Art Walk: A New Book Explores the Runway as Artwork
Of course the fashions are the main attraction, but the actual runway is frequently just as artfully constructed. Maisons and designers don’t let their visions end at the dress’s hem; many make universes within which to present their collections, to the delight of the lucky few who get to attend their shows.
A new book put out by Irish lifestyle group Roads captures this fleeting art form. The Fashion Set: The Art of the Fashion Show presents 10 years of the most memorable, outlandish and groundbreaking set designs in the modern history of fashion.
Fendi Spring/Summer 2008. Photo by Vincent Lappartient, courtesy of Roads Publishing.
In his introduction to the 200-plus-page tome of beautiful photos thoughtfully contextualized, Italian editor Federico Poletti describes the project as an attempt to celebrate the “miniature world that has been carefully planned and constructed, only to suddenly vanish after just twelve spectacular minutes.” The temporality of these performances lends to their special status, as well as the privilege of the audience. Fashion shows are notoriously difficult to access, and this book appeals to our desire for inclusion in the most rarified circles.
Sometimes grand, as in Karl Lagerfeld’s Fendi Spring 2008 show on China’s Great Wall, fashion sets can tap into global historical or artistic influences. Or, as in the case of Henrik Vibskov’s Fall 2015 show titled “The Messy Massage Class,” they may explore, tongue in cheek, smaller social themes like our preoccupation with health services.
Henrik Vibskov Autumn/Winter 2015. Photo by Alastair Philip Wiper, courtesy of Roads Publishing.
Also contributing to The Fashion Set‘s prologue, fashion editor and icon Diane Pernet reflects on the shows most memorable to her. It’s a reminder that, like great art, these presentations resonate indefinitely. Dries Van Noten’s 2005 dinner party, where the dining tables became the runway, is top of her mind. Evident in Pernet’s essay and throughout the book, is Alexander McQueen’s—and Sarah Burton’s and set design agency OBO’s—visionary approach to stagecraft, perhaps rivaled only by Lagerfeld’s less dark ingenuity. Pernet specifically mentions McQueen’s Fall 2002 show, where live wolves were in attendance. But images of his Spring 1999 theatrical display, where robotic arms sprayed paint on a model’s dress, and his Autumn 2006 hologram of Kate Moss recall how far he pushed the genre.
Moschino Fall/Winter 2015. Photo by Moschino, courtesy of Roads Publishing.
From pop culture, like the 2015 Moschino Fall show that celebrated the outsized style of the ’90s, to the biographical, like Antonio Marras’s Autumn 2005 show, which paid tribute to the life of Italian photographer Tina Modotti, an anti-facist activist who was exiled for her communist work, the shows become microcosms of our political, public and personal fixations, always related back to those most intimate works of art that we wear.
Antonio Marras Autumn/Winter 2005. Photo courtesy of Antonio Marras and Roads Publishing.
Whether they are enormous installations of the kind that Lagerfeld favors for Chanel, transformations of well-known architectural sites or simply suggestive of emotions like Céline’s Autumn 2008 show, which played off anticipation, the runway show has been a decadent art form that may not weather our changing appetites for fashion.
Céline Autumn/Winter 2008. Photo by Vincent Lappartient, courtesy of Roads Publishing.
Another essay in the book, one by the fashion writer and director Colin McDowell, suggests that the fashion show may go the way of the buffalo, that fast fashion, buy-now-wear-now merchandising and the loss of a luxury market will move these performances to showrooms. This is already happening some. It will be a loss to the art world should the runway come to an end. But at least we’d have this book as a testament.