With architects like Alexandre de Betak and Etienne Russo, the once simple tented presentation is now an all-sensory extravaganza. But what’s next?

The insouciance of the Nineties: designers as rock stars; strutting supermodels; the beginning of colossal conglomerates; and cash – lots of it.

Fashion shows have become as glamorous as Hollywood premieres or even award shows. Designers such as Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela transformed the once trade-focused runway into a spectacle, introducing a sense of provocative theatricality. The purpose is to stand out – think McQueen’s golden shower or robotic arms, or Margiela’s abandoned Parisian Metro station. It’s about the clothes, of course, but it’s also about creating an experience, producing strong emotional reactions – fashion shows that imprint iconic images which are permanently embedded in fashion’s collective consciousness.

Evidently, the wellbeing of the global luxury market in the Nineties induced fierce competition, and storied houses such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermès led the way toward the madness of the Noughties. During the new millennium, fashion shows became spectacles worthy of Las Vegas mega- venues. The world wide web and social media increased visibility and the demand for luxury products kept spiralling ever upward. As fashion started to speak to a global audience hungry for handbags, frocks and shoes, the existing podiums were no longer enough. Even the 2009 financial crisis could not stop the trend. The late great Karl Lagerfeld invested in the Grand Palais in Paris each season, seemingly with no worry of budget restriction – vast muscle-flexing expenditures. Who can forget the Chanel rocket launch, supermarket, airport lounge, or the imported iceberg? Few could keep up with such calibre.

But Bernard Arnault’s ‘golden goose’, Louis Vuitton, was not to be outdone. Under the creative leadership of Marc Jacobs, guests left LV shows like awe- struck little children leaving some Cirque du Soleil-style extravaganza. Remember the Louis Vuitton Express? Bigger was better, and it would be uncouth to ask (at least out loud) how much money was being poured into big brands’ shows. It was the paradigm of extravagance and endless fortune – what could be described as the Golden Age of fashion shows. Even when the financial crisis was full throttle, too-big-to-fail luxury brands demonstrated relatively healthy growth and continued, business as usual. And among those brands, the big-budget productions show no sign of slowing. Today, labels like Christian Dior and Saint Laurent fly fashion show guests to dream holiday destinations for fully immersive show experiences – Marrakech and Los Angeles respectively most recently. In the last year alone we’ve seen Jacquemus transform a Provencal lavender field with a hot pink runway courtesy of Alexandre de Betak’s Bureau Betak; Kim Jones commission a 4-story chrome statue that stood in the center of his pre-fall Dior Men show, staged in Tokyo; and Prada jet its crew of creatives, editors, and influencers to Shanghai for its Spring 2020 show – a dizzying display of futuristic concrete and neon in an 80,000 ton warehouse near the city’s harbor.

This is certainly all fantastic escapism, but it is also somewhat problematic. As these fashion shows become evermore visible to the general public, through websites and social media, and as fast fashion and luxury brands alike are called out for their lack of environmental attention, the spotlight is on. Issues like water consumption in denim production, or incinerating ‘dead stock’, or the increase in use of synthetic fibers that don’t degrade like natural ones are all hot topics. While the ‘one percent’ were once the key consumers of luxury products (who perhaps disregarded common concerns, like pollution and the planet), the market has changed. People buying these goods now know that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. And for Gen Z, who are the clients luxury brands must now court, sustainability is a principle concern.

Well, there is a new generation of fashion designers who are taking matters into their own hands. Marine Serre, Kevin Germanier, Arturo Obegero, Patrick McDowell, Spencer Phipps, Emily Bode and many more all know that in order to do better, they must be the change they wish to see. Fashion Weeks in Copenhagen and Helsinki focus on young names who take initiatives and develop growth methods aligned with values that go against overconsumption and overproduction. And while the big brands continue to stage extravagant shows, most are more environmentally conscious. In January last year, Muiccia Prada amped up her iconic use of the black Pocone nylon she made waves with in 1984, surrounded by huge neon structures erected outside the windows of the Fondazione Prada, the worrying, dystopian sci-fi chords so ‘in’ at that moment, were struck with unexpected success. Unintentionally, there were folk in the audience who connected more dots than the brand had intended. This spectacular use of unsustainable materials was indeed dystopian, and people noted it as such. “How good it would be to see Miuccia Prada begin to turn her creative intelligence to that subject [sustainability]”, wrote Sarah Mower in her review for Vogue.

Then, this year, Prada announced a sustainability partnership with textile yarn producer Aquafil to produce ECONYL®, a nylon obtained through the recycling and purification process of plastic waste collected from oceans, fishing nets, and textile fibre waste. “ECONYL® yarn, through a process of depolymerization and re-polymerisation, can be recycled infinitely with no loss of quality,’’ says the literature.

Another heartening announcement earlier this year was made by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. With the Institut Francais de la Mode (IFM), she launched the ‘Paris Good Fashion’ project which aims to turn Paris into the “Sustainable Capital of Fashion” by 2024.

So, does this herald the end of the big budget fashion show? Are flights around the world to watch mystical old men launch custom-made rockets from grand locations passe? Or, will the shows continue to be more extravagant, but with appropriate environmental responsibility? Or maybe the shows are a small part of a big problem, and big brands will just need to pull their socks up in all areas. And in that case, perhaps ‘fashion show 3.0’ will be entirely carbon negative. Wouldn’t that be refreshing.


Pierre A. M’Pele is a fashion journalist and founder of Instagram page sensation @pam_boy