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November 19, 2017
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View of the empty combined runway and seating area for Prada Men's S/S 2012 collection. Source: designboom.com.
Marc Jacobs A/W 2012.
Source: guardian.co.uk

The spectacle of the runway show has never been more widely viewed than it is today. With an increasing number of fashion weeks worldwide, live-streaming online and photo libraries chronicling every angle of every look, runway shows are now seen, discussed and remembered by millions. 

Considering how much effort is put into creating a runway show, it's a shame that more attention and analysis isn't devoted to the overall production. Although shows that stand-alone as spectacles of design resonate well beyond the end of the runway, few fashion writers seem to delve into the mise-en-scène of show season.

Whilst the collection itself is indubitably the intended focal point, the importance of the physical space can't be underestimated. The runway - usually developed with the help of architecture firms and event staging companies - sets up a framework for interpretation, helping to shape opinions on a collection's success (or lack thereof). Shows that defy expectation and convention - those that go beyond walking down a straight white runway, in a white room, with some music playing - have a better chance of leaving a lasting impression. 

Not surprisingly, putting on a runway event is costly. According to Charlotte Clarke of Inca productions, it can cost upwards of £5,000 (C$8,000) for an independent designer to stage the most basic of runway shows during London Fashion Week. These smaller shows generally follow a formula used time and time again: a minimalist space with a ground-level or raised catwalk, seating around the runway's perimeter, and few theatrical touches. 

Although shows that stand-alone as spectacles of design resonate well beyond the end of the runway, few fashion writers seem to delve into the mise-en-scène of show season.

On the other end of the spectrum, large spectacles by major fashion houses can cost millions of dollars. One only need to look to fashion giant Chanel to get a sense of the attention and resources grand maisons can devote to the runway. Year after year, Karl Lagerfeld has debuted new collections in extravagant and elaborate spaces, accentuating the label's grandiose vision in the process. Past examples include the sprawling set for S/S 2011, the underwater theme of S/S 2012, and the mineral formations created for A/W 2012 (all of which were staged at the Grand Palais in Paris). The awe-inspiring experience of witnessing a Chanel show leaves guests with a strong sense of connection to the event and, by extension, the collection on offer.

Independent designers and smaller brands often need to balance how large and complex shows should be with keeping a budget firmly in mind. While it's not unheard of for innovative catwalk concepts to emerge from smaller shows, bigger houses are certainly at an advantage in being able to afford the extravagance of heavily customised runway shows.

Some fashion houses play with the idea of the runway and rewrite the manual each time, while others have a definitive style that carries over season after season. Chanel, for example, is known for behemothic settings, while Alexander McQueen and Prada concentrate on set design, and Rick Owens on active backdrops.

For its S/S 2012 menswear collection, Prada took an interactive approach to its runway show; models weaved throughout the audience, who were seated on blue foam blocks checkered throughout the venue. When empty, the space looked like an indoor graveyard, with only a thin stream of light peeking through aging windows. When full, stadium lights illuminated the Astro-turf floor and created the feeling of an energetic sporting event or even a very large picnic.

Alexander McQueen A/W 2009.
Source: nytimes.com.

For his A/W 2012 show, Marc Jacobs created a theatric backdrop resembling a deconstructed, icy blue castle. His winter-like setting emphasised the surreal nature of the collection and supported the Alice in Wonderland feel of the collection.

The square catwalk surrounding a twisted mass of metal used to stage Alexander McQueen's A/W 2009 show not only played with a non-traditional runway layout, but emphasised the dark, gothic elegance of the collection. From the cracked floor to the mangled mass at centre stage, the set design greatly contributed to the sense of darkness McQueen was trying to evoke. In this way, the staging almost became a part of the collection itself, enveloping patrons into a world that was completely removed from the outside world.

AMO, the "research studio" arm of architecture firm OMA founded by celebrated architect Rem Koolhaas, designed the set for Miu Miu's S/S 2013 event at the Palais D'Iena in Paris. The primary show space featured custom built, multi-tiered cascade seating throughout, and a secondary catwalk within the council room integrated the political chambers into the show. With models traversing the chamber stairs, the secondary seating area transformed the political venue into something bold and unique.

OMA Miu MIu SS 2013
AMO-designed Miu Miu S/S 2013 runway.
Source: oma.eu.

Handling work considered "beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture," AMO concentrates on publishing, technology development, curating, media and events. Enjoying a strong relationship with Prada and Miu Miu, AMO has consistently created stunning runway sets for both houses. While the firm doesn't position itself as concentrating solely on fashion, AMO has a knack for conceptualising architecture and interior design in such a way that really gives the events more substance.

Runway design is a fascinating field that often goes undiscussed. From New York to Milan, large fashion houses have been competing to create the most innovative stage for years. Runway shows create a framework for collections and help observers understand and interpret the works of the designers. As time passes, shows will become more sophisticated and elaborate, increasing the mosaic of the fashion world.

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