What is a Fashion Show? Everything You Need to Know

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What is a Fashion Show?

A fashion show (in French défilé de mode) is an event where fashion designers showcase clothes, shoes, and accessories for the upcoming seasons of spring/summer and fall/winter to the media and the general public.

The bulk of a fashion show consists of models walking on narrow platforms, also known as catwalks or runways, dressed in the designer’s latest collection, presenting them to fashion critics, influencers, buyers, and media.

Fashion Catwalk

Fashion shows can be organized indoors or outdoors, usually accompanied by music, lights, visuals, colors, holograms, and video backdrops.

There are also static and theatrical fashion show installations, with models standing or walking silently or immersed in special effects.

Coperni Spring Summer 2023 Fashion Show

What is the Point of Fashion Shows?

The role of a fashion show is to deliver the designer’s vision and stylistic direction for the new collection.

Fashion shows allow designers to showcase their work to fashion critics and potential buyers.

Point of fashion shows

Fashion shows also serve as networking events, where designers, buyers, retailers, and critics get together.

What is a Fashion Week?

Fashion Week is a yearly event organized in capital cities worldwide.

The Fashion Weeks organized in Paris, London, New York, and Milan (the Big 4 Fashion capital cities) are the largest and most important regarding fashion designers, media coverage, and sales.

Fashion Week

As the ideal way for fashion designers to present and promote their latest creations, fashion shows are the foundation of Fashion Weeks.

The History of Fashion Shows

The first record of a fashion show concept goes back to 1858 and Charles Frederick Worth, when the English fashion designer hired beautiful women to parade his creations instead of displaying them on mannequins.

The shows were small private parties with canapés and tea where models were dressed in couturier’s latest creations to a handful of wealthy clients.

Fashion show in the 1800s
Fashion show in the 1800s – Source: Les Createurs de la Mode

Fashion Shows in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The first fashion shows were organized by Charles Fredrick Worth – founder of the House of Worth – by getting models to wear clothes instead of mannequins.

Charles Fredrick Worth and House of Worth
Portrait of Charles Fredrick Worth (source: Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, 1892) and the illustration of House of Worth by M. Griffith (published in The Strand Magazine no. 48, Vol. VIII, July to December 1894)

Initially, Worth used his design studio in Paris but gradually took his models to public places like dancing galas, horse racetracks, and ‘fashion parades’ in clothing stores.

Designers like Paul Poiret in Paris and Lady Duff-Gordon (creating under the moniker Lucile) in London copied Worth’s concept of using live models to parade the clothes to an audience.

Early fashion shows by Paul Poiret, France, and Lady Duff-Gordon, London.
Early Fashion Shows: Paul Poiret, France, and Lady Duff-Gordon, London.

American retailers adopted the concept, and in 1903, the Ehrlich Brothers organized the first American fashion show in their New York City store.

Thematic and theatrical, accompanied by a narrative commentary, the shows were hugely popular, enticing crowds so large that clothing stores in New York had to obtain special licenses to authorize the use of live fashion models.

By 1910, American department stores like Wanamaker’s in Manhattan and Philadelphia were staging Fashion Shows with haute couture from Paris and London and alternatives created by local designers.

Fashion show in 1910

European fashion houses would actively seek out buyers in the United States, and by 1918 large fashion houses in London, Paris, and New York agreed on fixed dates (twice annually) for runway shows to take place.

By the 1920s, most clothing retailers, department stores, and even hotels across the United States organized popular Fashion Shows around themes like Parisian, British, or Italian styles.

However, in 1943, the events were centralized under one umbrella called Fashion Week in New York to give an alternative to French fashion during World War II.

New York Fashion Week 1943

Starting in the 50s, fashion designers returned to organizing and showcasing private fashion shows, away from large clothing retailers.

Starting in the 2000s, Fashion Weeks have become elaborate, including video, sound, lighting, and filming infrastructure broadcasted on television channels, documentaries, and the internet.


Fashion Shows in the 21st Century

Modern Fashion Shows are constantly improved by adopting technological innovations such as pre-recorded digital videos, AI sounds, holograms, light and filming drones, and virtual, augmented, and mixed reality.

While some Fashion shows are comprised of narrow runways between rows of chairs, the modern era has brought super elaborated settings like Chanel’s 2016 show at Paris Fashion Week, depicting an airport with flight attendants, ticket counters, and tourists.

Chanel in Paris Fashion Week 2016
Chanel Fall/Winter 2016 at Paris Fashion Week.

Most Iconic Fashion Shows

From the gleaming runways of Paris to London’s electrifying catwalks, these are the most iconic fashion shows to date.

  1. ALEXANDER MCQUEEN A/W 1998 by Alexander McQueen
  2. YVES SAINT LAURENT A/W 1998 by Yves Saint Laurent
  3. ALEXANDER MCQUEEN S/S 1999 by Alexander McQueen
  4. FENDI A/W 2007 by Karl Lagerfeld
  5. PIERRE CARDIN S/S 2008 by Pierre Cardin and Sergio Altieri
  6. MAISON MARGIELA S/S 2009 by Martin Margiela
  7. ALEXANDER MCQUEEN S/S 2010 by Alexander McQueen
  8. CHANEL A/W 2014 by Karl Lagerfeld
  9. VERSACE S/S 2018 by Donatella Versace
  10. COPERNI S/S 2023 by Sebastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant

For more, check out the full list of the most memorable and iconic fashion shows of all time.

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After years of managing hundreds of fashion brands from London's office of a global retailer, Mandy has ventured into freelancing. Connected with several fashion retailers and media platforms in the US, Australia, and the UK, Mandy uses her expertise to consult for emerging fashion brands create top-notch content as an editorial strategist for several online publications.

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