Model at the Spring 2001 Alexander McQueen fashion show in London.

Some art directors take a dim view of brand expression under the coronavirus pandemic.

“To be honest, this crisis unveiled the poorness of today’s message in the fashion world. Brands and designers have been very generous in donations worldwide, but their social networks, being their voice, lacked a real point of view and seemed unaware of the moment,” lamented Riccardo Ruini, founder and director of the Riccardo Ruini Studio creative agency, which develops advertising campaigns for a range of luxury brands including Fendi, Bulgari, Gucci and Valentino. “Most of what I’ve seen was superficial, selfish, lacking humanity and out of touch with the reality around, made of pain and death. I really hope that something great was said and done and that I simply overlooked it.”

Beyond the runway, art directors frequently cited appreciation for exhibitions and the occasional quirky look book or still-life presentation.

But they agreed creative people will have to dig deep to discover evocative new forms of communication.

“It’s not enough to just send clothes to influencers’ homes and have them do a selfie,” commented Donald Schneider, who operates his own creative studio in Berlin. “We do need outstanding creative visions and concepts, we need excellence.”

Traditional fashion shows, done well, made a huge and lasting impact on these image makers, underscoring the power of vivid storytelling, theatricality and honest innovation. Lee Alexander McQueen was most frequently cited for his spine-tingling spectacles.

At a time when the industry is struggling to find alternatives to IRL events, WWD asked a range of top art directors to identify their favorite fashion shows (sometimes trumpeting their own clients), the best alternatives and ideas to ponder beyond fashion:

Fabien Baron, Baron & Baron, New York:

Best IRL fashion show: It has to be the Alexander McQueen fashion shows. They were simply the most incredible spectacles, full of creativity. Lee was not only showing you his amazing fashion abilities, he was also spilling out onto the stage these incredible stories and presenting them to the lucky few in the room. It was always an unforgettable experience, a tour de force of creativity on all levels: amazing staging, stunning choreography, great acting from the models, and, of course, incredible clothes. It was the full package from his soul to fashion. It was live and alive. It gave you goose bumps.

Best beyond the runway: I think Moncler as a brand has always been a rule-breaker in the way they’ve presented their collections. Always unconventional, always different. This uniqueness of not wanting to conform to the typical way of showing fashion has been very successful and rewarding for Remo Ruffini, giving him a unique position in the industry. Proof that in fashion there are no rules, and if you have guts and are willing to experiment, there are other ways in communicating a fashion message.

Moncler Genius x Poldo Dog Couture RTW Fall 2020

Moncler Genius x Poldo Dog Couture RTW Fall 2020  AITOR ROSAS SUNE/WWD

Beyond fashion: “The virtual reality shows that were presented recently during Shanghai Fashion Week were quite impressive, certainly a great alternative to a classic presentation. The end result was closer to part film, part sci-fi video game, clashing with a fashion vision. Ultimately, it was a new type of viewing experience and it shows that CGI technology has opened a new creative door and is a valid alternative to a live show during these strange times.

Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, House and Holme, London:

Best IRL fashion show: I have to mention three because they were so significant to me for different reasons.

Martin Margiela’s first show in 1989 for spring 1990 was mind-blowing. It was the first time anyone had opened his or her show to the public and allowed the local children from the neighborhood to be included. It seemed like it lasted forever, with these incredible deconstructed clothes that looked like nothing else. So many new ideas in the clothes, shown in such an inclusive way. There was no assigned seating, but first-come, first-served. It changed the idea of a fashion show as I knew it. You could not believe it was fashion. More like an art happening. The power of owning your own company. You can follow your gut and heart.

Second is Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons spring 2014 “Not Clothes Collection.” It is hard to pick just one Comme des Garçons collection, however this was the first collection that Rei did where she said she was not going to try and make clothes. Not the normal process of making clothes. Each piece was different. Each had its own piece of music. The experience of being there was not like watching it online. You had to be there to feel it. It was provocative, weird, strange, beautiful and goose-bump making. It felt completely liberating and a happy “f–k the system.” No commercial or marketing people, and yet business is important to Rei.

Last is Nicolas Ghesquière’s Louis Vuitton fall 2020 show. The set was a vertical backdrop of 200 characters dressed in costumes from the 15th century through the 1950s. A mix of dress of cultures, countries and times. The beauty of Nicolas’ clothes, the music and the set brought me to a flood of tears. It felt epic, brave and powerful coinciding with it being the last show of Paris [fashion week]. Knowing we were returning home to London into quarantine, and knowing it might be the last fashion show of its kind for a very long time. And the collision of past, present and future completed what felt like the end of Act 1.

Best beyond the runway: I have to say both the Met exhibition of “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons Art of the In-between” and Martin Margiela’s documentary film “In His Own Words.” Perhaps because they showcased the work of two designers whose careers were created in purity with total freedom, uncompromised. Their work has been so influential and doesn’t date. Even though they both shun a press presence, their words are so honest and forward-thinking.

Beyond fashion: The New Yorker coverage during COVID-19 has been my bible. Science, technology, ideas, and the human spirit are key to surviving this. The writing and coverage on these subjects has been the best.

Travis Scott’s interactive performance on Fortnite (although not creatively amazing) was amazing as a venue for gaming, music and fashion to intersect, the energy so exciting.

Watching musicians perform from their home has been moving even without the theatrics, and the audience. Artistic expression doesn’t need elaborate production to touch people, whether it is music, art, books, or fashion. I know now that we can live without a lot of things, but these are things the human spirit can’t live without.

Riccardo Ruini, Riccardo Ruini Studio, Rome:

Best IRL show: My favorite show of all time is Alexander McQueen fall 2009. It was the only one that I’ve seen that could claim the definition of “show.” There was a story, a message. There was the idea of entertaining the audience, to make them feel part of a unique moment. Emotional. You really felt part of something special. And it was before the influencers “first-row” era, so you still felt like you were part of a magical world of creators of beauty.

Best beyond the runway: Nothing so far could be compared to a physical experience and I think it also depends on the fact that most of the brands’ attention was on that physical moment.

Most fashion films have been poor, lacking in storytelling and emotion. Kenzo for some time created some great films.

But Balenciaga is the only brand that understood the media and the time. The brand’s look books are smarter than most other brands’ campaigns and their latest campaigns and videos are smart and  contemporary, too.

Now that traditional fashion shows are not an alternative anymore, I hope that brands will put more attention on digital presentations in any form, using the message and the media with innovation and poetry: That is what we expect from fashion. It’s a great opportunity to create something new. It will be amazing.

Best beyond fashion: Fashion could learn that there are moments when we either say something meaningful or it’s better to remain silent. Outside of the fashion world, I’ve seen a lot of the usual extremes of this time — either hyper-sweet or hyper-angry. Both annoying to me. Difficult to find balance.

I’ve found the only real great point of view about what we are facing in a cartoon series called “Rebibbia Quarantine” that runs online weekly only in Italy. It was able to capture the pain and the irony of the moment at once. Like great comedy can.

There is a need to come out of this with great respect, memory, passion and ideas. It will be beautiful.

Donald Schneider, Donald Schneider Studio, Berlin:

Best IRL fashion show: Some of my favorites must be the early ones John Galliano did for Dior in the mid-Nineties. Each one a total surprise and magic moment, always with an inventive narrative and beautiful staging — an opera house one season, a train station the next — plus a stellar cast acting up in their given character roles, wearing John’s stunning new creations. One John Galliano show I remember in particular: We arrived at a Parisian theater venue, and were led through endless secret corridors and basements and staircases to finally arrive at our bench seats. When everything quieted down and the show was about to begin, the curtains opened, and to our great surprise we were seated on the actual theater stage. Then the models started walking, posing and dancing around us. The rest of the fashion audience was seated in the normal rows, watching the spectacle on the stage. How did that make me feel? Totally mesmerized and stunned. And we all felt like being part of this very privileged fashion family. Because back then a fashion show was just for that one moment, only for us chosen few. The rest of the world did not get to see it. What can we learn from this? From that magic? It was John’s ingenious and slightly mischievous side playing with fantasy and reality all at once, long before “experiential“ and “interactive“ and “storytelling” became KPIs. Which means, we do need magic — even if we want to create a break-the-Internet moment with it.

Best beyond the runway: I am always interested in new things: New ideas, new technology, new possibilities. Since we now live in this “new“ world, my favorite new kind of fashion show so far has been the live-installation-happening. Ronald van der Kemp created one recently for his RVDK label in an old grand hotel in Amsterdam. Respecting lockdown restrictions, he put each model in a different room, instructing them remotely how to get dressed in his otherworldly and sustainable couture dresses, and each with a matching inventive face mask.

At exactly five minutes to midnight, all the models from Ronald’s “Army of Love” opened their windows and stepped out onto the balconies, waving a white flag…surrendering symbolically to COVID-19. It was a plea for change and for new ideas. This compelling moment, filmed from the outside, went instantly viral on social media.

I find this a very courageous and beautiful new take on fashion shows. Creating magic and at the same time creating a powerful social media moment. What can we learn from that? It’s not enough to just send clothes to influencers’ homes and have them do a selfie. We do need outstanding creative visions and concepts, we need excellence. We need love, passion and heart in it. And it needs to create a surprise moment for both, off-line and online.

Becky Smith, Twin Factory, London:

Best IRL fashion show: Alexander McQueen’s spring 1999 show in Paris — the year that Shalom Harlow’s dress was spray painted by robots. There was so much anticipation and emotion in the air — you felt high on the buzz in the air. It’s something that can rarely be replicated. It’s quite simple, yet so effective. The delicate model almost assaulted by the robots. I was young and I had “loaned” a ticket from someone at Vogue. It felt super special to be there and see that. I doubt it will be beaten again for many years to come. Something to learn is that maybe fashion needs to become small, special and niche again. Not huge crowds and maddening chaos! The shows have literally been watered down in more recent years. Less should be more now.

Best beyond the runway: It’s silly and a brand that hasn’t stood the test of time, but Jemima French and the actress Sadie Frost, who had a label called Frost French, had Kate Moss do a bit of a striptease. Basic but it caught my eye and stood out! Leah Wood, Holly Davidson and Rosemary Ferguson were also in it, but I can’t remember what the clothes were like. Well, I do remember the saucy underwear that made the label’s name. Fancy a pair of knickers with “Diamonds” studded across the back in rhinestones? So trashy now looking back! Oh, and cashmere socks paired with them — kinda the uniform for the moment really!

London Fashion Week - Kate Moss Modelling For Frost French. London Fashion Week - Kate Moss Modelling For Frost French.

Kate Moss modeling for Frost French at London Fashion Week in 2002.  Cavan Pawson/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

Beyond fashion: I’ve seen way too many shoots in people’s bedrooms and on their front doorsteps. I’m of two minds about this. In one way I want to not care about fashion again, as I have learnt to appreciate the real and smaller things in life. But on the other hand, I do want fashion to learn how to move on. I think technology might have a huge role to play in this. I’m working on a project at the moment with a few partners and with body-mapping technology that’s readily available on the new iPad. We can easily put any item of clothing on any body or avatar and put them in any environment. It just has to be executed so brilliantly that I will still give the viewer goose bumps again!

Stephen Gan, creative director of Elle, V Magazine, and V Man, New York:

Best IRL fashion show: I remember the Alexander McQueen show where models pranced around inside a glass box being really impactful, and doesn’t it foreshadow all that the world is living through right now?

I also remember the first Chanel show I sneaked into as a Parsons student using a ticket Bill Cunningham handed me, where the supermodels came out with surfboards. It was my introduction into what a large-scale, fashion extravaganza in one of the tents at the Louvre could be like. Many years later, with my own ticket to a Comme des Garçons show with flower-adorned clothes, I was introduced to a very small intimate way of showing. When I imagine what presentations could be like for a while, in the future, I think that Rei Kawakubo’s way of showing seems to be the most appropriate.

Best beyond the runway: We have all enjoyed reviewing collections on our phones when we have missed seeing them in real life. And although we in the fashion world are destined to be doing that more and more, I must say that I value these fashion moments from the past and hope that younger generations experience the drama, theatricality and fantasy that sometimes only a real-life experience can capture.

Patrick Li, creative director, T Magazine, New York:

Best IRL fashion show: Helmut Lang spring 1997, Viktor & Rolf fall 2002, Rick Owens spring 2014 and Pyer Moss spring 2020 are contenders. That said, spring 2002 Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière emerges as my all-time fave. Each show component, from the invite (by M/M Paris) to the show venue (l’École de Médecine) to the show music (Michel Gaubert’s remix of “My Time” by Ann Steel) to the collection itself (Indian silks mashed up with Liberty of London prints over army green cargo pants) worked together to form the perfect synthesis of a fashion moment. The energy in the room was palpable and the expectations were high. And Nicolas did not disappoint. His ability to tap into some mysterious psyche of the moment and create an emotion had such resonance that it’s become one of my gold standards by which I compare most other fashion shows. (Helmut Lang’s spring 1997 was a very, very close runner-up.) The feeling from that show cannot be duplicated virtually.

Best beyond the runway: Dries Van Noten’s 2014 “Inspirations” exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs wasn’t dedicated to a seasonal collection, but rather a survey of the inimitable designer’s work. The overall curation, quality of presentation and depth of investigation was mind-boggling and continues to be enduring. Dries’ intimate transparency in that show was beyond any fashion installation that I had seen before. Fashion could benefit from the Belgian master’s generosity and virtuosity.

Beyond fashion: I might be slightly biased, but I was particularly moved by a specific issue of Hanya Yanagihara’s T Magazine, where I am creative director. The April 19 Culture issue was comprised entirely of groups of people, ranging from the alumni of Antwerp’s legendary Royal Academy to a large assembly of Asian fashion designers working in the U.S. to the regulars at a local restaurant in SoHo. Conceptualized and created before the pandemic, but subsequently produced and actualized while working from home, the issue (both in print and its special digital life) feels simultaneously historical yet presciently future-looking. I attribute that success to its genuine reflection of Hanya’s curiosity and creativity. I believe sincerity and a singular point of view remain keys to the future.

Es Devlin, set designer, London:

Best IRL fashion show: I found Nicolas Ghesquière’s show in March for Louis Vuitton fall 2020 profoundly moving. It was just before lockdown, in a Louvre that had just been closed, embracing [had] already [been] outlawed, a choir of 200 singers in a collision of historical costumes of all periods performed an a cappella choral composition by Bryce Dessner and Woodkid. Tears streamed down many faces in the audience: It felt prophetic at the time and now feels even more so in retrospect.

Best beyond the runway: Gareth Pugh spring 2018: Gareth, Olivier de Sagazan and Nick Knight’s film at the IMAX cinema in London — followed by Gareth’s actual wedding: life, love, fashion, cinema and art fused. The steep rake of the audience seating at the IMAX thrust the audience right into the clay through which Gareth and Olivier fought and found one another. I felt as though I were within the work — felt the clothes around me as well as the clay on my skin.

Alexander McQueen: The Bridegroom Stripped Bare from Nick Knight’s Transformer ShowStudio series in 2002. McQueen deconstructs the bridegroom to find the bride. It’s a work of sculpture, performance, poetry, art and fashion in precise balance. So often we are presented with garments in their finished form. I see a collection as a living train of a designer’s thought — a continuum — and it is so enriching to witness the process of ideation and creation in action.

Beyond fashion: I see this as a precious chance for fashion, along with so many other genres, to use this period as a rehearsal for the steps that we are all going to need to take to avert further depths of catastrophic climate crisis.

What if instead of showing 50-plus looks three times per year in multiple cities, we really looked in detail at a single look in each city? What if we really explored and delved into the etymology of a single look in Paris, another look in New York, another in Seoul — just as McQueen and Knight devoted attention to the process behind a pair of looks and the transformation between them. We could explore each look though film, dance, poetry, as well as presenting it physically.

Each work could be cross-broadcast so audiences don’t need to travel from their nearest cities across the globe.

We need to recalibrate our relationship to clothes — we need fewer of them. Imagine if designers and fashion houses really guided our attention to every last detail on the designer’s work, allowed us to really explore the design and making process, to really understand every thread and all the stories stitched into the seams, making us value the garments and the artists and artisans behind them even more?

Karl Templer, KTCS Inc., New York:

Best IRL fashion show: The Alexander McQueen asylum show in London was extraordinary. He was ahead of his time with a laser-sharp social comment and the theater and spectacle of the show were quite mind-blowing. Rather than focusing on designing a show set primarily for social media, he gave the clothes a context, a narrative and touched a deeper emotion and made a comment on mental health at a time when no one was talking about these subjects.

Model at the Spring 2001 Alexander McQueen fashion show in London.

A model at the spring 2001 “Asylum” Alexander McQueen fashion show in London.  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

Best beyond the runway: I loved the Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” exhibition at the Met. In one way, the context was extreme, but it was presented in a way that was inclusive and reached beyond the industry insider, capturing the imagination of the broader public. To see people of all ages and from different walks of life curious about his vision and point of view was really inspiring.

I feel there is such a big audience for fashion, not just consumers, but those who want to participate through other channels — social media, personalities and brand experiences have made fashion become part of the entertainment industry. It would be interesting to see a new broadcast or streaming of the shows or whatever form collection presentations take in the new world, merged with magazine content. An experiential moment that’s inclusive and informative.

Beyond fashion: Since being in lockdown, I‘ve watched a lot of Netflix. I’ve found the instant access to content that has quality and a point of view has been interesting. Perhaps fashion needs a new platform of curation that is inclusive and exclusive with expertise that crosses all media platforms.

I’m also struck by the feeling of unity and collaboration in the world at the moment, people being nicer to each other, helping each other and leaving old rivalries aside. It’s important that leaves its imprint on our industry.

Emma Roach, Emma Roach Studios, London:

Best IRL fashion show: I was in awe with the set for Dior’s spring 2015 haute couture — an epic Space-Age dream. I loved Raf Simon’s unusual color combinations and modernity. The audience was encompassed in an architectural world of endless mirrors and pink carpets; nonlinear and layered, it was an immersive spectacle which made me feel optimistic as if a new age had begun.

Best beyond the runway: I feel like Balenciaga are leaders in utilizing CGI in an inspiring way, such as the loop videos and in particular the spring 2019 campaign by Yilmaz Sen. I love augmented reality, and it was fun to watch this joyful experiment of overlaying green-screen with real and virtual sets. I was excited to see fashion using this tool and all the future possibilities of producing virtual set designs.

Last year, I created still-life sets for Gucci Marmont, which where scanned and turned into CGI paintings within an app. The viewer could pan through the painting and click to purchase the collection.

An image of one of the still-life sets for Gucci Marmont created by Emma Roach. 

Beyond fashion: I’ve been touched by how many people in our industry are helping health workers during this time. My friends are running the Emergency Designer Network. Set builders Andy Knight Ltd. and milliner Noel Stewart are making visors. It has been great to see small companies utilize their talents in this crisis.

Marc Ascoli, Atelier 32, Paris:

Best IRL fashion show: One of the first shows that struck me was Comme des Garçons’ “Lilith” collection for fall 1992. Reflecting the precursory gaze of Rei Kawakubo, it was prophetic and deeply rooted in its time. She conceived it as a kind of theater of reality. The emotion was precise, romantic, rigorous. The solemn atmosphere was reinforced by the slow and nonchalant steps of the characters — a languid procession with striking Gothic overtones. That contrasting energy was underscored by Marianne Faithfull’s broken voice. The fluid and precise volumes were rendered in shades of black, giving the models a spectral yet punk allure, somewhere between dreams and nightmares. The cast reflected the community of artists with which Rei surrounded herself at that time, and she invited top models like Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Benedetta Barzini as well as female artists like Sandra Bernhard. This event exalted fundamental values: precision, poetry, know-how, audacity…it was the depth of this vision that really struck me.

Best beyond the runway: One that stuck with me was Adam Kimmel’s fall 2010 presentation, realized in collaboration with the painter George Condo. It was a quirky and explosive collaboration that re-created a billiard hall in the Yvon Lambert gallery, immediately immersing guests in a living painting. The clothes took on a richer dimension, the deep velvet tuxedos pitch-perfect. The atmosphere was surreal and full of irreverence. This imaginative presentation was full of wit and humor.

Beyond fashion: I thought of the moments of escape that confinement has afforded me. Having more free time, I was able to immerse myself in my favorite film genre: the biopic. These let you immerse yourself in the lives of popular cultural figures who have endured many crises — whether personal or historical — and triumphed over adversity. I admire the resilient personalities of Miles Davis and Simone Signoret in particular (the Davis movie was on Netflix and Signoret on Arte). I admire Davis for his ability to transcend genres and eras, despite his long struggle with his inner demons. And Signoret, this artist of extraordinary talent, for her determination to create, to repeatedly reinvent herself and defy conventions.

You can always reinvent yourself if you look to the future with confidence and humor, and with an awareness of your victories. We must not sink into pessimism but try to remember the essential reasons, and the sometimes difficult paths that have shaped our creative lives. These exemplary destinies energized and comforted me, and I hope they will inspire others.

Ezra Petronio, Petronio Associates, Paris:

IRL fashion shows: From a purely emotional point of view, nothing will really replace the richness and complexity of a physical fashion show as it goes beyond the fashion silhouette. It is about a feminine or masculine incarnation of the designer’s vision, about attitude, energy and experiencing the clothes live. It is about the magic of a specific moment in which so many ingredients come to play together. It is also about the idea of being part of a group that is witnessing this all together and simultaneously.

Best beyond the runway: A few exceptions do come to mind, such as the Maison Martin Margiela fall 1998 presentation at la Grande Arche de la Défense, where marionettes created by stylist Jane How took the stage.

Interestingly enough, around the same period, Helmut Lang explored this idea with his fall 1998 collection by presenting it on the Internet and on a CD-ROM that was sent to the press and buyers. As much as it was forward-thinking, I do remember my frustration as it did not come close to his very minimal fast-paced shows, where models would walk in small groups to the fast tempo of the tight minimalistic soundtrack of Peter Krüger.

Image of the CD-ROM

Image of the Helmut Lang CD-ROM.  Courtesy of Helmut Lang

Maybe in the near future, a very creative and well executed immersive virtual/augmented reality experience which will involve you going to a specific location, at a specific time and having all your senses be stimulated will give you the same thrilling feeling as when the lights dim out at the start of a Raf Simons or Balenciaga by Demna Gvasalia show!

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