Lagerfeld, who is obsessed with photographs and video, reasons, “You make a movie, you have to build a set.” And he’s right: Fashion is its own movie. His shows get lots of airtime and are also broadcast in Chanel boutiques around the globe. A plain white wall as a backdrop just doesn’t cut it. “We live in a world of image, of television, of things seen on screens; empty screens don’t look so good,” Lagerfeld says, his eyes shielded by mirrored, wraparound Michalsky sunglasses. “This is something big companies do.”
Last October the designer took the notion of bigness to a new zenith for Fendi, sending the spring collection down the Great Wall of China, arguably the most spectacular 4,000-mile-long runway on the planet. “It did a lot for the globalization of Fendi,” he says of the event, which was rumored to have cost north of $10 million and featured everything from heated bench seats to cashmere shawls to protect Zhang Ziyi and Kate Bosworth, among others, from Beijing’s late-evening chill. “The payback is huge.”
And how. Michael Burke, CEO of Fendi, says the Great Wall show racked up an estimated $150 million worth of media exposure. “You have to be bold, very innovative, doing things in a unique way and with extreme perfection and quality,” he says. “That’s what sets luxury fashion companies apart from the rest of the crowd…going where no one else has gone before.” That also means getting the message out to customers in fast-growing emerging markets like the Middle East, Russia and China, who are taking up the slack as purse strings tighten in the West. Notes Burke, “We have customers in the far reaches of Sichuan Province.”
The scale of events today reflects the global scope of the luxury-goods industry, which exploded in the Nineties, leaving its carriage-trade image in the dust. “It’s extreme compared to the past, but it’s not extreme if you look at the world today,” Burke says. Not so long ago, designers relied on department-store buyers and fashion editors to deliver the message about their products and trends to the final consumer. “When you can see Fendi on the Great Wall on CNN, CCTV or Good Morning America, it’s direct—there’s no filter. In the past, communication was top-down.Today, it’s more horizontal.”
Sidney Toledano, CEO of Dior, has witnessed such flat-world phenomena. He was surprised to hear friends of his 20-year-old son, Alan, tell him how much they liked Dior’s latest fashion show—especially since none of them was invited. “They talked about it as if they were there, but they saw it on the Internet,” Toledano recalls over a lunch of lobster risotto in Dior’s hushed, plush gray salons on the Avenue Montaigne.