As Mercedes Benz Fashion Week once again lands on Sydney's shores, it seems fitting to look back at some of those special moments when we have watched this unique industry re-invent the traditional catwalk.
To understand where the catwalk began, one man requires an honourable mention- Charles Frederick Worth. As a tailor, Worth would custom-make designs to suit his clients' ideas. However, this approach changed dramatically with the opening of his own Couture House in 1858. Instead of creating for his specific clientele, Worth began generating his own designs, which he would invite his clients to preview and purchase. The use of live models to present his designs was the first hint towards a catwalk, whilst the pre-designed collections could be considered the first Ready-to-Wear collections. These actions brought the humble tailor into the realm of being a respected, trusted designer.
Fast forward...in 1910 Coco Chanel opened her famous studio at 31, Rue Cambon. Although it began as a millinery shop, Chanel's repertoire grew until she, too, was presenting clothes on live models within her studio, similar to Worth. Here, models would descend down a mirrored staircase and walk into the centre of the audience, much like a runway. Although Chanel was exploring the idea of a catwalk it wasn't until 1943 that Fashion Week officially commenced and in-house presentations began to change.
In 1943 the first Fashion Week, named 'Press Week,' at the time, was held in New York City. The press could not get to Paris to view the latest designs, due to the travel complexities of World War II. America was therefore given the golden light to launch itself on the fashion world stage. Across the years these shows were held in different locations across New York. In 1994 the runways settled at Bryant Park, a location conveniently close to the garment district. The catwalks slowly outgrew this area and in 2010 moved to Damrosch Park at Lincoln Centre.
During this time the simple runway strip was being challenged across the world. Perhaps one of the most resonating examples of this was Alexander McQueen's Spring 2001 Ready-to-Wear Collection. Here the audience was positioned around a cube of mirrors. As the show commenced the cube lit up to reveal models playing the role of patients from a Mental Institution. The show was highly emotive and confrontational. Just as the audience thought it was ending, a woman emerged from another cube within the Hospital Ward-her face was masked and moths flew vicariously around her nude body. The show was an incredible piece of fashion theatre and shocked the humble runway in a way never experienced before.
Whilst McQueen created theatre, Maison Martin Margiela 'physically' took his audience to a new location. The Spring/Summer 2013 show was held in the 18th Century Hotel Salomon de Rothschild. The rooms that held the Margiela's show were literally wrapped in white plastic, resembling a construction site. The effect was spell binding. The audience not only watched the different world unfold as with McQueen, but they were sitting in and partaking of that different world.
Designers have also experimented with going beyond just visuals to invite the audience into a different setting. Some employ musicians to play live music as opposed to the loop track that is normally heard in a show. Perhaps the epitome of this technique was Rick Owens's Menswear Spring/Summer 2014. Owens had a very special guest star-an Estonian hard core band called Winny Puhh. Not only did this band scream, sing and strum, they did it all hanging upside down from the ceiling! The result was complete sensory overload-whether good or bad, it disputed the role of the catwalk as a strip on the ground.
On our own Aussie shores, Romance was Born also experimented with hanging articles from the ceiling, for their Spring/Summer 2014 collection. Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales collaborated with local artist Rebecca Baumann to create a kaleidoscope exhibition, called 'Reflected Glory'. Their designs explored exaggerated proportions and light reflecting textures, all of which were presented in a kaleidoscope set design at Carriageworks. Garments were presented on hanging, floating mannequins allowing their long proportions to be magnificently showcased. The use of an exhibition, artistic format challenges everything about the catwalk-there are no live models, or even a clear beginning and end to the show as people are invited to view the garments in their own time. This format is being explored more extensively by designers. In many ways it has advantages in terms of cost and time as well as the consumers's interaction with the garments.
Whilst these examples are merely the tip of the iceberg, they do reveal that when we think nothing more can shock us, our designers throw us a new curveball. But isn't that their role? As an audience it's exciting to be taken to a new place and have our perceptions challenged. So with all these inspiring presentations in mind it's time to eagerly wait and see where our home-grown designers will take us in the future.