the rise of theatricality: what to look forward to this fashion week

For spring/summer 15, Opening Ceremony have enlisted Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill to script a one-act play to showcase their designs, Gareth Pugh is leaving his post at Paris Fashion Week to bring “an immersive live performance” to New York and who knows...

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Sep 4 2014, 8:35am

Fashion Week used to be small, contained. Fashion shows were presentations made in boutiques and couture salons in the 1800s, growing to become events in department stores in the early 1900s. The purpose was to excite shoppers. According to A Brief History of the Fashion Show on Slate.com, fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert organised fashion shows into "Press Week." It was 1943, and editors couldn't travel to Paris to see the couture shows because of World War II. The entire week would be held at the Plaza or the Pierre, and only journalists and editors were invited, staying on-site for a completely immersive week where the shows were calm affairs at their fingertips. Buyers had to visit the showrooms of the designers for their preview.

Fashion Week as we know it today came to be because "Press Week" had evolved into designers inviting both the press and buyers to their shows, taking their presentations into their own hands and having them all over the city. In 1993, Fern Mallis of the CFDA decided to organise the shows all back into one space to avoid the scheduling conflicts, inconveniences and overcrowding. The calming of chaos only briefly worked, though, and with show crashers, growing guest lists and increasing expenses, reasons kept forming for a bit of mutiny. Today designers may once again be showing at their own venues on their own time, but they still have the press, buyers, socialites, It girls and celebrities. They've got to stand out, and with only their own vision in question, they've got to make their shows quintessentially them.

Some designers have always marched to the beat of their own drum. Alexander McQueen created a paint-splattered dress in front of his audience with two robotic guns and a revolving model for spring/summer 99, invented a twisted, macabre carousel display for his autumn/winter 01 show, choreographed a ballet tribute to They Shoot Horses, Don't They for spring/summer 04, and staged a haunting human chess game for spring/summer 05. But the increasing theatricality of fashion presentations was once something that was a personal characteristic of a designer, whereas now more designers entering the coliseum to make themselves stand out have upped the ante. It is no longer the signature of an outlier designer (McQueen, Owens, Gaultier) to reinvent the runway show, it's something any designer might decide to do to pull focus during Fashion Week - for the sake of artistic expression, and to keep jaded show-goers on their toes, even if they have to stay on their toes all the way to the Brooklyn Navy Yard!

The Navy Yard, of course, is where Alexander Wang showed his autumn/winter 14 collection. Playing on the tired "fashion people don't go to Brooklyn" routine, the media delighted in publicising the plight of editors and buyers having to make the schlep - admittedly, an inconvenient one, considering everyone's tight schedules. But don't miss the operative word in this plan: publicity. Wang got tons of it. The designer was already a household name, sure, and presumably there was more to this downtown darling moving to the next cool neighbourhood, but at the end of the day, the hop across the river made for a good news story.

Last September, Rick Owens excited crowds at Paris Fashion Week by nixing the traditional model parade for a stepping performance put on by dancers from U.S. sororities. The show made waves for three main reasons: its sheer difference from the norm, the excitement factor of its in-your-face choreography, and its ethnic diversity. Editors, bloggers and journalists immediately took to social media feeling they had just witnessed something truly important (and they had), praising the show's embrace of girl power, strength and individuality. For his next womenswear show in February, according to Tim Blanks of Style.com, Owens had "resolved to move away from the theatrical presentations that had come to dominate Rickworld." But there was still an element of unexpectedness for the show: Owens chose women who had played a part in his life throughout the years to model, and had the women walk more than once in the same outfit for a theme that almost stressed continuity, reality and unity over envelope-pushing designs.

A theatrical show isn't out of character for Opening Ceremony - there was real chocolate raining down the walls at their autumn/winter 14 show, after all, and sports cars driving onto the runway for spring/summer 14. For spring/summer 15 they're going one step further, having recently announced that they have enlisted Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill to pen a one-act play instead of a more traditional runway show. The partnership isn't new: Opening Ceremony worked with the filmmaker to create a collection for his award-winning movie, Her. With Hill, Jonze will lend a story and actors to featuring the spring/summer 14 designs in a whole new light.

This season we also have Gareth Pugh's headline-making plans to look forward to: the designer is jumping ship from Paris to New York, and he's coming in with a bang. Gareth is presenting his spring/summer 15 collection with an "immersive live performance." Vanessa Friedman reports for The New York Times that the performance will include video and live dancers, but not the entire collection. Pugh believes catwalk shows should be about image and inspiration. "It's really important to not only communicate, 'This is a nice dress,' or "This is a cool trouser,' but to sell the dream," he says.

This raises Friedman's question of whether "traditional shows have any validity anymore, and whether they are actually entertainment and we should just embrace the change?" The point of Fashion Week has always been to sell clothes, whether that's by exciting the press or showing straight to the buyers. If you move a show somewhere people can't make it to, or don't show the entire collection, you risk sabotaging that goal. Yet there's something to be said for embracing creativity, too. Designers want to express themselves and, as Pugh explained, present their entire vision and not just the shirts that came out of it. They want the audience to be submerged in their themes and not simply left to guess where the silhouette of that dress came from. With today's instantaneous internet and social media coverage, the old purpose of Fashion Week might now be a moot point, so maybe now the point should be a chance for designers to entice the press, buyers and shoppers by making their shows into treats for all the senses that people talk about for months to come.

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Text Courtney Iseman