The 2,000-year-old Panathenaic stadium in Athens was able to hold 70,000 on marble seats for the first modern Olympics in 1896. So there was plenty of room in the front row at Dior’s catwalk show at the venue this week, where the guest list was capped at 400.
Despite most international buyers, editors and clients watching from home on their laptops, Dior’s Cruise collection was a blockbuster live event. The brand was keen to point out that the ancient stadium made for a responsible choice of venue, being well-ventilated and spacious. It was also undeniably grand, especially when backlit by fireworks and soundtracked by a full orchestra. A mostly Greek and Italian audience were joined by the Greek president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, and the actor Anya Taylor-Joy.
The catwalk show remains fashion’s most powerful lever for generating attention and prestige. For luxury brands who are watching profits dwindle – and observing with envy, as the cult leggings label Lululemon announces 88% revenue growth in the first quarter of this year – there is a strong business case for keeping the catwalk alive.
But there is more at stake here than luxury brand profits and designer egos. Catwalk shows are symbolic of fashion’s identity as a creative art as well as a business. They give fashion a voice in wider conversations. It is in this spirit that Kerby Jean-Raymond, the first Black American designer to show at Paris haute couture, will next month livestream his Pyer Moss catwalk show from Villa Lewaro, the elegant Hudson River estate built by Madam CJ Walker, the African American entrepreneur who was America’s first self-made female millionaire.
Now designers are pulling out all the stops to lure hearts and minds away from trainers and drawstring waists and back to dressing up. Dior’s Athens spectacular is just one of a raft of upcoming fashion blockbusters. Earlier this week, Louis Vuitton staged and filmed a space-tourism themed catwalk show outside Paris, without a live audience. Max Mara are taking their catwalk to the Italian island of Ischia next week, while Valentino and Saint Laurent have announced catwalk shows in Venice in July.
For the Dior designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri, each catwalk collection is “an immense atelier for research and imagination. For a creative person, it is a beautiful thing to do, an opportunity to collaborate”.
Chiuri used the Athens show to explore how the relationship between a prestigious Parisian fashion house and the global cultures and traditions which appear as references on its catwalk has evolved. In 1951, a famous set of pictures by the photographer Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini showed models in Christian Dior ballgowns posing in front of the sculpted female figures of the Caryatids of the Acropolis, mirroring their graceful poses. Seventy years later, Chiuri is aware that a French fashion house using an ancient Greek monument as mere stage props for its latest silhouette would not fly with modern sensibilities.
“As a designer, if you are careless, then you diminish beauty and culture so that it becomes a cliche,” she said. “That is what we work to avoid – we were very focused on what is contemporary to Greece now.” The collection shown on this catwalk will provide work for Greek fashion businesses, with houndstooth pieces woven at the Silk Line, an Eastern Macedonian factory which uses traditional Greek jacquard techniques. The Greek fisher’s caps on the catwalk were made by Atelier Tsalavoutas, which has manufactured the caps since the 19th century. In a statement, the house of Dior emphasised their respect for the iconic venue, where they “worked hand in hand with Greek archaeologists to ensure the site’s complete and unconditional preservation”.
Travel is a fantasy for most people right now – but billionaires have had a very different experience of the pandemic. On 20 July, the 11-minute inaugural staffed flight of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket will inaugurate the era of space tourism. If it is a success, the 1% will soon be needing a new holiday wardrobe.
So for Louis Vuitton’s latest catwalk show the house’s creative director, the lifelong space travel enthusiast Nicolas Ghesquière, created the ultimate new season capsule wardrobe: a space capsule wardrobe. Images of an escalator leading up to a planet, surfers on an moonscape beach, and a motel car park in an alien landscape were emblazoned on to spacesuit-quilted trousers, Courrèges-style futuristic flat boots, and gravity-defying ovoid silhouettes. “It is a fantasy that has become real, now that it has turned into a competition between titans,” said Ghesquière in a videocall after the livestream of the show, which was filmed without a physical audience. The designer is keen to make a trip himself. (“But not the first flight. I’m not that brave.”)
The allure of space has always been a metaphor for adventure. This show was as much about the millions pining for a few days on a beach, as about what to pack for a Blue Origin flight. Think parachute-silk sundresses, chunky flat sandals, and miniature suitcases fashioned into handbags. The show was filmed on the Axe Majeur, an art installation on the edge of Paris which takes the form of a futuristic, architectural landscape garden. With its grand scale, modernist colours and airy urban minimalism, the location shares an aesthetic with previous Louis Vuitton show locations such as the Miho Museum in Japan, and the Niterói Museum in Brazil. “We are all missing places we can’t go to, but sometimes exoticism is not so far away,” said Ghesquière.
“A beautiful catwalk show is a celebration that brings to fashion the visibility it deserves,” he added. He is hoping to return to a catwalk with audience in October. “But I also want to be an agent of change now.” Ghesquière intends to keep hold of “the spirit of 2020” in reducing fabric orders, scaling back prototypes, not overproducing collections. “It’s about small decisions that we make every day and being careful that we keep going in the right direction, rather than thinking always of expansion.”
Lockdown dress codes made themselves felt on the Dior catwalk in the chunky white trainers and logo-stamped sport socks that were worn with fluid white goddess dresses. “After the pandemic, everyone wants to feel like they can move,” said Chiuri.