on the catwalk

The catwalk is (not) dead, long live the show

The magnetic attraction of the sinuous steps or military marches of models strutting the catwalk holds its own against the flow of social media and the virtual world. Set design and setting are more important than ever.

di ­Angelo Flaccavento


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Empty space.  The set of the Dior catwalk at the Paris launch of the autumn-winter 2019-2020 Haute Couture collections

4' di lettura

Fashionistas love cutting remarks, brutal U-turns, the blind enthusiasm that follows a gut feeling at the expense of lucid and objective reason. Every now and then, for example, swept away by absolute faith in the “new”, they announce the end - imminent or perhaps already a fait accompli - of the catwalk, a method of presentation that, aside from the odd adaptation and gimmick, has remained largely unchanged since the fashion industry formed and established itself in the last century. In its place there are virtual experiences, videos and films that are more in keeping with the times. Yet they are simply not as effective.

The medium is not new, there is no point denying it. Perhaps the rhythms and methods have changed but whether it is held in the intimate setting of an atelier with just a few onlookers, as was once preferred and a format that some hope will return soon, or in an exotic location with a lavish set and streamed live, the catwalk remains the same: a procession of models, sometimes marching, sometimes stalking, along a long platform. And yet no form of “see now, buy now”, entertainment or social media sharing comes close: the catwalk is still a winning formula because it manages to incorporate, mould and distil all of the urgent demands of contemporary life and transform them in an explosive, magnetic form of complete entertainment.

Consider Gucci, the brand that in recent years, with the arrival of Alessandro Michele in January 2015, has best seized upon the fragmentation of the collective imagination, the atavistic need for stories with a high visual impact, the multiculturalism that is the very result of the digital consciousness together with the total disregard of any idea of “before” and “after”, of chronology. And yet, although it launches a project online almost every week, despite the murals, the memes, the collaborations with artists and the permanent activation of every aspect of communication, despite the advertising campaigns - the latter a notable celebration of the fashion language of yesteryear, the diction that defined the horizon of aesthetics shared by the seventies and nineties - even for Gucci everything still begins with the catwalk. This is where Alessandro Michele expresses his histrionic verve, his penchant for outcasts and beautiful freaks, his ability to transform every look into a story. It is in this surprising space of complex sets, both existing ones like the Capitoline Museums or ones tailored for the purpose, where everything begins, a live event reverberating immediately, ad infinitum, through the immaterial space of the web.

The first strength of the catwalk is just that: it is an unrepeatable event, a rite to which only a select few are invited. The others, the excluded masses who aspire to be there, will watch online, but it's not the same: the outfits are living objects, to be contemplated on moving bodies, accompanied by music and surrounded by a set that is an essential part of the story. And it is this aspect of extreme spectacle that in the last few seasons has given the catwalk its new raison d'être and a renewed importance in the era of storytelling and content, if we can call it that, which is churned out constantly: a factory of almost infinite posts, videos and stories. The fifteen minutes or less of a megashow, and all the expense that involves, is more than repaid by the virtual traffic it can generate and maintain, to such an extent that today's catwalks, a little like exhibitions where the selfie station has become an inescapable practice and the facilitator of blockbuster movies, seem designed primarily for the impact they can have on Instagram, battleground and arbiter of today's hypervisual society. The outfits play their part because it is the spectacle that matters. The recent Dior Homme show in Paris, for example, with its bubblegum pink set and futuristic archaeology installations created by artist Daniel Arsham, seemed designed purely to encourage people to post, and indeed the social media response was staggering.

Super shows, which in their extreme permutations are the extra moenia, off-calendar lavish fashion shows of resort collections, are the current favourite. One of the earliest and most switched-on adopters, well before the omnipresence of social medal made them a necessity, was Miuccia Prada who, through a now decade-long collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, explored the narrative possibilities of the environment as a means to extend the story of a collection. Currently most brands opt for shows that are highly grandiose, and so a more intimate catwalk has become a radical and unconventional choice. But that doesn't mean that lavish productions are the only key to success. Minimalist set designs can be just as effective: just a few, well-calibrated elements, such as verses from the poems of Robert Montgomery transformed into luminous slogans (Valentino) or an empty space flooded with surreal blue chroma key lighting (Missoni).

Surprise, whether through excess or restraint, is the true trump card; this is what generates virtual content. And yet the ultimate strength of the catwalk is its analogical quality as an unrepeatable, invitation-only event: an experience that is rarer and more appreciated than ever in these times of total and depersonalising virtualisation. Because, despite the apparent democracy, fashion still captivates when it creates desire, when it excludes and seduces from afar, engaging our sight and our other senses.

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