Viral Runway Shows Are, in Fact, Nothing New

Fashion has always loved an outrageous performance on the runway. It’s all about the show, after all—Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld, and many more of fashion’s greats have all indulged in the performative runway show. Even those associated with a more quiet aesthetic, like Yohji Yamamoto, have demonstrated a deep dedication to fashion presentations as pageantry. McQueen loved the concept and employed it often in the ’90s and early 2000s. Yet, in 2023, a new kind of theatrical runway show—one that prizes social media as currency above all else—has arrived. In these presentations, all emphasis is placed on curating the perfect viral moment. The clothing can get lost, but depending upon the messaging of the collection, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. Either way, consuming any given runway show means most attendees will be staring at their phones, whether they’re at home watching the livestream or seated in the front row filming a TikTok.

“It used to be a gift bag, now it’s the performance—being able to say you were part of that moment,” explains the stylist Jamie-Maree Shipton. She adds that the rise of this new kind of fashion show has much to do with the audience’s desensitization to a runway with no frills. After all, our minds are overstimulated with thousands of images a day. We’re scrolling on our phones between shows; anyone can view the presentation via livestream, and the subsequent photos, almost instantaneously online. What feels special anymore? “How can a brand make a point of difference, how can it make the show exist beyond that moment? How can it live on social media?” Shipton asks. “It’s indeed somewhat gimmicky, but if it informs what the collection is about, then it’s acceptable. What I don’t like is if it’s all about the show, and once that’s taken away, you dissect the collection, and you’re left wanting—well, that’s not good.”

Shalom Harlow is spray-painted by robots during the Alexander McQueen spring 1999 fashion show on September 27, 1998 in London.

Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The fall 2023 season alone was home to copious viral shows. There was Anrealage’s live performance of models wearing clothing that instantly transformed as a UV light descended. Thom Browne’s fall 2023 collection recreated a high-fashion retelling of “The Little Prince.” Stella McCartney had live horses perform to an X-rated soundtrack at its 9:30 AM show in Paris on a recent Monday. Even smaller brands are getting in on the trend, showcasing concepts that feel like they’re intentionally curated to gain traction on social media—like Weinsanto’s larger-than-life jacket that literally punched guests in the face as it walked by (People loved it—before the model marched through the tightly packed venue, she shouted, “Get out of the way!”).

Although we can only trace the idea of viral moments in social media back to the past ten years or so (Instagram was created in 2010), the theatrical runway show has existed for over a century. “You can arguably trace it back to Paul Poiret and his themed costume parties, like the ‘1002nd Night’ ball of 1911,’” says Dirk Standen, Dean of SCAD School of Fashion. “In the modern era, Thierry Mugler is often credited with creating the paradigm. A famous example is the March 1984 show, with a pregnant Pat Cleveland as the Madonna descending from the skies in front of 6,000-plus people at the Zenith Paris stadium. Most of Mugler’s shows in the early ’80s had an element of the fantastical.” Standen also credits Karl Lagerfeld for introducing his own version of the spectacle-laden runway show, creating the blueprint for how many of the bigger fashion houses approach shows today. “Karl Lagerfeld cemented the contemporary model with the series of spectacles he engineered for Chanel: the supermarket, the rocket ship, the iceberg, and so on,” he says. “Now, it’s no expense spared for the major houses.”

Rihanna, Cara Delevingne, and Joan Smalls palling around at the fall 2014 Chanel show in Paris, for which Lagerfeld built an entire faux grocery store as the setting.

Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images

“I would hope the audience is in the moment and just appreciates what is immediately in front of them,” says Thom Browne of his recent shows, which have gained much traction online. The designer is insistent that the dramatics are geared toward creating emotion rather than something that lives purely on the Internet. “I can only speak for myself: I think it makes the collection more interesting. It gives life to the clothes, and hopefully, it is an experience that you remember.” But he cautions younger designers enterting the industry in this new era of viral shows: “If you are going to surround your collection with a story, make sure the quality of both are at the same level…and you tell a story that is worthy of telling…a story that makes your audience’s time slip away…a story that makes them laugh or cry.”

Thom Browne’s fall 2023 presentation included a theatrical retelling of “The Little Prince.”

Photo by Nina Westervelt/WWD via Getty Images
Photo by Nina Westervelt/WWD via Getty Images

And while today’s attempts at virality are often labeled “gimmicks” by insiders and amateur TikTok critics alike, when performance aspects of a viral show also serve as exercises in storytelling, there’s really nothing better. For example, for AVAVAV’s fall 2023 show led by creative director Beate Karlsson, models’ heels broke, clothing ripped off, bags fell, and for the grand finale, the backdrop to backstage came flying down. It was a smart commentary on the perception of luxury in fashion today, as well as highly entertaining—but most of all, it made sense contextually with the clothing. “We’ve been working a lot with success versus failure and the shame of failing,” Karlsson says. “So, I was trying to come up with one of the most shameful things that can happen to a fashion house, and pieces breaking felt like an embarrassing thing that’s also furthest from what we perceive as luxury. After we came up with the concept, we were definitely thinking about how this would be strong on social media.” Last season, the label had models trip and fall to the ground in every single look, which also went viral and fed into the discourse of fashion’s ideas of extreme superficiality, as well as brands making heels that brought even the most skilled models to the ground (see: Valentino’s sky-high platforms). “I think it’s important that the clothing is integrated into the concept, otherwise it’s just clickbait,” she adds.

In other ways, these episodes of virality can bring attention to emerging brands, like the aforementioned Weinsanto, which is currently supported by Dover Street Market’s showroom. Although the supersized jacket had its own viral flash, the rest of the collection was presented in a tangible, standard runway format so the details could be seen up close, without distractions. “My first idea was to make a regular coat from our wardrobe but make it XXXXL, as Alice in Wonderland when she becomes so small that she disappears from her dress,” explains Victor Weinsanto. Prior to his fall 2023 collection, the designer also strategically included a few over-the-top, massive show pieces throughout his collections. “To be honest, I knew people would film this moment, but I didn’t think of any virality,” he adds. “A viral moment distracts the audience from the essential point of the show, which is clothing. But at the same time, it helps you be seen and understood by a wider public. A viral moment becomes a key that can unlock a new audience and differentiate you from all the other brands and shows. There are so many of these now.”

Bella Hadid at the Coperni spring 2023 show.

Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP) (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images

Many have been quick to credit Coperni for playing a major part in bringing attention to this new kind of performance-driven runway show, which seems to be specifically designed for Instagram and TikTok videos. The inspiration being, of course, last season’s show, when technicians sprayed a dress onto a naked Bella Hadid. For days after the event, it was impossible to scroll through any social media platform without seeing videos and commentary (even the negative criticism spawned millions of views). For fall 2023, Coperni doubled down on the performance aspect—incorporating Spot robots from the American company Boston Dynamics to walk the runway alongside models. “It’s true that, for the past few years, fashion shows have become more like a factory,” Coperni co-founder Arnaud Vaillant told W before the fall 2023 show. “An exercise where you have all the girls walking, opening, closing. We want the guests to stop and think and enjoy and discover.” The brand is clearly in its performance era, and they don’t mind if you notice it: “I believe you have different times in your career or in your collections,” Vaillant added. “And it’s true that sometimes, it’s more about the collection; sometimes, it’s more about the casting and the hair and makeup. Sometimes, it’s more about the performance. Sometimes, it’s more about the set. You have to play with that, right?”

Lila Grace Moss walks the runway with a robot at the Coperni fall 2023 show.

Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images

Of course, the audience plays its own role in all of this, especially when it comes to brands that don’t yet have a legacy—everyone wants to see something special. But industry insiders who are there to do work that doesn’t put social media first (stylists, reviewers, buyers, the list goes on,) can grow tired of it. “As a stylist especially, sometimes I want to be close enough with good enough lighting and models walking at the right pace so I can actually see the details of a collection,” Shipton says. “Otherwise, I’m gonna be checking Vogue Runway the moment I exit the show.”

At the same time, there’s also some amount of duality happening with shows at this moment in fashion history. Demna’s Balenciaga went back to having a fairly traditional runway show, after season upon season of circus-like tricks, from having Kanye West gleefully walk in a pit of mud to showing its collection inside the New York Stock Exchange. The rise of the intimate presentation is revered right now; maybe it’ll soon become as widespread as the theatrical show. After all, the attendees of those smaller, more intimate presentations post them on social media just as much—if not more. “One of the strongest shows was Alaïa, which took place in creative director Pieter Mulier’s apartment in Antwerp—a fairly spectacular apartment, admittedly, but an apartment nonetheless,” Standen says. Quiet luxury brands like The Row are on everyone’s minds amid the impending recession, and likely wouldn’t engage in the idea of creating a surprising moment for social media.

But at the end of the day, were you even there if you didn’t post about it? Fashion has become the world’s biggest spectator sport—even for those watching from their beds, phones in hand—and its main arena is the runway show.