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Gone are the days, when mannequins were used to present fashion creations. They are now replaced with human models. But the purpose 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. The runway went from being a very private, long business affair that catered to a few rich clients to a globally promoted marketing tactic.
Not just the shows, the concept of models has evolved too. Back in the days there were single models who were generally ‘kept women’ as the pay was low. They were not much thinner or more beautiful than the average woman and it was a common practice to number them in line with the designs they wore so that buyers could easily identify what they wanted to purchase.The organisational requirements of couture houses increased as the demand from foriegn buyers, who started to schedule their fashion shows in fixed seasons. Although the modern catwalk originated in Europe, or more specifically Paris, American department stores got in the habit of organising similar shows depicting Parisian bought designs which was 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.
In the year of 1943, the American fashion industry was finally forced to stand on its own two feet for the very first time and they organised the first New York Fashion Week also known as Press Week by Eleanor Lambert, publicity director of the New York Dress Institute. The main purpose of Fashion Week was to give fashion buyers alternatives to French fashion during World War II, when workers in the fashion industry were unable to travel to Paris.
After that, things only got bigger and louder. Fashion Shows were highly publicised, and paradoxically, their perceived exclusivity multiplied. It was no longer a selling platform but an entertainment. A highly attended social gathering for the rich class. Disruptive crowds gathered in excitement. Famous journalists littered the front rows while buyers took a little side step. Models became serious, stylized and unattainable.
The next big revolution in the history of runway fashion came when the more lucrative ready-to-wear replaced shrinking design 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. Shows became steadfastly more and more extraordinary all the way into the 80s, blurring the lines between art and fashion.
Things got more extreme with time reaching new heights when brands were eventually grouped together into one big centralised Fashion Week in Bryant Park in New York City in 1994. And in 1995 came the advent of one of the most widely publicised events of the year: the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
While the majority of fashion designers hold traditional runway shows during the fashion weeks in Paris, London, New York, and other cities, many now have specific themes, mood music, and special lighting and other effects. In the 1990s there were a number of designers, including John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, who became renowned for producing extravagant shows in unusual spaces with narratives and fictional characters. These theatrical stagings have pushed the fashion show beyond the garment and into the realm of conceptual fantasy. These types of shows function primarily to promote brand recognition and to sell the ready-to-wear lines and the licensed products.
Today, fashion events are not limited to the big four events alone. In fact, New York Fashion Week alone has given rise to tons of offshoots like the Harlem Fashion Week which is meant primarily to be a showcase for African-American designers. Nolcha is a hotbed for independent talent that does not want to showcase at New York Fashion Week or simply cannot afford it. All of the press attention and influence that surrounds a main fashion week often also results in economic growth through tourism, retail and so much more.
Fashion weeks have surely come a long way since their inception. What does the future hold? Organisers of fashion events are sensitive to the fact that modern consumers don’t always depend on editorial opinions to make their fashion choices. As a result, more of these events are opening up directly to the audience, and some shows even go so far as to build Instagrammable moments into the flow.
What we need further is a better understanding of omnichannel, 360-degree retail. This goes much beyond social media shares and instead means catering to influential consumers around the globe. Fashion weeks now need to consider if the cities they call home have over time become geographically limiting, and if so, how best they can reach out to a wider audience.
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