On a wall of a room tucked away from the main display area of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum lies a captivating photograph by Chris Moore that sums up the underlying message of the current exhibition ‘From Catwalk to Cover’, to which it belongs. The photograph depicts Alexander McQueen’s catwalk show for his Spring/Summer 2004 collection, inspired by Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’. In the show, as in the film set during the American Great Depression era, couples dance in their best attire on a dance hall driven by money and fame until they literally drop from exhaustion.
The fascination with the spectacle of fashion that McQueen (amongst other designers) brought to the catwalk arena lies at the purposeful core and messages of the exhibition. If one may doubt the intentions behind exhibiting clothes and photos related to the current phenomenon that is the catwalk fashion show, the clever irony of such a display is certainly not lost on those that see the mirroring value and critique of celebrity and glamour in the same way that Pollack or McQueen did.
For many people the catwalk show is something exclusive, seemingly created for a few fashionistas and celebrities that get to sit in the front row, and a parade of garments and accessories that they will never be able to afford. However, there is much more to the catwalk show than that and this new exhibition puts the whole process from catwalk to cover under the microscope.
Any fashion designer these days is aware of the importance of relying on a wide spectrum of people to make the catwalk show a theatrical experience and their collection a success. Fashion editors, creative directors, models, celebrities, journalists, bloggers, photographers, camera crews, stylists and make-up artists all play a role in this multi-billion dollar industry that directly or indirectly employ millions of people all over the world.
Owing to its immense popularity and coveted social status, it is easy to forget that the catwalk show is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although its origin can be traced to the fashion parades that took place in the couture houses of nineteenth-century Paris, it wasn’t until the 1990s that designers began to rethink small, individual shows for a minority of buyers and press personalities. As consequence of the need to open the catwalk show to more people, New York’s fashion week was centralised for the first time in its Bryant Park venue for the first time in 1993. These days, shows are streamed live from the catwalk in giant screens and online, and copies of the garments can be purchased immediately or copies can be mass produced within days. Because of this immense global popularity, launching a collection during the official calendar of a fashion week in New York, London, Milan, or Paris, is what it takes to make a designer and a brand successful for years.
Through a series of over 100 photographs and with back stage access covering all the different elements that make up the catwalk shows – Backstage, Front Row, Catwalk and Street Style – viewers can get an insight into the often chaotic world that makes up the apparently glamorous fashion shows that multitudes get to scrutinize on television sets, computer screens, and magazines and newspapers. What the exhibition doesn’t show are the sleepless days that designers, their assistants, models, and photographers go through to make the shows happen, or the hours spent waiting by those who attend something that lasts approximately 10 minutes.
The photographs for each of the sections of the exhibition are drawn from the portfolios of four photography professionals: Kirstin Sinclair, Matthew Lever, Philip Meech, and Chris Moore. All these photographers shared the experience of working on catwalk shows and fashion photography more generally. In ‘From Catwalk to Cover’, they demonstrate how, in today’s fast paced world, the presentation of fashion on the catwalk is continually changing and reinventing itself.
Interspersed with clothes from a selection of designers featured in the exhibition (including Prada, Lanvin, Paco Rabanne, Anna Sui, Christian Lacroix, Donna Karan, Osman Yousefzada, and Vivienne Westwood), visitors get to see some of the more unusual catwalk moments captured by the photographers working at shows. Such moments include not only catwalk shots, but also photographs of some of the most well-known designers in the business including Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs; celebrity front row appearances from Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Florence Welch; and relaxed photographs of models and what they wear when not on the catwalk spotlights.
Looking outside in, ‘From Catwalk to Cover’ reflects the collective public adoration of celebrity, wealth, and glamour in a way that can be considered perverse and that we are all guilty of conducting. What one is left with after visiting this inquisitive portrait of this seemingly glamorous industry is that, when beauty and talented is drained out of fashion itself, no mercy is spared on the move to the next best thing. After all, in more ways than one, they shoot fashion, don’t they?
From Catwalk to Cover‘ is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London until 26 February 2011.