the 7 most excessive, elaborate fashion shows in history

Stuntmen wielding swords on the runway, models walking on water, muscle cars and musical numbers. Here are seven shows you'll wish you could've seen in the flesh.

by i-D Staff and Isabelle Hellyer
20 September 2016, 6:05pm

Sometimes it's the clothes, sometimes it's the sets: either way, some shows leave you feeling blown away by the sheer spectacle of it all. With Fashion Month in full swing, we're mesmerized by the offerings thus far. New York gave us Marc Jacob's rave renaissance and VFILES' everything plus the kitchen sink show, while London reignited its love affair with the nightclub. One thing is clear — maximalism is making a return. We personally couldn't be happier; after all, some of the most iconic shows of all time threw restraint out the window.

As the more-is-more attitude makes a slow and steady comeback, we look back at the past two decades of opulence on the runway. Whether it was Vivienne Westwood's Punk take on Versailles, Galliano's mountains of tulle in 1995, or Karl and Marc's ambitious sets nearly 20 years later- let's celebrate the shows that turned things up to 11.

Vivienne Westwood fall/winter 1993-1994
Westwood's Anglomania is now a classic show, and as you watch it — even in a grainy Youtube clip — you suspect the audience felt how historic the show would become. The presentation was full of theater; each model's walk was a little spectacle in itself. With Andreas Kronthaler handling ready-to-wear, Westwood was free to go big — and she did. The furs got bigger, the bags more oversized, and the heels higher (Naomi Campbell famously took a tumble in those towering ghillie platforms). The models' haughty Versailles makeup was offset by Westwood's distinctly British custom tartan, while dresses built to slip off the shoulder made sure nothing looked too prim — quite the opposite. Even at her most excessive, Westwood stays punk.

John Galliano spring/summer 1995
Stars packed this presentation: Madonna was in the audience (well, for a while — she left when the show ran late) and the runway was legendary. Carla Bruni, Helena Christensen, Kate Moss, Amber Valletta, Shalom Harlow — who had just appeared on the cover of i-D's Subversion Issue — Kristen McMenamy, and Linda Evangelista slipped into fitted gowns with boned bodices and explosive tulle skirts. Nadja Auermann performed a sort of ballet at the end of the runway in her Swan Lake-eqsue dress, while others struggled to squeeze past the vintage muscle car parked in the middle of the runway.

Already, Galliano was expressing the interest in traditional Chinese silhouettes that would later shape his work at Dior in the early 2000s; in this show, he created blazers synched at the waist in style of the 1940s, but added sweeping kimono sleeves. A brilliant show in its own right, the 1995 presentation also hinted at the spectacle that was to come.

Mugler haute couture fall/winter 1995-1996
With a huge, intimidating set recalling the ensemble musicals of old Hollywood, this show blew its audience away before a single model even stepped onto the runway. Clearly inspired by the era, there were dance numbers, cameos from Tippi Hedren and Patty Hearst, a performance from James Brown, and Kabuki Starshine — of New York's infamous avant-garde drag troupe Blacklips — closed the show. 

Eva Herzigova, Claudia Schiffer, Jerry Hall, Amber Valletta, Shalom Harlow, Veruschka, and Carmen Dell'Orefice walked. At the time Dell'Orefice was the oldest working supermodel in the world — and she still is! In 2016, the show feels especially current: latex, thigh high boots, and corsets are enjoying a moment once again. But in 1995, it also celebrated the most subversive parts of the 90s — club culture, BDSM — while exploring the promise of the new millennium.

Viktor & Rolf couture fall/winter 1999
The dutch duo eschewed a traditional haute couture runway in 1999, presenting instead just one model, Maggie Rizer, who stood at the center of an ornate room on a rotating platform. When the show opened, she was barefoot in a simple hessian dress. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren dressed her themselves, first slipping on a pair of kitten heels, and zipping her into a tea-length dress covered in stones. As the platform rotated they draped her in increasingly more luxurious garments: a heavily embroidered, bejeweled muslin gown, a sparkling coat, and finally, a sort of muslin egg. At the time, the pair were only five years into their careers; the explosive concept established them as designers with huge futures, and the fashion world pegged Viktor & Rolf as a label with the potential to rise to the level of Dior or Saint Laurent.

Christian Dior haute couture spring/summer 2003
This Christian Dior show was practically a Cirque du Soleil performance: Chinese dancers and stunt performers flipped up and down the runway, swinging swords inches behind models. A young girl even rode a unicycle atop an umbrella. It was certainly extreme — even for Gallino. He had just come home from a three-week vacation to Japan and China; obis,kimonos, and geisha makeup were clearly all fresh in his imagination. Incubated in the designer's mind, the silhouettes exploded. Billowing fabric engulfed the models — you could see some strain under the weight — feather hats the size of tables sat on their heads, and giant origami fascinators obscured their faces. With the colors, the voluminous silhouettes, and painted faces, it remains one of his most striking shows to date.

Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2014
For its 2014 show, Vuitton truly pulled off the set to end all sets: the house compiled every one of Marc Jacobs' most elaborate stagings for the brand from seasons prior, so it was like watching five shows in one. There was a fountain, the gilded elevators from fall/winter 2011-2012, the escalators from spring 2013, hotel corridor from fall 2013 — even the carousel from spring/summer 2012. It was, after all, the last show Marc presented before leaving the house to offer renewed focus on his own label after 16 years as Vuitton's creative director, so nothing less than an elaborate send-off would do. While the sets were a tribute to the past, the clothes were not. Marc didn't rest on his laurels or pull from his archives: the designs were fresh and joyous, inspired by the showgirls of Las Vegas and Montmartre. We are yet to see a better-executed exit.

Fendi haute couture fall/winter 2016-2017
Before the show had even begun, it was already one of the most luxurious in recent memory: guest were flown from Paris (where other couture shows on the calendar were just wrapping up) to Rome in a chartered plane. Once they touched down, they weren't disappointed. Not since Fendi staged a show on the Great Wall of China had a house chosen such a stunning location — you would've thought it impossible to have models walk over the Trevi fountain, but Karl pulled it off with aplomb, building a clear runway over the water. As for the designs: they spelled out storybook romance. It's unsurprising given Lagerfeld had, quite literally, taken his inspiration from an illustrated children's book. Opulence indeed.

Karl Lagerfeld
Louis Vuitton
marc jacobs
Vivienne Westwood
naomi campell
Carla Bruni
John Galliano
Jerry Hall
fashion shows
Claudia Schiffer
Eva Herzigová
amber valletta
shalom harlow