FASHION WEEK: THE ORIGINS

Catwalk at Press Week 1964

It begins in Paris; of course

Before the white tents, red carpets, fashionistas and coveted front row seats there was Paris. Under King Louis XIV, the concept of ‘haute couture’ began and it hit its climax – complete with its persistent guidelines and reinvention – with the House of Worth. The 1800s saw ateliers hosting “défilés de mode” fashion shows exclusively for their most valued clientele, otherwise known as royalty.  However, it was fashion designer Charles Worth, often referred to as the father of haute couture, who not only introduced the notion of creating collections, but also showcasing them worn by models.

Image featured in Paris Dressmakers by M. Griffith

Charles Frederick Worth as featured in Paris Dressmakers by M. Griffith, Strand Magazine 48 vol. VIII

The Leap to Fashion Week

Drawing inspiration from the Parisian couture salons, a New York City shop, Ehrich Brothers, hosted America’s first fashion show in 1903. Department stores quickly caught on and by the 1920s fashion parades had become the norm to attract female shoppers. All the while, it was believed that American designers had to look to the French for inspiration. But it turns out World War II would give the American fashion industry the nudge it required.

With the war pushing more women into the workforce, their spending power went up exponentially. However the rationing at the time left the US government with a dilemma – how do they encourage these women to splurge their new economic freedom in America? Enter Eleanor Lambert; a New York City based publicist tasked with making American designs desirable, even though they hadn’t reached the European standards yet.

Eleanor Lamert Image from CFDA.com by Associated Press

Eleanor Lamert / Associated Press

According to John Tiffany, author of ‘Eleanor Lambert: Still Here’, Lambert’s solution was the concept of clustering different shows together within a time frame and ‘Press Week’ was born, in New York in 1943. Later, the name was changed to Fashion Week, making it the first Fashion Week preceding Paris, London and Milan. These cities make up the ‘Big Four Fashion Weeks’ that are noted globally today.

Fashion Week as a Controlled Art Form

It didn’t take long for people to see the importance and power that Fashion Weeks possessed. It rose in an era where a select few would chart the course of fashion for international magazines and stores through these fashion weeks. It was an industry that ran on a framework that needed more than the designers.

It rose in an era where a select few would chart the course of fashion…

Thus the rise of governing bodies that set the guidelines to keep this massive production on the right course, as well as challenge, recognize and award talent. In New York, Lambert founded the Council of Fashion Designers of America where Ruth Finley created one of the first fashion week calendars in 1944. It was a comprehensive guide that brought the beauty and fashion world together, as well as, incorporated the editors, manufacturers and buyers for one purpose. The council also played part in centralizing the event in the iconic location of the white tents at Bryant Park, New York.

Paris started out with the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1945 that decided what constituted as haute couture. The governing body changed over in 1973 to the French Fashion Federation (Fédération Française de la Couture) which had the more organised “semaine de la mode”. It also works to ensure that the couture designs aren’t copied. While the federation oversees the main event, there are many independent shows that take place during the week. The Milan Fashion Week, which officially started with this title in 1979, is organised by the National Chamber for Italian Fashion (Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana), founded in 1958. However, some of the larger design houses, such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana showcase outside of Camera Moda.

The first English speaking series of events was the London Fashion Week in 1984. It’s governed by the British Fashion Council and is also the first Fashion Week to stream the event live in 2010.

Bigger and better

By the 1990s the fashion weeks still maintained an element of exclusivity seen in the 1700s, where exclusive invites to certain areas are for a select few and A-list celebrity sightings is the norm. I mean, what is fashion without the aristocrat air, right? Not to mention big sponsorship, such as the famous Mercedes Benz shows, to bring the big-budget extravaganza that maintains prestige. However, it’s increasingly becoming important to include the average consumer in the festivities. Such as utilising technology to encourage more people to interact with the shows via live-streaming.

Bryant Park during Fashion week by Michael Minn

Bryant Park during Fashion week by Michael Minn

These four Fashion Weeks set the premise for Fashions Weeks all over the world. What may have started out as a way to make women shopaholics (congratulations you succeeded), turned out to be more than just a social event; but a platform to empower and entire industry and an art form.

 

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