Off The Hanger: Bringing Fashion To Life

November 28, 2009 • Magazine

Off The Hanger: Bringing Fashion To Life

Off The Hanger: Bringing Fashion To Life

Sat, 2009-11-28 05:00

Amanda Aldinger

In 2005, Parisian designer Alexander McQueen, renown for his avant-garde, theatrical approach to fashion, turned the typically vertical forum for fashion exhibition into a chess board. Kings and bishops were replaced by models dressed in McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2005 collection, and rather than tromping down the runway one-by-one, the models exhibited the clothing while acting as chess pawns, moving to lit squares per the direction of a robotic voice filtered through the space’s loudspeakers. As the models were “captured”, looks were knocked off the board, leaving the créme de la créme of McQueen’s collection standing. Although McQueen’s groundbreaking show also included a traditional runway component, his chessboard concept reinvisioned the notion of fashion exhibition, integrating the creative vision applied to clothing construction into the mode in which it is showcased.  
Fashion is an art form that completely reinvents itself multiple times a year. Although often marked by exorbitant price tags and a penchant for elitism, fashion design is not just a flagrant display of decadent garments and gilded footwear, it is an industry – the appeal of which is meant to entice the general public into becoming a consumer. Therefore, when it comes time to exhibit each season’s collections, not only must an exhibition uphold the designer’s creativity, but the collection itself must be showcased in a manner that speaks dollar signs to the copious department store buyers, magazine editors, and members of the press whose approval, and decision to purchase, will make or break the designer’s success. 
Runway shows began as early as 1903, when “a New York City specialty store called Ehrich Brothers put on what was likely this country’s first fashion show, in an effort to lure middle-class female customers into the store,” says Amanda Fortini in her article, “How the Runway Took Off” for the Washington Post. Developing popularity, this exciting, “insider” mode of exhibition was adopted by other department stores, like Wanamaker’s in New York. Although NY Fashion Week was not organized until 1993, designers had long been staging their own shows in lofts, clubs and restaurants, Fortini notes.
A typical runway show generally lasts around 11 minutes, but according to Luxist, a luxury financial blog, that 11 minutes is a pretty pricey affair – the budget for a show often running into the multi-millions after the costs of production elements like tent rental, lighting, and music are tallied. Although the runway format lives on, and will always last as a founding convention of fashion exhibition, the recent economic downfall has forced the fashion industry to reconsider what has historically been their decadent version of the traditional studio art exhibit.  
According to the New York Times style blog, The Cut, during this year’s Fall Fashion Week in New York, American designer Carmen Marc Valvo – who was relegated to exhibiting his Fall/Winter 2009 collection as a presentation in Citrine, a Manhattan bar – was only able to showcase his collection after scoring a sponsorship from NASDAQ. Although he still wasn’t able to stage a live show in Bryant Park, the home of New York Fashion Week, he did manage to film a runway show of his spring collection – which was shown to a small group of 300 people during a cocktail reception in the NASDAQ building, and was followed by an actual broadcast of his runway video on the televisions in Times Square. Valvo’s struggle to secure a venue in which he could showcase his collection is a testament to the changing reality of fashion exhibition. For in this case, the question wasn’t, “What will my show’s concept be this season?” But rather, “How do I secure a venue that still speaks to the nature of a runway show?”
Although a highly produced beast, the nature of a runway show is immensely calculated in its execution. Often theatrical, the intention of a fashion show is to use the runway to create a world in which the clothing lives, and to make that world speak to its audience. The veritable master of the runway show is Karl Lagerfeld, head designer for Chanel. Although McQueen is famous for his distortion of form and heightened conceptualization, it is Lagerfeld who has mastered the art of sensationalizing fashion exhibition, conjuring an artistic sensibility that reaches far beyond the intentioned nature of a runway show.  For his Spring 2008 Couture collection, the models circled around a giant concrete monument shaped like a Chanel jacket in the center of Paris’s Grand Palais. This year, for Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2009 collection, the Grand Palais was transformed into a barn, complete with haystacks, farm equipment, and a stroll around the runway which ended in models rolling around in the hay – literally.  Lagerfeld’s fashion shows go beyond the runway. They are remarkably transformative artistic installations – and remain so season after season, four collections a year (Spring/Summer, Resort, Couture, Fall/Winter). A crazed genius, Lagerfeld knows that a fashion show is not merely about seeing the clothes walk down the runway – it encompasses an entire sensory experience, influencing one’s perception of clothing, fashion, and the world.
Currently, the question of exhibition is an overwhelming one for the fashion industry. As couture designers like Christian Lacroix (Paris) and Yohji Yamamoto (Japan) file for bankruptcy, the industry has had to kick into survival mode, and designers are shifting the way they showcase their work. This year, Marc Jacobs, head designer of the esteemed fashion house, Louis Vuitton, streamed the Vuitton show live on Facebook for a dramatic increase in visual accessibility, while American designers like Vera Wang and Sonia Rykiel staged low-key presentations separate from Bryant Park.
In the fashion industry, exhibition is about taking the clothes off the hanger and giving them a life. While the models work to communicate the movement, texture, and shape of a garment, it is the experience of the show – be it Lagerfeld’s extravagant affairs, or watching the Vuitton show on Facebook – that communicates the emotion of the clothing. As the personality of the world shifts, so will its taste in clothing, style, and aesthetic pleasure. While runway shows will always remain the very staple of fashion exhibition, the means to those ends must remain fresh and inventive. “Today the world is different. So you have to make it differently,” Lagerfeld remarked to NY Times Fashion Editor Cathy Horyn. A fashionable tip, indeed.

Pictured top to bottom:
• Alexander McQueen’s SS/05 Chessboard set,
• Mannequins at Carmen Marc Valvo’s FW/09 presentation at Citrine,
• The runway set for Chanel’s Spring 2008 Couture collection,
• One of Louis Vuittion’s SS/10 runway looks, which was streamed live on Facebook,

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