Christian Madsen reports…
I don't think I chose fashion for the garments. While I appreciate artisanal merit, I don't particularly care how things are made, what they're made of and what that technique is called. My terminology is terrible, and I zone out when people tell me about colour codes and fabrication treatments. Fashion, to me, is about theatre. Not necessarily theatrics (I hate gimmicks) but a grand show. I grew up idolising people who presented themselves ceremoniously through what they wore - Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Marilyn Manson and David Bowie - and clothes became a dreamwork to me. I started attending fashion shows in the early era of Gareth Pugh's London, when Mandi Lennard ran a tight door and an even tighter ship inside, and we'd all attend shows with a mixed spirit of excitement, fear and fandom. It was awesome.
I have never spent a single minute of my life watching YouTube videos of old fashion shows, and I wouldn't today either, but there was something about attending those shows that gave me a thrill I had never experienced before. Gareth Pugh's shows were like rock concerts. Set in "Nu Rave" London, they were packed with club kids, friends and super fans, who lined the sides of the tent in The Natural History Museum that had all the fashion stars on the front row, Sarah Mower, Suzy Menkes, Tim Blanks. It was like a magical court of drama, entirely devoted - and with much tension - to watching something beautiful, breathtaking, and surprising unfold before your eyes for eight precious minutes.
It had all the elements of a gripping game: the getting in ("Hi, I'm with, um, Danish Vogue?"), the trying to sit as close to the catwalk as you could without getting moved (nothing is more embarrassing than having to do the walk of shame), and the telling others you had been there after the show ("Of course I was there"). Then, of course, there was the collection and the show production and the realisation that you were one of just a few hundred people, who got to have that experience. Many years on, today I attend some 350 shows a year - which is a whole lot of Smints, chewing gum, and hand sanitiser - and I still find them as awe-inspiring as ever. When O Mio Babbino Caro resounded in the scorching tent in the Tuileries last season, I forgot I had a headache and was melting under my puffa and became entirely entranced in that Valentino show, its purling Roman gold and its transparent gown layers whispering in the wind.
Complaining is a big part of going to fashion week. We complain when we have to queue, when they're not serving drinks, when we have to wait for a show to start, and when we can't get out for people blocking the way. We sit in the car and complain about our schedule, about traffic, the weather, and a boring show we don't want to go to next. But for me, this never changed the fact that I love being at the shows. When I realised it did for others, I became sceptical. Who wouldn't want to be taken to New York, Florence, Milan and Paris several times a year (okay, maybe not Milan) only to look at largely beautiful clothes, attend glamorous receptions, and experience something only very few people will get to see in their lives? As I talked to my tired colleagues, I realised they weren't just being divas. As it turns out, not everyone loves a fashion show as much as I do!
It's this attitude that has bred a new movement in the industry, which is calling for a re-evaluation of the show system. You hear them all the time out in the fashion landscape, these insurgents rioting against the old structure of systematic fashion weeks with shows, presentations, and receptions, demanding all sorts of preposterous things in their place: from more intimate presentations hosted by the designers to digital show formats and - God help us - fashion weeks consisting only of re-sees. If I worked in a fashion industry that only presented clothes in the ways suggested above, I would choke, or likely die from boredom. For what could be more mind-blowing and inspiring than the défilé, with all its pomp and circumstance, and what could be more detrimental to an industry based on dreams than the neglect of this escapism?
Sometimes I feel like I live in Versailles and the rebels are coming to ruin it all, destroy the gilded ceilings and turn off my giant fountain. The argument posed by these Jacobins of the modern fashion world is that the show represents an obsolete and elitist culture where people have to go through hierarchical seating treatment and several weeks of stressful travelling only to not really see the clothes properly on the catwalk, catch the fashion flu, and get behind on their 'actual' work. But in an industry that sells images, nothing could be more important than the biannual outlining of these by the designers, who dream up all those ideas. I do, however, understand people's concerns when it comes to some PRs' love of ranking orders and differential treatment. Every editor has been on both sides of that game, and at the end of the day, it's all quite hideous.
Instead of abolishing the show system, designers and their vast show teams should focus on creating shows of a more democratic nature. At Prada, Ippolito Pestellini and his AMO/OMA team devote more importance to building a show venue where everybody has the best seat as they do anything else. And you can always see the full looks at Prada, regardless of where they put you. When Haider Ackermann shows his men's collections, he does it in a huge venue where everyone has the best view, with just a few unallocated chairs and a whole lot of wine, making for a relaxed atmosphere where nobody feels like they should be sitting or shouldn't be standing. Similarly, at Dries Van Noten's spring/summer 14 men's show, models posed against a huge golden backdrop after having walked the show, inviting guests to leave their seats and go up close and take pictures.
It is new takes on the show format like these, which we should really look to if we want to make a difference in the way fashion week works. Getting rid of the shows, however, could be the very death of the industry as a whole. What, for instance, would we write about in its place if we hadn't had Marc Jacobs' magnificent Louis Vuitton show to bid him farewell last season? I personally got a good three stories out of those escalators, the fountain, the lifts, the carousel, the porters, maids and poignant show atmosphere, which above all felt like a moment in fashion. Feelings are why we put on these extremely costly shows, why we spend fortunes travelling to them, and put up with all the bullshit they entail. We do it for the fashion moments. Sorry to sound like J. Alexander.
The first time I went to a Jean Paul Gaultier show, my friend Anthony whispered to me: "This is a fashion moment." I remember it so vividly. The first time I went to a John Galliano show and he came out in full costume, I had the kind of shivers I can still feel when I think about his magical talent now. I once started crying at a Todd Lynn show because Janet Jackson walked in and it was only a few months after her brother had passed away and she looked so much like him. I remember the first time a designer commented on my show review from the season before. I was backstage and it was Rick Owens and I suddenly realised how much these things mean. These are the moments that build our fashion memories, and which drive us to keep going to that next show, that next season, and seeking out new experiences.
Would we have the same comprehension of Meadham Kirchhoff's fantastical world if it weren't for their elaborate sets and filmic soundtracks? Without the gloomy music and derelict surroundings of the last show, there's no way of knowing if we would really understand their convoluted minds and very relevant imbued messages. What would Alexander McQueen have been without Lee McQueen's arresting shows, and how would John Galliano have fared if he could only have presented his gowns on a hanger in some white-walled Parisian office? If fashion wants to keep breeding great, inspired minds like these, we have to give designers room, patience and capital to develop their artistic platforms. And unless those platforms involve a video, this doesn't constitute a live-streamed show. I can't imagine anything more tedious than watching a fashion show on film, like some music video with no plot or vocals.
So what of all the people, who can't attend the live show? Well, for one, if they're not in fashion, why is it exactly that they should? I certainly have no claim to attending a dentist's convention, and if I did, I would probably work very hard on getting a medical degree. If I blogged about dentistry, I wouldn't feel entitled to attending said convention either, because I still wouldn't be a dentist, now would I? So instead of getting all commie about fashion week and all the people we really ought to include (I'm referring to communism here, not Kawakuboism), perhaps the industry should just focus on the original point of a fashion show: generating press and sales. I really have no moral scruples about Louis Vuitton putting eight or however many million pounds into their show production even if it only lasts ten minutes, because it's all worth it in the end. And I'm sure they give to charity.
There are, of course, parts of fashion week even a die-hard old-scholar like myself could do without. Re-sees are, for the most part, ridiculous. The very word 're-see' says it all: unless you're a hardcore fan of the designer or you couldn't see the shoes at the show - which, granted, can be a problem for a lot of people - why would anyone need to fill up an already insane fashion week schedule with seeing something on a hanger that they've just seen presented beautifully in a fabulous show the day before? And won't we see it again a few weeks later at a press day, anyway? Only fuelled by the increasing demands of advertisers, who know they can get away with force treatment, the pressure to attend more and more appointments on the schedule is infuriating, and contributes to the bad rep of fashion week.
While 'just going to shows' may sound flippant to those who haven't been to fashion week it is anything but. Yes, you mingle and go to parties and have fancy drinks all the time, but the nice stuff is only the shell around weeks of truly hard work. As a writer, when I'm away for the shows, I go backstage to interview the designers, I get to bed at 2 AM after a work-related dinner, and I get up at 5 AM every morning to transcribe my interviews and write my coverage for three hours before going to shows again at 9 AM. It's hard work, and I love it because the shows create the foundation of my entire season. When I leave Paris after two weeks of men's shows, for instance, I know exactly what and who I'm going to be writing about all season, and what I'm going to be saying about them. Regardless of what format anti-showgoers propose in the old-school show's place, I don't see anything being able to give us the same understanding of what the season is about.
I'm so old-fashioned, my colleagues tell me. Loosen up, get an iPhone. But isn't it the romanticism of fashion that got most of us here in the first place? Fashion, not unlike the monarchy, is a delicate, dreamy institution, which needs its lavish ceremonies of splendour and magnificence in order to stay relevant. If we turn the fashion show into some folksy barn bash of digital inclusiveness, we lose the covetable, aspirational aspect of it, which constitutes fashion's entire raison d'être. The quality of a retail Alexander McQueen dress can be as high as it wants, but without the show of fantastical, unsellable gowns that inspired it, it loses the most important part of its meaning. Also, a Blackberry is just easier to type on. Not all that zooming in and out with the fingers like you've got strange cramps.
I wouldn't like to work in a fashion industry without the shows. The world is so obsessed with the real, sometimes I feel like there's no wonderment left anymore. To me, the shows represent a little piece of something bigger and better than the dreary reality of a boring, modest, politically correct Western society where no one believes in magic anymore. Elitism is just a word dull people have come up with to spoil the fun for those who dare to dream. Let's leave our good sensible, liberal opinions to the world of politics and the global society, and let the future of fashion reflects its glorious past. The shows must go on!
Text Anders Christian Madsen
[The Future Fashion Issue, No. 329, Pre-Spring 14]