In 1995, Alix Browne sat at the edge of the catwalk at Alexander McQueen’s “Highland Rape” show in London. “The models staggered straight for us, the bodices of their tartan and lace dresses ravaged, their eyes wild, as if propelled by some ferocious, inner demons,” she writes in the introduction to Runway: The Spectacle of Fashion (Rizzoli), her stunning new book, out next month. “It’s an experience from which I don’t think I ever fully recovered.”
Throughout her career working for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, V, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Browne, who is now the Features Director of W, has been enthralled by the emotion, contextual acuity, and the artistry of the runway show. Rather than compiling a top-100 list, Browne spotlights memorable productions from the past 20 years, deftly charting a progression in fashion and revealing the incredible range of vision designers have brought to bear. Take, for example, the stripped-down intensity of Helmut Lang’s 1993 show at the Espace Commines, in Paris. The former gallery was completely raw, and Lang cast men and women — professional models and friends alike — who walked at ground level, snaking their way through the packed audience. And then there is the grandeur of Chanel’s spring 2012 collection, which was set in an under-the-sea fantasia filled with coral reefs and sea horses, with the singer Florence Welch posing in a giant oyster shell. Runway juxtaposes famous museum-bound shows (like McQueen’s) with those that should be known for their theatricality and innovation, like the one Carol Christian Poell staged in 2004 in Milan’s Naviglio Grande, the city’s main canal. The models floated past the audience at a glacial pace; the whole thing lasted 40 minutes.
In today’s fast-fashion, Web-obsessed world, Poell’s presentation — as well as many of the others that Browne lovingly documents — should be remembered as an aesthetically inspiring event. Runway is a vivid reminder of how thrilling, intense, and emotionally immersive a fashion show (and fashion itself!) can be.
Watch W's most popular videos here: