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Revisiting Fashion’s Most Experimental And Innovative Runway Shows

The notion of the fashion show dates back to the 1860s, when English haute couture innovator Charles Frederick Worth opted to display his latest collection on real women instead of inert mannequins. Throughout the ensuing centuries, countless designers have adopted this presentational model when showcasing their sartorial efforts to the masses. The invention of global fashion weeks has essentially solidified this practice, becoming a routinized proceeding of towering models, celebrity wattage, and au courant designs. However, as with any art form, the emergence of convention causes creatives to rethink the boundaries of their medium in order to explore unique forms of expression. Fashion is no stranger to experimentation, as standardized runways have become a canvas to project alternative modes of showmanship and ingenuity. Here is a list of designers who have thwarted tradition in favour of a singular fashion show experience.

Rick Owens Spring/Summer 2014

Fashion’s favourite occultist Rick Owens has been toying with gender and aesthetic norms for decades, amassing a legion of likeminded followers in the process. The designer’s spring/summer 2014 womenswear presentation featured a rigorously choreographed performance by four American step dancing groups sourced from African-American colleges. A trope of full-figured dancers passionately stomped in unison, downplaying the traditional catwalk experience in exchange for a more aggressive and visceral display.

Fendi Fall 2016 Haute Couture

Luxurious Italian heritage brand Fendi paid homage to an iconic national landmark for their fall 2016 haute couture presentation. The recently-renovated Trevi Fountain served as the backdrop for the brand’s 90th anniversary celebrations. The monumental show featured a plexiglass runway stretched across the fountain’s base, conjuring a fantastical illusion of models walking on water. This is the first presentation to ever be showcased at the historic Roman site, and what a dazzling display it was.

Viktor & Rolf Spring/Summer 2009

Fashion artists Viktor&Rolf have always gone against the grain, both aesthetically and thematically. Whether sending models down the runway with elaborate tungsten lights appendages, or dressing Maggie Rizer in a succession of garments during a Russian doll-themed outing, the designers have an eye for the unconventional. However, for their spring/summer 2009 collection, Viktor & Rolf eschewed a traditional physical presentation for a video piece instead, sending lone model Shalom Harlow down a runway in a venue without a single audience member in attendance. By forgoing guests and a full lineup of models, the duo inadvertently foreshadowed the social distancing measures in place today, and serve as an example of digital connectivity amidst such safety precautions.

Rag & Bone Spring/Summer 2018

Similar to Viktor&Rolf, rag & bone opted out of a runway show in favour of a more cinematic approach. In an effort to create a collaboration between a group of eclectic and creative individuals, the brand tapped into a multi-disciplinary approach to showcase the effortless wearability and timeless aesthetic of their clothes. Titled Why Can’t We Get Along, the video features choreography from Benjamin Millipied, and features Kate Mara and Ansel Elgort, members of the American Ballet Theater and HipLet Ballerinas, as well as YouTube dancer Kandi Reign. Featuring music by famed Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, the sonic cues evoke a sense of tension mimicked by the dancers’ movements, creating a visual metaphor illustrating how seeing the world from disparate perspectives can often be difficult.  

Moschino Pre-Fall 2020

American iconoclast Jeremy Scott has always been partial to campiness in his approach to fashion. Scott routinely looks to classic American tropes and widespread cultural emblems, and subverts them with a knowing wittiness. For the Moschino‘s pre-fall 2020 runway show, the designer clothed his models in streetwear staples—think hoodies, Timberland-esque boots, and thick gold chains—and sent them down a runway created in a New York City subway. While unorthodox venues have been used in fashion before, Scott’s site-specificity was a welcomed breath of musty air.

Chanel Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2016

When it comes to fashion presentation showmanship, the late Karl Lagerfeld is undisputed. During his decade-spanning reign as Chanel‘s Creative Director, the prolific designer transformed the Grand Palais into a myriad of settings with a cinematic attention to minutiae. Throughout Lagerfeld’s tenure, the venue has transformed into a supermarket, a casino, and an Antarctic fantasy complete with an immense iceberg flown into France by way of Sweden. However, for the fall 2016 haute couture presentation, the backdrop for a collection chock-full of Chanel signature tweed skirt suits was decidedly pared-down and self-referential, as the brand’s historic ateliers were recreated for a showcase with a heightened sense of intimacy. In-house artisans performed their daily duties in front of the fashion-clad audience, and gave a personal glimpse at the optimal quality and craftsmanship the French house is known for.

Patrick Church Spring/Summer 2020

Artist and designer Patrick Church is celebrated for his graphic prints that are emblazoned on a range of wardrobe essentials and become synonymous with a more experimental and experiential approach to showcasing his collections. For his spring/summer 2020 collection, the designer took over the Wallplay gallery in Manhattan for a uniquely off-the-cuff exhibition titled A Hell Of My Own Making. In a space filled top-to-bottom with original artwork by Church, attendees were encouraged to participate in an on-site photoshoot referencing ’80s prom portraiture, creating an engagingly interactive experience. The binary between designer and audience was effectively blurred in a refreshingly lively manner.