A BRIEF HISTORY OF FASHION WEEK
With the start of the Spring 2014 shows in New York, London, Milan, and Paris nipping at our heels, our features editor, Dylan Essertier, takes a look back at the history of the “Big Four” Fashion Weeks.
Today kicks off Fashion Month, the unveiling of the Spring/Summer 2014 designer collections, where you can expect hordes of editors, photographers, bloggers, and socialites to descend on the four fashion capitals, New York, London, Milan, and Paris, to view the runway shows and presentations, attend the parties, and mingle with fellow fashion elite.
For fashion fanatics and editors alike, these semi-annual Fashion Weeks mean very little beauty sleep. We eagerly wait, hungry for designers to unveil their collections to the world, taking copious notes from show to show, scrutinizing the trends, and talent-spotting the next model of the moment. However, through the flicker of the flashbulbs, the madness and the glamour, season after season, it’s finally time to stop and ask: How did this spectacle known as Fashion Week come to be?
Long before Fashion Weeks became the displays they are today, fashion reigned, as you may have guessed, in the salons of France. The concept of the fashion presentation dates back to 1858, when Charles Fredrick Worth first developed the concept of showing his clientele a pre-prepared selection of original designs (a collection). Furthermore, he shocked high society by showing his designs on real, live women (models) for all to view. Both were highly novel ideas at the time.
In 1868, Worth helped create the Chambre Syndicale de la Confection et de la Couture pour Dames et Fillettes, a trade association whose mission was to develop the French fashion industry. One of the most noteworthy functions of the association was to legally regulate the phrase “haute couture” – meaning it could only be used by registered members of the Chambre Syndicale. The organization also set a minimum number of looks for those designers who were granted membership. Voila! Here we have the first glimpse of an official fashion calendar.
The tradition of bespoke fashion presentations in private residences or in a designer’s salon for aristocratic clients continued in France into the 20th century, securing France’s reputation as the fashion capital of the world. As the trend grew, the presentations became more and more grandiose, engaging all of the senses in a full experience of photography, music, sophisticated staging and sets and, of course, the paparazzi. Designers started calling them fashion “fêtes” and thus the basis of the modern fashion show was realized. As the world looked almost exclusively to Paris for fashion inspiration, international fashion magazines from around the world filled their pages with chic styles being shown at these fêtes.
The course of fashion history changed, however, in 1943. With World War II at its height, fashion journalists were unable to travel to Paris for fashion inspiration, with the shows being cancelled due to the Nazi occupation in France. In an unprecedented maneuver, a fashion publicist named Eleanor Lambert seized this opportunity to divert the attention of the fashion industry from Paris to America, in order to enhance the reputation and prestige of local American designers on the international scene. She invited all of the journalists to New York instead, arranged shows, and advertised that “Press Week” was coming to town.
Using her previous experience with retail manufacturers in New York, Lambert was able to stitch together a showcase of American designers for the national and international media. According to Time magazine, Lambert even offered to pay the expenses of any out-of-town journalist who traveled to New York to attend Press Week. In total, there were 53 designer shows held at the Plaza Hotel, and similar to today’s event, every editor received press materials and runway photos as part of the package.
Lambert’s mission to change the image of American fashion was very successful. As premier fashion magazines released their issues following Press Week, the pages were full of American designers, a drastic departure from the previous Francophile-centric glossy pages.