Top tier runway shows have always had one primary job — to get people to buy clothing. The modern runway, however, has never had more competition in accomplishing this than it does today. In 2015, aspiring designers are a dime a dozen. Clothing collections are always viewable online, and low-cost retailers such as H&M and Zara can copy cuts of the most exclusive designs and bring them to market around the world in a matter of days. Additionally, runway shows once reserved for Western cultural capitals such as New York, London, or Paris have become global occurrences, happening everywhere from Bogota to Tokyo. So with all of this proliferation of once elite trinkets, how does the modern runway extravaganza still maintain the attention and relevance that it does? One way has been, at least to some degree, to make it more socially relevant.
In order to get on top of the modern fashion world, you need more than a new clothing line, a signature product, or even a recognizable brand. You need a progressive ideology. Groundbreaking thematic agendas are becoming as important as groundbreaking designs. It’s not enough to be creative, wealthy, or even hyped. Keeping that hype (and the wealth it generates) depends on having a cohort around you that represents larger social ideas, and not just fickle aesthetic principles. The intense economic competition among the designer elite has forced couture-level events such as New York Fashion Week to take on appearances and subject matter with increasingly thought-provoking statements more resembling gallery art than the commerciality and brand-obsessive marketing tactics that mid-price garment retailers still pursue.
Three shows in particular had some substantially influential subtext to them: Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci’s 9/11 tribute, Kanye West’s “Yeezy Season 2” show, and designer/model Ashley Graham’s runway debut of her #iamsizesexy lingerie.
Tisci’s NYC Tribute
Riccardo Tisci has said that “Beauty is great. But not when you have nothing to say.” To him, encouraging reflection upon issues of human concern isn’t something that interferes with his goals as a designer, or serves merely as an add-on, but is arguably paramount to them.
Tisci is a relative newcomer to the world of European high fashion, meaning that he was born into no dynasty, but instead a small coastal town in southern Italy. Tisci, himself just 41, is a self-made man who is now known by many as the the most well-connected figure in his industry. For the last 10 years, he has been the creative director of the Parisian powerhouse Givenchy, which in decades past has famously dressed stars such as Audrey Hepburn among other classic Hollywood icons. Tisci has continued that celebrity legacy by creating everything from dresses for Oscar winners to the wedding outfits of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
Tisci is also known for making clothing designs and orchestrating thematic events that embrace–and don’t just pander to–racial diversity and gender equality. He’s famous for including transgender models in many of his shows, as well as designing clothing for a more multiethnic fan base (and famous inner circle). They are interested in his ideas as much as they are his aesthetic principles. This is something quite striking for an industry heavily criticized for its skewed elevation of spindly caucasian women as the pinnacle of beauty. Adding another facet to his way of doing things, Tisci’s New York Fashion Week debut was held on 9/11, something that the designer fully acknowledged.
He said he wanted his event to be a tribute to the resilience of New York City in the wake of 9/11, which was unmistakably clear as an array of poised and powerful looking characters walked down the runway dressed in gowns of mourning black, deathly purifying white, and proudly defiant gold in front of a somewhat distopian backdrop set upon a pier overlooking Ground Zero.
A man as recognized as Tisci did not have to have his show on 9/11, and the risks associated with screwing up such a theme were huge. Given that today’s economic climate is one that encourages remaining apolitical in fear of isolating consumers, the choice not to work around but include something as significant as the 14th anniversary of 9/11 within a major runway show was both bold and altogether socially positive, especially in the middle of an otherwise very individualistic affair.
West’s Color Commentary
Kanye West has become an avid supporter of not just high fashion, but the capacity of fashion to embody the thematic importance of social causes. A great deal of his 2013 album, “Yeezus” was focused on inequities within the fashion industry and the stigma that famous black creatives often become pigeon-holed into merely endorsing the products of others rather than designing and creating products themselves. This was also a theme within his 2010 musical collaboration with Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne,” an album that perhaps unsurprisingly included a tour featuring clothing and album artwork designed by none other than Riccardo Tisci.
A few lyrics by Jay-Z in particular from the song “Illest Motherfucker Alive” emphasize a message, albeit vaguely, that Tisci would probably agree with, which would be to extend an interest in creativity, art, and intellectualism to others besides just white people in the US and Western Europe:
“Basquiats, Warhols, serving as my muses
My like a museum, so I see ’em when I’m peein’
Usually you have this much taste you European
That’s the end of that way of thinking nigga, never again”
Kanye West’s New York Fashion Week show (his third major catwalk event) appeared to have similar allusions within it. Besides having a very lucrative design contract with Adidas (where shoes designed by West sell instantly) Kanye has also pursued runway fashion for years, having previously participated in other major fashion events around the globe. Like most things that West pursues, he is greeted with intense amounts of both accolades and disgust.
The “Yeezy Season 2” show followed most of the premises of the first season. The main emphasis was on his best-selling shoe designs, but that didn’t stop a heavy element of the show from being diverted to other theatrics. West put together models who besides just being racially diverse, were dressed in fleshy-colored cloaks and hoodies matched with tight hats and leggings designed to complement certain skin tones. The color schemes started off with a militant procession of fair-skinned blondes followed by progressively darker garments worn by models whose skin tones darkened at the same pace. The models also had an array of different body types (at least by fashion show standards) that were emphasized by the plain, mostly drab clothing.
Things got strange as a few key models clearly played the roles of drill sergeants as well. Conclusions have been drawn that the display could’ve been meant as anything from mere eye candy to allusions of class warfare being conducted along racially drawn lines. Overall, it’s fair to say that the procession was designed at least as much as a spectacle as an endorsement of the clothing. To contrast it all, West’s wife and biracial daughter sat at the center of the show next to Anna Wintour — the famous Vogue editor whose work is perhaps more responsible than anyone else’s for interlinking the worlds of high fashion, celebrity and political elites.
We can’t be totally certain, but there is a solid chance that there truly is a deep amount of racial commentary in West’s New York show, among other shows that he has had. As he continues to transition within the industry from being a mere celebrity designer to a gradually more respected major player, his non fashion-related views will likely be taken more seriously, too. He has admitted that his original inspiration for the look of the show was to some degree inspired by the London riots.
Going back to “Watch the Throne” one last time, this would be a thematically consistent decision with one of the album’s music videos, which was unveiled around the same time as the London Riots and heavy coverage of the Occupy movement.
Whatever Kanye West’s intentions are, the ostentatiousness upon which his Fashion Week show was based is evidence that clothing isn’t the only thing being launched from his runways. Questions, ideas, and opinions are taking center stage as well.
Graham’s Grand Garments
Plus size models are not a new concept. Depending on what is classified as a plus size, the term is also seen as highly damaging, given that women need not even be very large to be considered a “plus” according to industry standards.
None of that seems to phase model turned designer Ashley Graham, who at a size 16 both designs and models her own underwear, sleepwear, and swimsuits for the Canadian plus-size brand, Addition Elle. She herself is well known for her involvement in the #PlusIsEqual campaign and is the first plus-size model to appear in Sports Illustrated. She headed a New York Fashion Week runway event featuring her designs in partnership with Addition Elle.
The 27 year old started designing garments in 2013, but has been modeling ever since scouts discovered her at a Nebraska mall at the age of 12. Since then she has emerged as a successful model, designer, body advocate, and public speaker. Having nearly half a million Instagram followers and the ever-trending hashtag #iamsizesexy, Graham’s message is an unrelentingly positive one. She has brought a new sense of glamor and confidence not just to Addition Elle, but indeed to all people with different body types by giving plus-size brands stronger footing in the world of fashion.
Graham is also a pioneer not just within plus size wear, but indeed the entire garment industry. She advocates strongly for a greater diversity of model bodies among all major brands, and led a wildly successful display of curvy women on the runway for her first major New York Fashion Week event. Focused on the theme of celebrating different body types rather than classifying and alienating those of different sizes, her message is only getting more popular. She, among others, has directly challenged the notion that the only way to sell garments is to make women feel bad about themselves, a stigma that for many is becoming as dated as a fashion week event where the only models to be seen are scrawny.
Graham’s version of the runway is exactly where the future is headed. Web-based advertising paired with consistent positive messages and a clear, socially conscious mission make up the format and the narrative that more and more people demand from the clothes that they buy. If they’re spending the money, increasing numbers of consumers want an ideology from their wares, and one that that can be directly declared, not just marginally slipped into a celebrity-filled event.
Future Fashion Weeks
Of course, the world of fashion, especially designer fashion, still has a lot wrong with it. Many of the arguments that New York’s Fashion week is money hungry, over-advertised, and shallow aren’t without merit. Any endeavor where insane wealth is involved will always risk the chance of appearing to be either preachy or pandering, especially with the right economic incentives attached.
Whether or not these three figures in the fashion world (among many others) care as much about inspiring social progress as they say that they do, or whether they are merely cashing in on trends, is a worry to many. In the end, however, their intentions might prove irrelevant. Whether their reasons are economic, personal, or somewhere in between, the result is largely the same. The fashion industry is gradually evolving for the better within a world that is simultaneously becoming more unequal, yet also more diverse and open-minded.
In such a marketplace, demand grows not just for new styles and perspectives, but also for sensationally bold statements about the society that we live in. As our own tastes, social standards, and civic concerns elevate us to recognize new ideas as valuable, so too must the ideas within fashion. If designers can keep up with that demand, celebrity-sprinkled runway shows won’t be going away anytime soon.