For the Jacquemus spring/summer 2024 fashion show on 26 June, guests used rowboats to reach the front row—the edge of the banks of a lake in France’s Palace of Versailles grounds. From their boats, they watched models show 20-plus looks from French designer Simon Porte Jacquemus’ new collection, Le Chouchou (French for “darling”), on a red runway on the grass, about 10ft away from the seating area. The 20-minute show was a luxurious sight at what was once a royal site.
But were the celebrity guests, including Victoria and David Beckham, Monica Bellucci and Eva Longoria, able to get a good look at the clothes? Only if they had hawk eyes—the runway was one level up from where the guests were sitting.
A day later, Marc Jacobs presented an eye-catching line at the New York Public Library, in a show that lasted a record-breaking three minutes. Before the guests could even open their phone cameras, it was over. The models walked the runway in just 29 seconds.
These are not stand-alone instances of unusual presentations. The runway’s love for such shows is well known. Whether it was Alexander McQueen (robots spray-painted on one of his creations in a 1998 show) or Karl Lagerfeld (he recreated an entire grocery store for the fall 2014 Chanel show), the fashion world has long been used to create theatrical shows. But the past few months have seen a different kind of race—to curate a spectacle that creates a viral moment on the runway. #viralcore but fashionably different, so to say.
Obviously, it’s driven by business. For, running a fashion label is not just about expressing creative vision. It’s as much about running a business and making a profit. To that end, each tactic or gimmick, even for the sake of being part of #viralcore, helps a brand grab eyeballs, which might translate into more sales in a world where a person lounging in bed, phone in hand, can help decide what goes viral.
That’s why the lines are blurring between wow and good fashion, says Gaurav Gupta, who was part of the official Paris Couture Week calendar. Do the actual showstoppers, the clothes, then end up taking a back seat?
“There’s always good art and bad art. What’s bad to you, would be good to me; it’s subjective,” says Gupta. “But these gimmicks bring business to the brand. You need the money.”
So whether it was Dior’s recent menswear presentation, where models rose literally from the floor, or Pharrell Williams’ entertaining debut as creative designer for Louis Vuitton men (there was a choir), or Kunal Rawal’s December fashion show-meets-music concert, designers, the long established as well as the emerging ones, are now trying to create a performance-driven experience that lives beyond those average 30 minutes of showtime. The hope is, the razzmatazz—beyond the usual tricks of A-list showstoppers, extravagant sets and celebrity front rows—will help create a wow, aka viral, moment.
Sure, the desire to break away from the traditional idea of a runway show, where guests remain focused on a creator’s artistic vision, makes sense as it is hard to stand out in a saturated market. Further, one has to become the talk of the social media world. The question is, don’t such extravaganzas distract attention from the clothes being presented on the ramp?
“Design has taken a back seat,” says Rimzim Dadu, who’s making her debut at the India Couture Week later this month in Delhi. “Fashion should ideally speak for itself; we, designers, study design with the aim to create good fashion, everything else around it is just peripheral stuff. But it’s about entertainment now.”
For her presentation, she’s keeping a sharp focus on the garments—45 pieces that show how to make high fashion “sleeker and easier”. “We, as a brand, believe in slow, organic growth. But there is an overdose of content, especially when it comes to fashion. So somewhere you need to do things that help you stay relevant, whether you are a big or a small brand. The key is that it should match your aesthetic; it has to make sense.”
Rahul Mishra’s 3 July presentation, part of the Paris Haute Couture Week, exemplifies the keep-your-vibe-in-sync with what your brand stands for attitude. While models flaunted his We, The People collection—complete with bodysuits, mini-dresses, long jackets, lehngas, with intricate embroidery—he offered some drama in a way that was in line with a brand that focuses heavily on embroidery: Two of his embroiderers were demonstrating their work live on the side of the runway. “This collection is a tribute to my karigars; they are the core part of the brand,” Mishra said over the phone, before the show. “The world needs to see with their own eyes how they create magic with their hands.”
When I asked Mishra whether a runway show requires a dramatic presentation or just good fashion is enough for the oomph factor, he says: “Good fashion, good clothes is for long-term success; nothing can replace that. But there’s a reason a fashion show is called a ‘show’; you need ‘thoda bahot tamasha’ (a little bit of drama) to make a splash, especially on social media.” The reality, he adds, is: “Business is now booming…fashion is moving and evolving fast. These big venues, big budgets for a show are a way for big brands to flex their muscles, which puts pressure on younger brands to also add drama on the stage, whether in the form of a showstopper or live music.”
Like Mishra, Gupta, too, will bring part of his Paris collection to the India Couture Week later this month. “Sometimes these runway tactics are gimmicky, sometimes they are immersive experiences,” says Gupta, who believes his clothes ooze enough drama.
Earlier, says designer Kunal Rawal, he would have been all for it, the loud drama, the extra noise. But not any more. “I agree… there’s hectic-ness in this industry and the sheer quantum of clothes that are made, plus the pressure of social media, it becomes important to stand out. But clothes are getting missed,” says Rawal, who’s also part of the India Couture Week. “Fashion has to take the form; it has to be about the clothes. And even if you want a showstopper moment, it needs to be real. The muse who’s going to close the runway show for you must step out of their celebrity world for that moment and become an extension of your brand to make it all look seamless. It can’t be clickbait-y; today’s audience is too smart.”
Certainly, the #viralcore formula isn’t complete without one ingredient—a story worth telling in and around the clothes. Like Ritu Kumar, the OG of Indian fashion design, says: “You need both the wow and the good but there’s no short-cut to making such fashion.”