There is only one way to wake up a semi-dormant fashion observer who has spent so many months at their home-office, wearing sweatshirts and snacking on comfort food: resort to the extremes. Fashion has a long history of camp, but in 2021, the ever-evolving aesthetic became a much-needed antidote for the rising boredom. According to Susan Sontag, the renowned essayist who preached the definitions of camp in the 1960s, it is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off”, of things-being-what-they-are-not (Sontag 2018, 4). Pathos and dramatic gestures. Anti-seriousness and naivety. Full-blown exaggeration and over-the-topness. And of course – entertaining the viewer.
Observing Balenciaga’s brilliantly hilarious spectacle, which was a red carpet event, a premiere screening of The Simpsons (the plot of which included a mad trip to Paris and ended up with walking the brand’s runway) and a fashion show simultaneously, it’s impossible not to detect the delightful signs of camp. In general, Demna Gvasalia has given the fashion space a range of new meanings throughout his tenure at Balenciaga, but his spring-summer 2022 steals the spotlight (however, it’s worth remembering that Tara Subkoff debuted a very similar concept back in 2001, when Chloë Sevigny and a pack of top models walked down the Imitation Of Christ red carpet in New York’s Clearview Theater). Well, we needed something fun to happen (Mower, 2021) is how Gvasalia summed up the faux red carpet parade of Balenciaga’s models and friends, from Isabelle Huppert and Juergen Teller to Cardi B and Elliot Page, all livestreamed and watched by the show’s audience inside the Théâtre du Châtelet. It is difficult to remember when the concept behind a fashion space sparked so many smiles and reactions, in real life and online.
A similar, celebrity-culture-inspired train of thought went through Alessandro Michele’s mind this season, although the result did not feel as effortless as in the case of Gvasalia’s fashion show (and camp should never be over-forced). Gucci’s runway collection was presented along the actual Hollywood Boulevard, and the whole scene was more pure entertainment than actual clothing presentation. Cathy Horyn wrote in her review for The Cut: Though the scale of the boulevard overwhelmed the clothes, and though the models were oddly inexpressive, almost sad-looking (…) I feel certain the brand’s digital genies will nonetheless create a wonderful marketing video. Which is the point of the whole exercise (Horyn 2021). It is difficult not to agree with Horyn’s first-hand account of the venue. The ambience made up of the mythical aura of Old Hollywood clashing with the modern-day, kitschy look of this 7-km-long Los Angeles street, abruptly booming with a pack of celebrities sitting along its sidewalks, made you wonder whether this event had anything to do with a fashion show. At Balenciaga, with all the fun in the background, you had no problem observing the garments – however packed and entertaining the fashion space was, it accomplished its aim. In Alessandro Michele’s spring-summer 2022 outing, the clothes were definitely not the heroes. Still, as Horyn reflects, this is a goldmine for future visuals for Gucci’s future advertisement visuals that will overflow their social media channels next spring. The vision of a Jean Harlow-like model wearing her floor-sweeping feather boa, passing by the Walk of Fame stars, is so in-your-face and trivial that it’s doomed to be an Insta-success. Of course, what is banal can (…) become fantastic, Sontag wrote regarding the nature of camp (2018, 7). Camp might often be disliked – or even undermined – among art historians, but it is a tool that never fails in the entertainment industries (fashion counts as one of them). When times are dull and difficult, the audience wants to see sparks and glitter. A camp-y fashion space that oozes and emanates with unreachable dreams fits very well with the 2021 demographics… and, as a side effect, sells more than ever.
This perspective on a fashion space is undeniably the most common this season – but definitely not uniform. Brands and designers took their audiences to the outdoors for two reasons. The first was to promote a new realness that is said to be incorporated into the garments, but the second reason is far more convincing (and truly relevant) – to minimise the danger of COVID-19 spreading among the guests (and looking at some candid photos from the four major fashion capitals, most of the fashion audience are just too frivolous to wear a mask).
The concept of presenting a guerrilla-style fashion show on an actual street owes its big rebirth to New York designers. Eckhaus Latta had its runway on Scott Avenue in Bushwick, a lively Brooklyn district. The sight of models walking down the concrete street of New York worked perfectly with the 1990s-Helmut-Lang-inspired flesh-revealing dresses and over-sized, yet not slouchy, tailoring. Back to the office, back to school, back to life – Eckhaus Latta’s message was as simple as that, grounded in true reality. Collina Strada was another New York-based brand that took the fashion insiders to Brooklyn. On a rooftop garden in Sunset Park, Hillary Taymour had her sustainable fashion manifesto seen and heard. During the golden hour, the label’s friends (including couples and kids) and models paraded in upcycled maxi-dresses and genderless tie-dyed garments, looking like New Age farmers who’d just finished planting their organic crops.
Taking the fashion show to the streets is sustainable – it is certainly not necessary to produce custom decorations that will become disposable the moment the event ends. And if we speak of anything sustainable in fashion, Gabriela Hearst and her vision at Chloé instantly come to mind. This season, the New York-based designer presented her spring offering for the Parisian maison just by the Seine, with models walking along the Quai de la Tournelle. A highly accidental fashion space that involved Parisian passers-by, a riverboat filled with tourists, the buzz of cars in the background and of course, the charming view of the sun-drenched Left Bank. An outdoors fashion presentation that puts the emphasis on the city was also on Pierpaolo Piccioli’s mind. His Valentino show took place at the Carreau du Temple marketplace and engulfed a number of cafés and restaurants that are situated right there. Some of the models wore boho shirts and denim pants, whilst others wore the most eccentric and lavish eveningwear – this collection was about diversity of styles, and celebrating daily life. The show’s setting, consisting of a slice of vibrant, urban landscape, where people meet up and enjoy themselves, was Piccioli’s touching nod not only to Paris, but to any city in the world. This idea reaches a new level of importance, especially after a period of time when so many bricks-and-mortar businesses were closed down and struggled financially.
Some designers chose specific urban locations due to sentimental reasons. For instance, Courrèges’ Nicolas Di Felice invited his guests to Bois de Vincennes. The park, located nearly on the outskirts of Paris, was the place he and his boyfriend first kissed (Phelps, 2021b). But the ambience of the show took a turn that was not associated with a summer romance. The models walked on white-painted grass in their space-age mini-dresses and architectural, voluminous cape-coats, at a distance from the audience. The entire scene suggested some sort of sci-fi gathering or UFO invasion that had suddenly taken place in the middle of the park. An even more intense sense of alienation was present in Saint Laurent’s show that –traditionally – took place a few steps from the Eiffel Tower, under the open sky. While the Paloma Picasso-inspired clothes looked extremely chic up-close, there was no chance one could actually see those garments during the fashion show. The distance between the front row (not to mention the less-privileged members of the audience sitting at the back) and the models was absurd, while all the additional elements of the outdoor venue – the epileptic light display and waterfall structures that brought no meaning to the collection and just felt like a waste of water – left the viewer overwhelmed and confused. Saint Laurent collections focus on the overall, highly-photogenic experience, but it’s a pity Anthony Vaccarello’s designs are often pushed back to the second plan. Why not consider taking them to an actual Parisian club where they truly belong, and let the dresses steal the spotlight? To sum up, this season’s fashion spaces that were executed in the urban outdoors worked best when they were grounded in reality – and not overkilled with purposeless additions.
In 1959, Allan Kaprow presented 18 Happenings in 6 Parts at the Reuben Gallery in New York. Once people arrived at the second floor of the gallery, they were given a programme of events and instructions on how to behave, including when to take their seats and how to move between the three spaces. Lasting for ninety minutes, the eighteen simultaneous performances included artists painting on canvases, a procession of performers and a mini-concert. The end of the event was signalled by a bell ringing. This haphazard sequence of events was the first opportunity for a wider audience to experience a happening. Kaprow coined the word happening to suggest something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen (Beaven, n.d.). What is important was that, rather than being just passive observers, the viewers of a happening were participants – you will become part of the happenings; you will simultaneously experience them, informed the invitations sent out by Kaprow (Beaven, n.d.). A happening’s key aim is to merge life with art – and vice versa. It’s an artistic practice that just asks for an innovative fashion reception – and this season, there were some intriguing examples.
Marni’s Francesco Risso was heavily inspired by the art-wise concept of a happening, and he created one of the most terrific fashion spaces in this season’s Milan Fashion Week. Of course, it would make no sense to follow every rule of a Kaprow-kind-of happening, so Risso came up with his own unique fashion interpretation. All of the guests participated in the event by wearing Marniphernalia– upcycled, one-of-a-kind garments that were fitted on every participant a few days before the show took place. The show-slash-happening involved a number of collaborators that delivered different sound sensations: Dev Hynes of Blood Orange was responsible for the music, the poet Mykki Blanco gave a spoken word performance, and the singer Zsela was joined by an emotionally-charged choir (Phelps 2021c). Once the fashion show started, a union of models navigated a spiral seating arrangement, and then walked through the round, central stage. The laid-back, ritualistic clothes – mostly kept in Breton stripes or a childish daisy motif – added up to the feeling of a ceremony that praised not only fashion, but the entire fashion community. In a beautiful way, life, art and fashion met at the same time. This was unquestionably one of the best fashion show concepts coming from Risso’s tenure at the Italian brand.
Fashion can conduct its own happenings that need no art background. Virginie Viard finally felt confident enough to make her Chanel feel a bit more fun, and she followed Karl Lagerfeld’s steps for executing a frivolous fashion space. Her fashion happening imitated the glamorous ritual of the 1980s and 1990s fashion shows. Just like in the heyday of supermodels, contemporary Chanel girls walked down the raised, beige runway oozing with joie de vivre as they twirled and vamped (Bowles 2021) for the photographers who were positioned along the length of the runway. Yes, maybe the whole sight felt overly nostalgic and just irrelevant in a time of front-row influencers who produce hundreds of photos and videos for their Instagrams and TikToks, making the old-school runway photographers simply no longer needed. But somehow, it all worked, from the 90s logo mania to the models’ genuine happiness radiating on the runway.
Back in New York, Thom Browne approached the art of a fashion happening in his signature, theatrical manner. The presentation was introduced by a spoken narration about a couple of bachelors stuck indoors in a wooden house, looking out over an ageing garden. Those two enigmatic characters were the heart of the show. Along with the slowly moving models wearing Browne’s off-kilter suits and surreal gowns, Pegasuses rode penny-farthings, and grey flower shrubs turned into statues (that is the power of a Thom Browne couture coat that can work as a brilliant camouflage). At the end, the show’s two bachelors chained their gates, unzipped each other’s grey woollen dresses, and orbited each other, never quite touching hands (Yotka 2021). The elusive show felt like an oneiric, surrealist fantasy – certainly, it was more of an in-motion artwork than anything to do with real life. Fashion happenings do not follow written rules.
Technology has never been so crucial in the context of fashion shows and spaces. Prada’s spring-summer 2022 line-up was the first runway collection co-designed by Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons that was presented to a physical audience. But there were actually two audiences invited to the Prada show – one in Milan’s Fondazione Prada and one in Shanghai’s Bund One. And they both saw the clothes on the models at the same time. Huge LED screens were placed around the runways, and thanks to the livestream technology, the guests could see the models wearing the same outfits in the other city, located thousands of kilometres away. Simons said in the brand’s press notes: It’s no longer about a small world – in fashion, or elsewhere. Doing these shows simultaneously demonstrates a new possibility… Community is a vital idea: drawing together people who share ideologies, values, and beliefs (Phelps 2021d). Forget the Metaverse, this is the Pradaverse. The collection itself focused on the ultimate Prada codes, like the ugly chic and odd sensuality – it is questionable whether the fashion presented on the runway(s) had anything to do with the hi-tech factor. Still, the idea of two shows taking place at the same time in different locations, synchronised through a livestream, fits the needs of the contemporary, pandemic world where travelling might not be that easy, and sparks the question: should a fashion show any longer exist solely in a site-specific fashion space, or can it fully relocate to a Matrix-fantasy digital ether?
A digital fashion space has different meanings. Prada certainly redefined that phenomenon, blurring the borders between real reality and screen reality. Not every brand decided to return to a physical runway. Choosing to present the new season’s offering through the digital medium requires an attention-grabbing idea that is both aesthetically appealing and, most of all, lets the viewer see the garments in a clear way. Dries Van Noten invited Rafael Pavarotti to photograph his brilliantly ecstatic collection, creating one of the most visually pleasing look-books of the season. The models, dancing and posing in front of radiant, colourful studio walls, were filmed by Albert Moya to the tune of Grace Jones’ remixed Pull Up To The Bumper for the collection’s short-length video. Van Noten’s key inspiration behind the entire line-up was Tomorrowland, Belgium’s biggest music festival. This could be clearly seen – by creating this vibrant mini-universe together with the two renowned image-makers, the designer conveyed the joyous, care-free feeling of festival days from pre-pandemic times. Schiaparelli was another label that, through quite minimal means, succeeded in constructing an audience-less fashion space that fits perfectly with the digital format. Daniel Roseberry came up with a surreal, Giorgio-De-Chirico-esque beach resort, where nothing is as it seems. Photographed by himself, the look-book sees models wearing refined tailoring in XXL stripes and swimwear with exaggerated flowers (instead of breast caps) in a studio space filled with sand and geometric, voluminous sculptures that might be associated with umbrellas and palm trees. Fashion spaces produced for digital presentations function as a sort of photogenic landscape that fulfills – and even elevates – the clothes worn by the models. Compared to previous seasons, however, these spaces are way more concise, and do not compete with the garments for the spotlight.
It is fascinating how fashion spaces adopt various concepts from the art world. The idea of the white cube arose back in the 1960s and is still relevant in 2021. A white cube is mostly understood as an art gallery space that completely isolates the artworks from the surrounding world through its white walls, lack of windows, and modest, even ascetic furnishing. In simple terms, the aim of the white cube is to minimise any distraction that might occur while viewing the artwork. Brian O’Doherty, who in his texts analyses the appeal and drawbacks of this sort of art gallery space, some kind of a sacred space, the white cube removes the artwork from any aesthetic or historical context (O’Doherty 2015). A similar process took place in some of this season’s fashion presentations. Of course, showing a garment in front of a white wall is nothing new, especially among labels that are minimal in their aesthetics, but the three brands that are mentioned below used the white-cube-like fashion space with different intentions.
London-based designer Molly Goddard certainly cannot be called a minimalist. Her exuberant tulle gowns and eclectic knitwear in the boldest colours instead occupy the opposite pole. But for her spring-summer 2022 collection, she decided to present her statement garments in a white cube fashion space – not in a fancy townhouse or an opulent interior, as she did in the past. On a raised, white runway (which looked like a Robert Morris “L-Beam” block – the minimal-art masterpiece that used to engage with the white cube phenomenon) and with white walls in the background, the charming baby-doll dresses in bright pinks and yellows looked even more expressive. The over-sized silhouettes of Goddard’s designs (especially all the flared pants) were also visually emphasised thanks to the absolutely un-contextual fashion space. In this case, a white cube fashion space is the perfect surrounding for clothes that crave full attention. In Shanghai, emerging designer Susan Fang also considered a white cube fashion space as the best fit for her magnificent eveningwear, which focuses on a signature technique of folded tulle reminiscent of air flowers (Yotka 2021). The spacious, all-white runway worked harmoniously with the precious, feather-weight gowns and ball-skirts, and the descending mist added a sense of theatricality to the whole scene.
This season’s Bottega Veneta fashion space rather highlighted the criticism surrounding the white cube concept and its premises. Daniel Lee’s last runway collection for the Italian brand was presented at Detroit’s Michigan Theatre – a massive “movie palace built during the city’s spectacular automotive-fuelled boom in the 1920s, which was converted into a parking garage during its even more spectacular 1970s bust” (Phelps 2021a). The dilapidated French Renaissance-style interior of the theatre delivers an unparalleled, slightly haunted ambience, emanating genius loci. Unfortunately, the brand decided to cover its ground stage – which was used as the catwalk for the models – with a white covering, whilst the historic ceiling moulds were barely visible due to the lighting arrangement that focused solely on the runway. As a result, looking at the runway photos and the show’s video, an unaware viewer might never even notice that the fashion show took place in one of the most idiosyncratic and cult landmarks of Detroit. O’Doherty’s criticism of white cube – the sacralisation of art, and in this case of fashion, at the expense of the space’s context diminishment – reveals itself in the case of Bottega Veneta’s runway setting.
Collages by Edward Kanarecki / @designandculturebyed
Beaven, Kirstie. n.d. "Performance Art: The Happening." Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/h/happening/happening
Bowles, Hamish. 2021. "Chanel." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2022-ready-to-wear/chanel#gallery-detail
Horyn, Cathy. 2021. "Gucci’s Hollywood Romp." The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2021/11/cathy-horyn-fashion-review-gucci-love-parade.html
Mower, Sarah. 2021. "Balenciaga." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2022-ready-to-wear/balenciaga
O’Doherty, Brian. 2015. "Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space." Garage. https://garagemca.org/en/publishing/brian-o-doherty-inside-the-white-cube-the-ideology-of-the-gallery-space
Phelps, Nicole. 2021. "Bottega Veneta." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2022-ready-to-wear/bottega-veneta
Phelps, Nicole. 2021. "Courreges." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2022-ready-to-wear/courreges
Phelps, Nicole. 2021. "Marni." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2022-ready-to-wear/marni
Phelps, Nicole. 2021. "Prada." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2022-ready-to-wear/prada
Sontag, Susan. 2018. Notes on Camp. London: Penguin Classics.
Yotka, Steff. 2021. "Susan Fang." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/shanghai-spring-2022/susan-fang
Yotka, Steff. 2021. "Thom Browne." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2022-ready-to-wear/chanel#gallery-detail