The History of Runway Fashion: From Salons To Superstars

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By Chantal Brocca

Ahh Fashion Week! It’s the pinnacle  of the fashion season; the event that sets fashionistas off into a frenzy and most importantly, a very loud and interactive business card for any designer worth his salt.

For some today, getting on the FROW kind of feels like receiving a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, setting the stage for an aftermath of besotted industry insiders to contemplate their short term purchasing decisions before they’re rendered obsolete by the next cycle.

All this extravagance appears fully justified, you see. In a world that runs on image, ‘presence’ is basically an obligatory life skill. And in a market that is fuelled by continuous consumption, creating an environment that encourages more ‘want it now’ consumerism is the only way to fuel the endless hunger of modern capitalism.

The runway went from being a very private, tiresomely long business affair that catered to a few rich clients to a globally promoted marketing tactic so overblown it begins to defy the logic that made it necessary in the first place.

But the purpose, however flou, remains the same: commercialization of a product. What we see is simply an evolution of the runway in line with the exponentially rising effects of modern consumer culture in the 21st  Century. Here’s a brief history of runway fashion.

the history of runway fashion

From Europe to America

Besides the shows, the concept of models has evolved too. At the time, it was unthinkable to glorify the occupation, let alone a single model. They were generally ‘kept women’ as the pay was low; weren’t much thinner or more beautiful than the average woman, and it was common practice to number them in line with the designs they wore so that buyers could easily identify what they wanted to purchase.

As demand from foreign buyers increased at the end of WWI, so did the organizational requirements of couture houses, who started to schedule their fashion shows in fixed, biannual seasons.

Although the modern catwalk originated in Europe, or more specifically Paris, American department stores got in the habit of organizing similar shows depicting Parisian bought or knocked off designs – a signal to their clientele of their authority in taste, as well as a means to align the exclusive with the mass produced, a practice in luxury marketing which has survived to this day.

At the onset of WWII and eventual German occupation of Paris, the American fashion industry was finally forced to stand on its own two feet for the very first time, prompting reputed fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert to organize New York’s first actual Fashion Week, initially called ‘Press Week,’ in 1943 as a means to fill the massive trend spotting gap left by the French capital. Without guidance, American designers were free to innovate and the likes of Harper’s Bazaar began to feature previously anonymous local designs, boosting New York on the global plane as a Fashion Capital to be reckoned with.


Putting the ‘Show’ in ‘Fashion Show’

After that things only got bigger and louder – Fashion Shows were hugely publicised, and paradoxically, their perceived exclusivity multiplied. It was no longer a sales channel, but entertainment: a highly attended social event. Disruptive crowds gathered in excitement, famous journalists littered front rows while buyers took a little side step, and models became serious, stylized and unattainable.

The next big revolution in the industry came when the more lucrative ready-to-wear replaced dwindling couture revenue streams in the 1960s. Fashion Shows lost their traditional luxury format when youth culture hit the fan and the ever growing voice of mass consumerism incited a need to be different.

Designers. Went. Rogue.

Locations became unusual, models loosened up on their rise to their current celebrity status and shows became steadfastly more and more extraordinary all the way into the 80s, blurring the lines between art and fashion. And things only got more extravagant with time (Karl Lagerfeld anyone?), reaching new heights when brands were eventually grouped together into one big centralized Fashion Week in Bryant Park in New York City in 1994, and in 1995 with the advent of one of the most widely publicized events of the year, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.


A Parade of  Pressure

Now, to say that productions have gone theatrical is a wild understatement: Fashion Shows have included anything from creepy immersive carrousels to whole stage constructions mimicking random settings like airports – because clearly, nothing says haute couture  quite like an airport (yes, I’m still talking about Karl).  

Fact is, most creative industries need to renew themselves, revamp, freshen up, add a bit of citrus and shake things up as our dwindling attention spans constantly distract us to new avenues for consumption – but at what cost?

What we see today in the current catwalk innovation of ‘buy it fresh off the runway’ –  as instigated by Burberry and followed by others, like Tom Ford – is sure to lead to lower wages and more strife for garment workers as they feel increased pressure to produce clothing faster than ever. This new runway practice will also hurt smaller designers. As awesome independent designer Barbara i Gongini says: “unfortunately this is a concept which can only be executed by the big players of the industry who are strong in capital.”  

But in terms of psychology, the BIG factor, the extravagance, all that carefully curated drama, has become something so inextricably linked to the identity of Fashion Week and style that we can no longer separate the fantasy  from  our wardrobes. With the rise and rise of social media, we feel increasing pressure to consume, to display, to participate in the spectacle that is modern consumer society.  

And of course, chasing that fashion dragon is not sustainable ecologically, or healthy, mentally. No wonder scores of fashion editors and designers are becoming exhausted with the whirlwind pace of the fashion cycles – just think of how many Creative Directors for the big houses have had breakdowns or quit recently.

It will be interesting to see how the runway will evolve as fashion embeds itself more deeply into the realm of entertainment – but that’s exactly how we should see it: a spectacle to be observed, something for our amusement; not necessarily for our consumption.

The History of Runway Fashion

Time Travelling

1. The Chic Capital, 1858

Possibly the world’s first fashion designer to market himself as such, Charles Frederick Worth started showing clients a pre-prepared selection of original designs in Paris, and introduced the notion  of a collection.

2. For Elites Only

‘Lucile’ Lady Duff Gordon launched a series of very hush hush, invite only events in Paris catering  specifically to buyers and elite clients who were served canapes and tea while they enjoyed a defile of models in a theatrically inspired stage setting complete with curtains, music, gift bags and lighting to set the mood. Fancy.

And that’s not all she did – because damn did Lady D G know her marketing. Besides also being the first to train professional models, she founded the first global couture brand, laid the foundation for modern PR practices, astutely integrated dance and music into her show and found the time to take a life threatening trip on the Titanic – and back.

3. Across the Pond, 1903

Over in America, a New York City store called Ehrich Brothers put on what’s thought to be America’s first fashion show. Within years, most big department stores were holding fashion shows of their own, inspired by the  “fashion parades” held in Parisian couture salons.

4. Press Week, 1943

World War II made it impossible for America’s wealthy to go to Paris to shop, so Eleanor Lambert launched the first “Press Week,” to showcase American designers, which led to journalists covering more local  designers.

The popularity of ‘mannequin parading’ eventually gave way to a more formal salon-hosted format, allowing for the development of sales through scheduling for different groups of buyers. They were incredibly long compared to today, typically running between a torturous one to three hours, or even weeks if shows has to be repeated for different groups.

5. Fashion Calendar, 1944

Ruth Finley was behind the launch of the first ever Fashion Calendar, compiling all of the week’s events into one comprehensive guide that included buyers, manufacturers, designers, and editors to cover news and shows from the fashion and beauty industries.

6.  America Nails It, 1975

Designers continued showcasing their collections twice a year in September and February in an event that would eventually become known as New York Fashion Week. Other cities caught on, with Milan starting its own fashion week in 1975 and London following in in 1984.

7. Fast Forward, 2017

Today, Fashion Week is still one of the most important times  of the year for those in the fashion industry, as well as for fashionistas. But with increasing technology, anyone can watch live streams of certain shows and gain access to the backstage action with just a scroll through their social media feeds. Could virtual fashion shows be the next big thing?

Chantal is the girl behind Underneath My Silk, a thought catalogue on fashion, culture and style.

Follow Chantal on Instagram here.  Main image: Versace


Chantal Brocca
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