Theatre of the Exquisite

Now that I have a steady job, I do most of my shopping through Instagram. At first, I only meant to follow one or two accounts out of passing curiosity, but over time the appeal became too strong, and I followed even more. The posts are all photos of lithe women, the sort that the French term gamine, twirling in yards of raw silk and linen, and they’re all shot at sunset and filtered into varying shades of pink. These accounts aren’t peddling clothing; they’re depicting a lifestyle: the ideal woman wears cream turtlenecks. Her wardrobe consists of vintage finds at full J. Crew prices. She reads science fiction on her lightly worn red couch, and she spends afternoons lounging in sheer nightdresses from the 1970’s.

Model in Flowing Silk Dress

The most obvious difference between the accounts is production value. One shop, likely with a lower budget, always shoots in front of the same sofa. A few weeks ago, another one recently held a runway show during New York Fashion Week. Throughout NYFW, their account was chock full of casting model Polaroids and zoomed-in shots of hems and stitches. Afterwards, they posted a slew of photos from the show — a dozen or so glistening models against a dark, anonymous runway. It was very sleek, very Brooklyn-takes-on-NYFW.

This year, however, Karl Lagerfeld passed away a week after NYFW. The devastation on social media was near-immediate. At a time when designers and creative directors hopscotch through houses (I see you, Hedi Slimane) while riffing off old designs, Lagerfeld had remained loyal, staying at Chanel for more than thirty years before his death. Originally tasked with reviving the house of Chanel and maintaining its relevancy as creative director, perhaps what Lagerfeld did so well, and perhaps what has become increasingly rarefied, was to understand fashion as a form of theatre.
7 Days Out with KARL LAGERFELD | CHANEL | Paris Fashion Week [Documentary] | Source: AptypAL/YouTube

At the surface level, putting on a fashion show can seem needlessly expensive. The costs of booking a venue, and inviting press, combined with the costs associated with hiring models to walk, staff to do makeup and hair, more staff to manage model bookings and fittings, and yet more staff to operate lights, sound, and the event space itself, can cost anywhere from a hundred thousand to over a million dollars. Heading a fashion house already places creative directors under enormous pressure: each season, their clothes are expected to not only contribute something new to the fashion house’s oeuvre, but also remain continuous with the identity of the label, all the while showing off the creative director’s overall skill and specific vision.

[Perhaps] what Lagerfeld did so well, and perhaps what has become increasingly rarefied, was to understand fashion as a form of theatre.

The runway itself must thus meet correspondingly extraordinary expectations: The designer relies on the space to become a world inhabited by the clothes on display, communicate the vision behind a whole season’s worth of clothing, and echo the aesthetic of the fashion house itself. This lies at the heart of Lagerfeld’s magical shows for Chanel: each season, Lagerfeld found a way to distill the world behind the interlocked C’s into something tangible.

The Spring-Summer 2019 Ready-to-Wear Show — CHANEL | Source: © CHANEL/YouTube

In the hours after his death, the Internet was alit with photos from the last collection that Lagerfeld showed while alive, Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2019 Ready to Wear. The clothes: carefree French girl at the beach — models in oversized skirts, heels swinging from their hands as they walked down a sandy pier. The scene could be easily mistaken for an actual afternoon at the seashore; Lagerfeld had even found a way to create artificial waves to mimic the tide across the stage. It was the perfect encapsulation of his talents: Yes, Karl Lagerfeld designed clothes, but he also created worlds within which his clothes existed. After all, this was a man who had once imported an iceberg from Sweden almost a decade ago for one of his couture shows. “Global warming is the issue of our times. Fashion has to address it,” Lagerfeld stated as his models glided down the runway, fur boots drenched by the iceberg’s runoff.

Fashion Show – Chanel: Fall 2010 Ready-to-Wear | Source: ©

Fashion may be ubiquitous, but the shows are site-specific. Sometimes the costs are too much, and even well-known designers decide to opt out, or move to other cities, where their shows will be better received or generate more sales. Over the past two years, fashion lines including Proenza Schouler, Victoria Beckham, Thom Browne, Tommy Hilfiger, and Rodarte have declined to show in New York, instead showing in Paris, Milan, or London. Alexander Wang has decided to stop showing as part of any fashion week entirely.

Rather than heralding the end of site-specific, theatrical fashion, these changes appear to push the runway — and fashion itself — further and further into the realm of theatre. About fifteen years ago, Alexander McQueen transformed his models into human chess pieces in a runway show as iconic as Kasparov himself. A few years later, McQueen was dabbling in livestreaming his shows: he debuted Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance single as part of the runway show for his SS10 Plato’s Atlantis collection. As models in sky-high heels and iridescent dresses wobbled down the runway, large, motor-controlled cameras swooped in for footage for the livestream. So many viewers tuned in that the servers crashed.

SHOWstudio: Plato’s Atlantis by Alexander McQueen | Source: SHOWStudio/YouTube

Nowadays, Instagram influencers geo-tag their fashion week stories so that audiences verging on the millions can experience each fold of a Chanel skirt as it floats by. The rise of Instagram stages the fashion show into a sort of cityless, placeless realm — a world that is moored only to a city by the spectacle of fashion week itself. We tune in simply because we’re bored and because we can. The Instagram experience televises the theatre of fashion, and designers react in turn: the coveted front row of fashion is now only dotted with celebrities. Instead, fashion bloggers, Instagram influencers, and social media darlings occupy those seats as well. The runway is set for viewers on their phones just as much as it is staged for Anna Wintour. Companies like Moda Operandi, as well as the fashion houses themselves, make it possible for viewers to buy directly after the show. The clothes are at once attainable and yet a part of another world — the stuff of a designer’s vision.

Fashion may be ubiquitous, but the shows are site-specific.

The challenge that the runway faces today is thus more complex than ever before: not only must it perform for those present, but it must also reach those who view yards of taffeta on six-foot-models on screens that are often no more than four or five inches wide. We no longer have to read about the tears that models shed as they walked in Lagerfeld’s posthumous FW19 collection. On the same app that I use to browse little Brooklyn vintage shops peddling silk and linen fairytales, I experienced those tears myself, on the stage that Lagerfeld had set.

The Fall-Winter 2019/20 Show — CHANEL | Source: © CHANEL/YouTube

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