From mannequin parades to robotic models: the evolution of the fashion show

With the first of the four major fashion weeks set to kickstart in New York, we take a look back at how runways have transformed over the years

PARIS - MARCH 10:  A model walks the runway at the Alexander McQueen Ready-to-Wear A/W 2009 fashion show during Paris Fashion Week at POPB on March 10, 2009 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/WireImage/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  lm04ju-positive-lux01.jpg
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"It is possible to look upon realities too much, so that you lose the power to make-believe," Lady Duff-Gordon once said. The pioneer of the fashion show would be happy to know that her "mannequin parades" have transformed into productions with eye-watering budgets and jaw-dropping effects, which transport audiences into the wildest fantasies of their favourite fashion designers.

With the first of the four major fashion weeks set to commence in New York on Friday, September 6, we look back at how the fashion show has evolved, from a simple display of the fall and proportion of garments on human models, to theatrical runways that wow as much as the clothes themselves.

PR-savvy Lucile – the aforementioned Lady Duff-Gordon – was a couturier in London, who became popular for her stage costumes before the turn of the 20th century.


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At the time, the stage was where the upper echelons of society could see the latest fashions and emulate what caught their eye. Lucile wanted to achieve the same atmosphere in her showroom as in the theatre, believing that women would be more encouraged to buy her clothes if "they abandoned a sense of difference between their real and ideal self". And so the fashion show was born.

The first ones – even before the melodrama of an Alexander McQueen or a Karl Lagerfeld runway – comprised theatrical elements and a luxe setting, in which a woman could liken herself to the glamorous models.

"I gave my whole attention to preparing the mise en scene," Lucile writes in her autobiography. She details the stage, chiffon curtains and limelight, as well as the music that played as the human mannequins walked in their gowns before an elite but enraptured audience.

In the 1960s, as London turned from a prim and fusty capital into the fashion centre of the modern world, designer Mary Quant upped the ante on the runway. Her shows were hosted in hotels with hundreds of buyers, fashion journalists and fellow designers in attendance. Quant transformed the fashion show from a private performance for the few to a public spectacle, even as mass production replaced bespoke dressmaking.

Crucially, Quant knew what it meant to be cool, young and free. Quant sped up the tempo at which her models "performed" on the runway. Rather than elegantly gliding, as Lucile's models did, Quant's were almost propelled on to the stage – aided by a wind machine for further emphasis. While Lucile's shows lasted hours, Quant would exhibit up to 60 outfits in fewer than 15 minutes.

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A Mary Quant model, circa 1959. Courtesy Mary Quant Archive

Describing her models as "greyhounds" in her autobiography, Quant states that "there was none of the mincing up and down, stop and start, stylised movements of the usual fashion model". Set to jazz music, her models pranced in a "crazy, zany way", creating an image of new femininity and the Quant Woman, whom others went on to emulate.

In this way, the fashion show as we know it not only advertises a brand, but also distracts from the obvious commercial objective, by means of a full-scale theatrical production that transmits the image of a designer or label.

In the early 1980s, packed-out New York lofts were the setting of art house shows hosted by designer Stephen Sprouse. In 1989, Martin Margiela hosted his Paris show of avant-garde, ready-to-wear clothing in an abandoned playground.

Then came Alexander McQueen – fashion's enfant terrible – with his nightmarish displays of theatricality. McQueen's first shows in the 1990s and early 2000s pushed the boundaries and laid the foundation for some of the most outlandish productions the fashion world has seen – from models on life support machines trapped in glass cages, to paint-spewing robotic arms and otherworldly aquamarine representations of the lost city of Atlantis.

A handout phoo of Tulle and lace dress with veil and antlers by Alexander McQueen from Autumn/Winter 2006-07 show. (Courtesy: Penguin Random House) *** Local Caption ***  lm05mr-alexander-mcqueen05.JPG
A tulle and lace dress with veil and antlers by Alexander McQueen's autumn / winter 2006-07 show. Courtesy Penguin Random House

McQueen also became the first label to live-stream its Plato's Atlantis show in 2010, opening the floodgates for what now is a sea of shows carefully crafted for the Insta-hungry millennial. "I actually love social media for this," says producer Sara Blonstein, a London Fashion Week veteran. "Now social media has made every moment of a show 'snappable' – from build-up and atmosphere, to the grand reveal." In recent years, established labels such as Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana have flown their audiences to far-flung destinations, from Cuba to Tokyo, while Fendi made fashion history by staging a show at Rome's Trevi Fountain.

Among the independent designers, Blonstein lists Gareth Pugh, Roksanda Ilincic, Anya Hindmarch and Charles Jeffrey as the creatives whose shows are guaranteed to draw gasps even from seasoned frowers (that's front-rowers, in show speak). She highlights Charles Jeffrey as one to watch. "He brings so much theatre to his shows – full circle, in a way, back to McQueen 20 years ago." And, thanks to social media, we can all tune into the the young Scottish designer's show this fashion week season, at the mere typing in of a hashtag. Lights, smartphones, action.