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Just before the fall 1996 fashion season in New York, two mega powers of the American industry got into a public tiff about the nature of the fashion show system. “I have a problem with how overblown the runway shows have become,” Donna Karan told WWD. “There’s too much media coverage. Why are we showing the consumer fall collections when we’re still trying to sell her spring?”

“Hello,” Calvin Klein shot back the next day, offended that she and Ralph Lauren had rejected the still-new 7th on Sixth tents in favor of the modesty of a showroom. “Too much press? What does she think we do this for?”

Jump ahead nine years and that exchange plays as both prescient and quaint. The recently completed spring 2006 collections featured a marching band, a freak show, burlesque, a public-service video, the reopening of a major Paris landmark and a tabloid’s worth of celebrities, heavy on the B-list. Oh yes, and there were clothes, too, although not always positioned front-and-center in the hoopla.

If all that sounds like a system spinning wildly out of control—and a universe removed from the tents-or-no-tents debate waged by Klein and Karan a decade ago—it is. And suddenly, people are questioning the system, wondering if it should or could be reined in, or if it’s just an industry monster, at times bubbly or bumbling, feeding on itself. Certainly anyone with more than a season or two on the circuit knows that whining is as much a part of the show system as loud music and mascara. Too long, too hot, too crowded, too focused on elements other than clothes—all typical refrains, gripes with which nobody could reasonably disagree. In addition, ever since the dollar dove, “too expensive” has been added to the litany by store execs and top editors from the U.S. They send vast teams to Europe and feel increasingly soaked by hotels, especially in Milan where, let’s face it, they see us coming like style-starved ants to a fashion picnic. There are even fears for physical safety. Crowded, creaky elevators; ancient venues with lots of parched wood, and countless places with inadequate exits give rise to frequent “what if” musings. Then there’s the schedule, which goes on and on—even this time, despite some serious consolidation in Milan due primarily to a campaign waged by Anna Wintour.

Of course, fashion is a visual discipline, making for more amusing matters to grouse about—namely, the excessive theatricality. Once such excess was the domain of a few—from kids looking for attention to brilliant showmen such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. Now, it seems, more and more designers take a Busby Berkley-esque view of production value. This season alone, Marc Jacobs put on both the first and final extravaganzas of the season: for his own collection in New York and, four weeks later, for Louis Vuitton in Paris. For the former, he recruited the Penn State Nittany Lions Marching Band, which had a crash course in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In Paris, his show at the gorgeous Petit Palais was part of a mega celebration heralding the opening of Vuitton’s fabulously refurbished and expanded Champs-Elysées flagship. It was followed by a huge party at which Dita Von Teese, something of a Paris show regular these days due to her recent omnipresence at the couture, did a burlesque number, arriving on stage in a giant, Gigi-worthy champagne coupe. In between, Karl Lagerfeld enlisted an army of models for Chanel and showed against a backdrop provided by a huge computer screen that entertained his guests with images of his show space, the magnificently restored Grand Palais.

Back in New York, Gwen Stefani revved her engines–literally—for her debut L.A.M.B. show with four low-riders jump-starting the event. Elsewhere, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana celebrated 20 years in the rag trade with a gleeful serenade to farm girls in heat, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren showed everything upside down, and Kenzo’s Antonio Marras sent his models off to sea on a giant ship. But Galliano topped all, taking his guests to an old soundstage in the suburbs of Paris for an “everybody’s beautiful” carnival sideshow with a cast that included little people, obese people and puppet people, including one in his own likeness who shared his post-show bow.

Was it all too much? Not if you bought the particular schtick. From this perspective, marching band, yeah; freak show, nay. But that’s the rub about theatricality: Like music and cheesy prints, it’s a matter of personal taste. Despite much ongoing ado about altering the show system, there’s little consensus on what should be done about it. The particular theatrical merits of a single collection are hardly the biggest issue. Nor is it the celebrity issue per se. Rather, it is the gradual shift from an insider focus to an outsider focus that has changed the fashion show fabric to its core—a change underscored by the fact that by the time the whole thing happens, the collections are 80 percent sold anyway.

Way back when, Donatella Versace would rope in Madonna or George Clooney, Giorgio Armani would nab Michelle Pfeiffer, or Demi Moore would decide to do a couture season, and we all loved it, hopelessly star-struck. But somehow, those rare, special sightings evolved into relentless Paris, Lindsay, Mary-Kate, even Clay Aiken appearances everywhere. They, not retailers or the fashion press, have become the most important show guests. By extension, the general press—the tabloids, gossip weeklies and legions of cable TV crews whose job it is to send those front-row images around the world—has usurped the traditional audience of specialized editors and publications. Quite frankly, we’re more than a bit put out by it all.

The truth is, there’s no one right way. Some of the season’s best shows—Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana—were extravaganzas. Everyone had a ball and left with the fashion lover’s joy at having seen fabulous clothes. Vuitton, too, was a quite a romp (although inexplicably crammed into a teeny space at the Petit Palais, which is anything but petit). And even the most stalwart celebrity naysayers got a kick out of seeing Winona, Uma, Dita (with her creepy, beloved Marilyn Manson) and Sharon Stone, who came dressed up like a Halloween witch, hat included.

Still, the rush delivered by great clothes alone can be just as strong. Miuccia Prada simply refuses to open her show doors to the celebrity set. Rather, she insists her clothes remain the main attraction, this time delivering a gentle, artistic dazzler. At Rochas, Olivier Theyskens kept his presentation appropriately low-key for his exquisite ode to refinement wrapped in romantic melancholia. But his show was a mega event compared with that of Tao Kurihara. Her Tao Comme des Garçons was a tiny jewel of a presentation at the company headquarters in the Place Vendôme, and her militaristic 12:01 start for a 12 o’clock show a delightful contrast to the clothes: a tight lineup of trenchcoat derivatives, all dolled up in tablecloth lace.

Of course, in just her second season, Tao is a newcomer with few expectations about presentation. Conversely, Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière is one of the best and most influential designers out there, one given to major fashion pronouncements. How delightful—and powerful—that he chose to do so in the quietest of settings, a small, bright white room, at 9:30 in the morning no less, with all eyes not on this or that starlet across the aisle but on his remarkably crafted clothes for spring, a dreamy hybrid of baroque elegance and rock ‘n’ roll attitude.

That opulence stood in stark contrast to the Mod-ish minimalism Ghesquière embraced only last fall. In fact, the dichotomy made for a major motif. The new sobriety, heralded last season as the next big wave, settled into an engaging option, just one of many that also included artsy, abundant ornamentation and spiffy sportif. Some designers even gave in to wide mood swings. John Galliano went understated at Dior and over the top at Galliano; Marc Jacobs, festive at Vuitton and girlishly moody for his own line, and Karl Lagerfeld rejected the single-mindedness of his brilliant fall couture collection for the flurry of a zillion ideas.

In their abundance of clothes, theater and frenzy, the collections bubbled over—way over—leaving some positively giddy, others with a confounding fashion hangover, and one girl, Dita Von Teese, soaking the fashion stress away in a tingly champagne bath.

This article appeared in WWD The Magazine, a special publication to WWD available to subscribers.