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The rise of the fashion ‘happening’

The runway show is evolving. From extravagant fantasy worlds to intimate experiences, it’s all change in the industry.

Under the cavorting cherubs of Rubens’ Banqueting House ceiling during London Fashion Week, guests at accessories designer Anya Hindmarch’s ‘Chubby Clouds’ presentation lolled happily on the world’s largest beanbag, taking refuge from the rigours of Fashion Week to the voice of Zeb Soanes reading the Shipping Forecast, lullabies from The London Gay Men’s Chorus and guided meditations. “’The idea,” said Hindmarch, “is to simply welcome and literally envelop people in our world…” Job done.

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Fashion, like the rest of the world, is in flux. Driven by advances in technology and mobile communication, consumption is speeding up, meaning that formats that worked perfectly well in the past are now being questioned. Take the catwalk show, for example: that quick-step conveyor belt of new garms that forms the mainstay of most fashion weeks.

Long regarded as the height of glamour, bagging a seat at one of the most coveted catwalk shows is a bi-annual bunfight of frantic proportion. Front rows are reserved for power buyers, brand ambassadors and celebrities. And at the end of it all, the format still works mostly to confirm the view that fashion is – in the large part – for thin, white women with loads of dosh and an overriding interest in surface decoration.

Some designers are upping the ante, turning catwalks into scenes of extravagant fantasy

In a time or of increasingly urgent environmental, political and socio-cultural threat, the catwalk is feeling less than relevant. Some designers are tweaking at the edges, including models of greater racial and physical diversity and blending men’s and womenswear into one show. Others are upping the ante, turning catwalks into scenes of extravagant fantasy.  At Dior’s show, for example, held at the cavernous equestrian hippodrome in Bois de Boulogne , rose petals tumbled onto models as they wandered amongst dancers directed by experimental choreographer Sharon Eyal.

Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel re-created a beach at the Grand Palais, complete with waves and seagull calls, to showcase a nautical collection. Cult US brand Opening Ceremony staged a homage to drag queen culture with a live performance by Christina Aguilera while Rihanna’s lingerie line Savage Vs Fenty show closed out New York with more interpretive dancers in a warehouse space dressed as lush jungle.

Each show was dazzling, but the sense lingered among those aching for genuine transformation: that the status quo is very firmly in place.

No wonder that a growing number of names like Hindmarch are abandoning the runway altogether. Instead, they are choosing to focus on mood, on message and on the world outside the multi-billion dollar operation that fashion has become. It’s a tug-of-war happening everywhere: the more monolithic an industry, the more consumers crave a sense of craft and intimacy.

And that’s what they got at Mother of Pearl’s Fashion Week presentation, where, in sets inspired by Nick Waplington’s Living Room photographs, models perched delicately in a tiny kitchen, on a sofa; be-ribboned shoes peaking out from under pristine toilet cubicle doors. In the gilded ballroom of the Hotel Cafe Royal, the event reflected the mix of Northern 1990s interiors and romantic design that underpins the label’s ethical luxury aesthetic.

It’s nice to create a world for someone to come into – Katie Roberts-Wood

“Social media has completely flipped [fashion] around,” says designer Amy Powney. For her, the presentation gave customers a chance to ponder the brand’s deeper values. “Sustainability is at the forefront of what we do now. I love that people got to see the journey and the passion first hand,” says Powney.

That kind of connection is key for RCA graduate Katie Roberts-Wood, founder of eponymous concept label Roberts Wood. “We place a high value on the processes and techniques we invent - and this can be lost on a catwalk. Instead, it’s nice to create a world for someone to come into.” Her presentation for AW18, at the Sarabande Foundation, invited guests to talk to the makers, see and handle the clothing and to share in the creative process of image-making.

Brave new world

But it was fashion’s potential as an accelerator for real change in the ‘protection, unification, inclusion and equality of women’ that spurred Teatum Jones’ latest work, “Global Womanhood – Part Two”. In a campaign pointedly titled Roundtable not Runway, the International Woolmark Prize winners convened a panel of activists and influencers, chaired by fashion commentator Caryn Franklin, to discuss everything from diversity to education. 

Triggered by the UN Women’s 16 Days of Activism, a campaign to end violence against women and girls, the talk encompassed the representation of different races on the catwalk; the importance of education, not just in front of the camera but in boardrooms and design spaces; the ability of fashion to express deep cultural change. The talk was filmed and later, provided the visual backdrop for a static presentation of the collection itself.

The idea that there is a fixed ‘menu’ of ways to present fashion is archaic and dated –  Teatum Jones

“We felt instinctively that a catwalk show wasn’t the right space to present the concept,” says Teatum, of a collection that wove the words “I define myself” and “I own my story” into richly coloured textiles. “We wanted to honour the research in a more meaningful way.”

She now feels fully in a time where it is not only possible but imperative to forge new paths: “The idea that there is a fixed ‘menu’ of ways to present fashion is archaic and dated. The industry is changing and so are our needs as designers. Emerging brands such as ourselves now have more space and flexibility to try out new things.”

“Being able to experiment is important for us” agrees Roberts-Wood, who launched her label with a catwalk show in 2016 but hasn’t looked back since. “It’s one of the few, great advantages of being a small independent. We didn’t want to become trapped in a crazy cycle of showing on the catwalk. For some small brands, the catwalk can become something you have to do to ‘stay relevant’ and I hate that idea.”

Head of fashion at the RCA Zowie Broach has been challenging the catwalk since her days at avant-garde 1990s label Boudicca; graduate shows are now an energised mix of modern dance and drama, installation and music, talks and presentations. “Fashion can be a powerful tool to talk about society, politics, faith and gender,” she muses. “But we’re not just part of an economic system. Culturally, [fashion] has a responsibility too. Surely we should be exploring media and new tools. Things are uncertain right now but that’s when we should be at our bravest.”

“Fashion weeks should be spaces to bring the most creative and commercially astute brands to the table in a way that celebrates difference,” adds Teatum. “That line of thinking and approach is what is happening in society at large and, finally, it feels that fashion may be catching up.”

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