The evolution, spectacle and future of the fashion show

The fashion show has come a long way since its humble beginnings in European hotels and ateliers, where designers hosted exclusive viewings for the fashion elite. With the rise of the internet and social media, fashion collections are more accessible than ever, forcing designers to push the boundaries of their shows to stay relevant in the tidal wave of up and coming fashion.

Alternative forms of the fashion show are popping up, with ‘see now by now’ options, fully digital shows, live feeds and outrageous spectacles all competing for the limelight. Attendees of international fashion weeks are overwhelmed, dramatically asking each other “How are you surviving fashion week?”, as if it was a terrible battle to contend with. Designers are realising that there has to be another way to portray their collection with relevance for the buyers, journalists and bloggers that sit front row at fashion week as well as the fashion forward that scroll through new collections online.

Traditions change in fashion throughout history

Starting out of a need to show couturier’s collections in Europe, fashion shows evolved to be exclusive events with restricted guest lists that included buyers, potential customers and influential journalists. Models developed signature walks as people crammed into ateliers craned to see the latest fashions. By the 1960’s the format had changed due to the emergence of ready-to-wear collections. Designers embraced these changes, seeing an opportunity to encourage youth culture and mass-consumerism. The shows were less exclusive, and models were encouraged to loosen up their walk on the runway, moving forward from previous traditions. Now it is as if consumerism in fashion is on steroids, encouraging a change in the current fashion system to keep up with the times.

Luxury designers refresh the format of the fashion show

Staying ahead of the curve is the utmost importance to brands that are leaders of fashion, so refreshing the fashion show format is making waves worldwide. Burberry was an innovator in 2016, combining men’s and womenswear shows as well as making the collections available immediately after the shows.  In an interview with WWD, Burberry CEO Christopher Bailey said “You can’t talk to a customer and say, ‘We’re really excited, we’re going to stimulate you and inspire you, but you can’t touch it or feel it for another six months.’  Technology has really changed the consumers view of fashion and waiting six months to be able to purchase the garments is too long; the consumer loses interest and has moved on to the next new collection.

This ‘see now buy now’ show concept directly addresses the issue of fast fashion retailers producing runway copies that are sold only weeks after fashion shows. In the past, lengthy gaps between the fashion show and the collection becoming available has been long enough for opportunistic fast fashion giants like H&M and Zara to recreate the garments and make the original designs less enticing when they finally hit the shelves. Fashion icon and designer Diane von Furstenburg said of the old system ‘the only people that benefit are the people that copy it.’

Other designers are moving into a more exclusive, intimate presentation of new collections. In February 2016, Tom Ford combined mens and womenswear collections, and showed in small presentations that allowed the audience to view and feel the collections up close.  Diane von Furstenburg also had private viewings in the September 2016 New York fashion week. This not only allowed journalists and buyers to see the collection up close, but also allowed an intimate introduction to the new chief creative Jonathan Saunders.

Versace announces no more couture shows

Amid changes in the fashion system, Versace announced earlier this month that instead of showing couture with a fashion show at fashion week as usual they will have “major client events” throughout the year at various locations. The Italian luxury brand would have eight shows a year if they include couture, which according to CEO Jonathan Akeroyd “seems excessive”. The couture collections designed by Donatella Versace will be shown with a focus towards clients at private presentations around the world along with dinners and cocktail events. Akeroyd assured the press the change was not for budgetary reasons, the presentations will take the same amount of effort, time and intensity as the shows.

Social media plays a part in the changing of fashion show traditions

Social media and the latest technologies has literally changed the fashion industry forever. The accessibility of information has desensitised the consumer, encouraging mass consumption and pushing designers and manufacturers to the limit to supply the demand. Photos of the catwalks are shared on social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat, which allows time for fast fashion to make copies before the original brand has the garments on the shelves. The internet has increased our global connectedness as well as our expectations of the availability of products.

Popular fashion blogger Leandra Cohen (Medine) of the Man Repeller made the point in this documented text conversation on the topic of fashion week with the blog’s deputy editor Amelia Diamond. “It’s ALWAYS fashion week on the Internet if you want it to be.” There is so much fashion information from all the brands, all the time that it is encroaching on the worth of fashion week.

Is this so terrible? If used productively, designer brands can benefit from the use of apps and the web to stay relevant to their customer. If social media and internet use is high on the consumers daily intake, doesn’t it make sense to alter the system to capture this audience? Misha Nonoo recently used a Snapchat story in lieu of a fashion show. The concept was simple, affordable and allowed the brand to connect directly with the customer. Bold and original, the collection was only available for viewing for 24 hours. The use of digital is echoed through the website, and even reaches to the Misha Nonoo as the designer. The COO of the company, Frank Weil has encouraged the use of personal branding to promote sales and be relatable to the consumer. This has lead to Nonoo becoming the unofficial face of the brand, featuring often on the brand’s Instagram feed.

Spectacular theatrics elevate the story behind the collection

In every fashion week, there are designers pushing the boundaries of a show, creating an event with unpredictable theatrics. Designers known for their spectacular shows include Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld with his own brand as well as Chanel and Fendi, Hussein Chalayan, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and more recently Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony.


Elaborate spectacles like Alexander McQueen’s 1999 show No.13 really pushes the boundaries of what the fashion industry stands for. It displays the meaning behind the collections and opens the door into the mind of the designer. Fendi is another fashion house continually pushing the boundaries with show setting, style and spectacle. Shows to note include the 2007 show set at the Great Wall of China, with models walking down the centre and the fashion elite lining the sides. More recently, Fendi staged their incredible couture show in Rome’s Fontain di Trevi, with models walking on a glass runway so it looked as if they were walking on water.

This year, instead of showing within fashion week, Opening Ceremony has collaborated with New York City Ballet to show their new collection with dance. The new ballet ‘The Times are Racing’ by choreographer Justin Peck had costumes designed by Opening Ceremony. The inspiration of the collection, drew from America’s immigration history including the journey to America and the mixture of diverse cultures. The luxury-come-street brand has now released their Spring 17 collection which evolved from these costumes and is now available for purchase online. This isn’t their first work with Peck, in 2015 he choreographed ballet dancers to walk their show amongst the professional models, creating a performance of intentional falls that shocked and delighted the audience.

Changes to the fashion show system may cause ripples for the supply chain

‘See now, buy now’ strategies although are effective in translating the hype of a show into sales, could potentially put a lot of pressure on suppliers. Fast fashion retailers have developed supply chains to produce high volumes with fast turn arounds. Some major fashion brands have their own factories, but for those that don’t, the demands of faster production times could put serious pressure on staff and overall quality. To negate the opportunistic fast fashion brands from replicating their designs, designers could evolve and curate their collections between the show and the garment arriving in store. I would create a second wave of anticipation and allow the designer to incorporate the reactions of buyers, fashion journalists and social media into their collections.

The fashion show depicts the magic of the collection

Despite all of this change there is still a thread of the atmosphere and excitement of seeing the collection as it was intended – in sequence, depicting a story. The leading fashion designers of the world are artists and no matter what context, spectacle or week they show in, they are representing their collection and elevating it to more than just clothes, but as an artform. Designers are changing the format, but they are still putting on an evocative show, captivating audiences in the front row and via screens. As the fashion shows start for another season we can’t wait to see what happens next.

Further learning:

The music industry has had to embrace the internet and advancing technology, can the fashion industry learn from this? Read on here.

This list of 10 incredible fashion shows helps to illustrate the power of a fashion show to transform a collection from mere clothing to have deeper meaning.

GQ Magazine has curated a wonderful list of designers and shows that contributed profoundly to the fashion industry over the years. These influences have flowed through to other designers and mainstream fashion trends, whether the customer knows it or not.

The classic Devil Wears Prada Scene where “Miranda Priestly”, editor of the magazine in the movie harshly sums up the trickle down effect of high fashion to the regular consumer.