For most, fashion is just clothes, something to keep us warm. We buy it from the shopping center or online. It’s not made for us in particular and it’s not haute couture. It’s necessary, wearable and washable. So why do designers put on such a show for clothes people wouldn’t ever wear or buy?
The short answer is; for publicity. Although one would think these wacky designs were made purely to be content for memes. Almost no money is made from haute couture, it is a tool used to create publicity. Haute couture is “pure communication, there are far fewer designers making it – hence, you get more attention. Plus, there’s no nose-wrinkling if the stuff doesn’t shift. It’s expected not to sell. All killer, no rail filler. All fantasy, no reality” (Fury 2015).
For these designers, like their Victorian predecessors, the spectacle of the fashion show, far from being art, was simultaneously enticement and advertisement, ‘the theatre through which capitalism acts’ (Richards 1991, 251). The fashion show is an advertising tool, if not showing a sellable collection it’s selling an image, an image to spread brand awareness. An image people want to buy into. Which is why Viktor and Rolf have recently followed in Jean Paul Gaultiers footsteps, by cancelling their ready to wear lines to focus on producing haute couture. Both fashion houses have hugely successful perfume lines that rake in the money whilst their haute couture shows drum up publicity (Fury 2015).
The trend of exorbitant haute couture fashion shows started in the 1990s when young London designers looking for a backer recognized the commercial value of shock and spectacle to attract press, backers and buyers. The fresher the designer was in their career the crazier their shows seemed to be. In 2001, three years into their haute couture careers; Viktor and Rolf ditched the classic runway show for a tap dancing stage show to advertise their spring ready to wear collection (Viktor & Rolf Spring 2001). Judy Collinson; a buyer for Barneys New York, attended the show and was delighted by the creativity of presentation; “If you didn’t even like the clothes you had to be charmed by the show and their whole hammy wonderful thing. It’s a great experience” (Viktor & Rolf Spring 2001). It was different to other shows by fashion houses; there wasn’t a supermodel in sight, but 19 dance students with normal bodies (Viktor & Rolf Spring 2001). According to Viktor Horsting of Viktor and Rolf “The clothes were made for the camera, we took all kinds of clothes and we added sparkling silver”, simply they are plain clothes, nothing too exciting or daring, yet they provided a vessel for a show, they were made to be photographed, to be seen and an obvious ploy for advertising (Viktor & Rolf Spring 2001).
Fashion conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) was one of the big superpowers to take advantage of young and relatively inexperienced British designers to capitalize on the spectacle created by the emerging designers fashion show for their brands such as; Givenchy, Dior; Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs International, Kenzo, Lacroix and Loewe in order to spread into the global market (Todd 1997, 42). John Galliano was one of the young designers appointed to revive Dior.
As seen in the video, Galliano really shook up Dior’s classical feminine reputation with his racy designs of sheer panels, nudity, tribal headpieces and necklaces, a bizarre south American beaded nipple pasty ensemble and excessive tulle (Christian Dior Couture 1997). Yet Galliano’s designs paired with the craftsmanship Dior is known for, created a captivating display. Galliano was regularly criticized for substituting showmanship for fashion design and making clothes that were utterly unwearable. Yet according to British fashion journalist Sally Brampton, Galliano is the ‘greatest image-maker in the world’ and he was partly responsible for the greatly increased attendance at the Paris shows which she described as ‘a media feeding frenzy as newspapers and television stations around the world give increasing prominence to fashion’ (Frankel 1999, 12).
It seems that if you want to make a name for yourself you have to go big and create a show, and according to Stephane Wagner, professor and lecturer in communications at the Institut François de la Mode, no-one does it better than the British, “if we accept that much of haute couture is about squeezing out maximum media coverage – good or bad- then the more spectacular the presentation and collection, the better. And from that point of view the English are the best by far” (Todd 1997, 42). You may not be able to wear it or afford it but you can buy into the fantasy of it with a perfume.
Christian Dior Couture. 1997. YouTube Video, 3:21, posted by “90s Fashion,” 27th September 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zWOylO-wKo
Frankel, Susannah. Sally Brampton quoted in ‘Galliano’, The Independent Magazine, 2 0 February 1999, 12.
Fury, Alexander. “ Viktor and Rolf abandons ready-to-wear: It’s the perfume that brings in the real profit At Paris, the designers opted to focus exclusively on haute couture” The Independent. 9th February 2015. Accessed 26th September 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/viktor-and-rolf-abandons-ready-to-wear-its-the-perfume-that-brings-in-the-real-profit-10032305.html
Richards, Thomas. 1991 The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle I85I-I9I4, Verso, London and New York, 251.
Todd, Stephen. Stephane Wagner quoted in – ‘The Importance of Being English’, Blueprint, March 1997: 42.
Viktor & Rolf Spring. 2001. YouTube Video, 3:44, posted by “90s Fashion,” 24th April 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FrFRa68G44