Earlier this year, as our School of Fashion approached its 20th anniversary runway show, we felt compelled to make a big change. In its early years, the department staged an intimate showcase, which by 1998 had grown into a massive spectacle that took place at a historic playhouse in downtown Savannah. The event became so popular that in the early Aughts, we held the show twice — a matinee for students and families, and an evening show for international press and special guests.
This show was magnificent in scale, with capacious backdrops to fill the proscenium frame — sometimes minimalist, sometimes not — and a catwalk that flew out over the audience. It was a classic runway show: a pageant that made the heart leap and the eyes widen in wonder. The students, and everyone else, loved it. And yet, after 15 years, it was time for a change.
In 2014, we took the show a few blocks away to the AIA Award-winning SCAD Museum of Art, housed inside the oldest extant railroad depot in the U.S., the largest preservation project in university history, a literal runway of sorts. In lieu of a classic proscenium catwalk, the runway snaked through the museum’s galleries, with every audience member enjoying a front-row seat. Again, audiences embraced the evolution.
This year seemed a good time to reinvent ourselves once again, especially now that our university’s School of Fashion educates students on three continents, including a Fashion Showcase in Hong Kong every winter.
What to do next?
The history of the fashion show is a story of mutability. For more than 125 years, models have made visible the aesthetics, social mores and economic forces that sally through society. In the earliest days of the modern fashion industry, clients appraised couture on the backs of dolls. And then in the 19th century, writes Caroline Evans in “The Enchanted Spectacle,” mercers and dressmakers traded mannequins of wood and wax for their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
The boldest couturiers ushered cloistered models into the public eye as the original brand ambassadors, and prominent venues like the Longchamp Racecourse doubled as hotspots for sighting bold new fashions in the early 20th century.
Once known as “mannequin parades,” these early fashion shows consisted of walkabouts complete with refreshments (Evans explains their advent as an adaption to industrialization a la Henry Ford). Innovations took the shape of scripted mini-dramas and “tango teas” that put garments and sales in motion, where couture displays sated the audience’s theatrical fancies. Productions for the aspirational middle class appropriated the trappings of exclusive social gatherings.
And then, in 1918, Europe set the precedent for fashion week, organizing biannual shows to accommodate international buyers. The modern fashion show, as we know it, was born. New York’s answer to the sartorial hegemony of Paris came 22 years later, in 1940, when the German occupation of France spurred publicist legend Eleanor Lambert to create “Press Week” — the precursor to NYFW. In this one defining moment, the media took a leading role in the evolution of the fashion show.
By 1950, artists who were spotted sketching designs could be evicted, and designers viewed cameras with suspicion, fearing fashion piracy. All this anxiety dissipated in the 1960s with the ascendency of designer ready-to-wear and men’s wear, a charge led by the prescient Pierre Cardin. The triumph of the press over private salon clientele was complete. Shows were now all about publicity, and that’s never changed.
Today, social media circulates fashion in real-time. Traeger Communications tallied 427,000 Instagram photos related to NYFW 2016, a 47 percent increase in a single year. I suppose it’s no surprise that Instagram now influences set design. “Now you are thinking about images that will look good in a square, or in a 10-second video,” said designer Alexandre de Betak.
These days, it’s hard for designers and brands not to prioritize clicks, likes and page views over all else. They seek out radical new locations (Fendi’s Great Wall of China), drop albums (Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo”), and riff on conceptual art (Gianni Versace’s Warhol dress), all to make a much-needed splash. Who doesn’t remember how Marc Jacobs orchestrated a fully functional and ineffably elegant Louis Vuitton locomotive that steamed into a Louvre courtyard, depositing 47 impeccably accoutered riders?
The pendulum soon began to swing the other way, as we saw earlier this year. This time, Jacobs gave us no locomotive, no pageant, no music, no sets, no strobes and definitely no outré styling for his fall 2017 show, a back-to-basics homage to hip-hop, modeled by a gloriously inclusive lineup. The ultimate feat of restraint belonged to the audience, where nary an iPhone was allowed to raise its cyclops lens. Seated on folding chairs that seemed more like concessions than accommodations, attendees had only the collection to observe. Such radical simplicity bordered on extravagance.
Some designers have eschewed the runway altogether. Zac Posen launched a collection with only photographic portraits, while Vera Wang released the atmospheric film “It Was Paris at the Start,” echoing Paul Pioret, who made history with the first fashion promo film in 1911. These designers prove that it’s possible to have your show and deconstruct it, too.
Even so, the runway endures, as we saw in Guo Pei’s recent show, a fantastical encomium to couture. “Bodices fanned upward for added drama, and gilded embroideries retained a regal air,” said Vogue. With all the changes in fashion shows, sometimes all you want is to see the clothes move.
What’s the lesson here for fashion students? Produce and present. After all, the creative process is not complete until it is shared. Young designers and imminent professionals should be prepared to produce the full spectrum of presentation. Which is why, this year, we decided to tell the story of fashion history.
SCAD Fashwknd began with a juried runway show, in keeping with Guo Pei’s embrace of classic spectacle. We also took a page from the early history of the genre and staged the event out-of-doors, under halcyon Savannah skies, with the catwalk running where railroad tracks once ran, suggestive of Marc Jacobs’ historic Louis Vuitton show. The next day, the show changed epochs and locations with a move to Atlanta, where we staged imaginative fashion tableaux with the same student collections, reminiscent of the mannequin parades of the Belle Époque, inviting audiences to study the student artisanship, up close and personal.
These fashion vignettes afford the added advantage of showcasing interior design and furniture design, and both locations offered alumni-made garments, jewelry and shoes available for purchase, a nod to the everlasting contributions of Pierre Cardin and those in his long and inestimable shadow.
For today’s student of fashion, the history of runway shows reads less as a playbook, more as a book of plays. In the absence of any set tradition, students are free to create their own narratives at the permeable intersection of art and economics. In “Fashion Set,” Federico Poletti declares both the fluidity and the fixedness of the fashion show: “The concept has radically changed, yet the aim is still the same — to create emotion around the garments in order to spark an alchemy that makes us dream about dressing ourselves in those clothes.”
Our hope for all students of fashion is that they experience this alchemy again and again, for themselves and their clients, throughout long, happy and eminently transformative careers. Produce the work. Present the work. Where, when, how and with whom? That’s the play.
Paula Wallace is the founder and president of SCAD, with more than 100 academic degree programs, including the BFA and MFA in fashion, fibers, jewelry and accessory design, as well as many programs engaged in the production of fashion shows, such as fashion marketing and management, production design, photography, and film and television. This fall, SCAD hosts Guo Pei: Couture Beyond at SCADFASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, named by Elle Décor as this year’s best fashion exhibit.
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