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Nick Knight Plato's Atlantis McQueen SS10
Alexander McQueen SS10

The McQueen show that changed the future of fashion

Remember when a Lady Gaga tweet brought down the world’s first major live streamed runway show? Nick Knight reflects on the revolutionary Plato’s Atlantis

If fashion today is defined by one thing, it’s speed. From click-to-buy catwalks to creative directors citing the relentless pace as the reason behind their departures, the industry is spinning with ever-dizzying intensity. Driven by technology and the need to fill the endless appetites of online audiences, fashion is a constantly turning carousel of campaigns, videos, Snapchats, and live streams, all responding to an unceasing demand for newness. But while the internet may have kicked things into overdrive, it’s also been responsible for the opening up of the once-secretive world of fashion, giving outsiders a glimpse into its previously hidden inner workings. With social media posts and live streams broadcasting to the masses, the fashion show is no longer the reserve of a rarefied few. But how did we get here?

On October 6th, 2009, in an indoor arena in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, the future of fashion changed. The venue was the setting for Alexander McQueen’s SS10 Plato’s Atlantis show, inspired by the idea of a time when humanity, having wreaked havoc on earth, returns to the oceans. In a darkened space, the audience watched as snakes slithered over the projected figure of model Raquel Zimmermann, before, out of the shadows, two imposing mechanical cameras sprung to life. As he had with his VOSS show of SS01, where guests had been confronted with their own reflections as they gazed upon a box of mirrored glass, McQueen turned the focus on his audience, the cameras scanning the crowd. The first model emerged in impossibly high platform heels, her dress a digital print that veered between animal and alien, her head covered in a series of ridge-like braids. She was followed by the kind of creatures never before seen on a catwalk, their hair twisted back into towering, Predator-like sculptures, some a foot high. They shimmered in iridescent scaled creations, wore dresses made from fabric that shimmered like a jellyfish, and appeared like kaleidoscopic visions of butterflies and snakes, stalking the runway in those now-iconic claw-like armadillo shoes.

Such a future-facing theme needed to be experienced in every aspect of the show, and McQueen teamed up with Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio to broadcast the runway live over the internet. But the unexpected happened: just before showtime, Lady Gaga tweeted out the link to the stream to her millions of followers, revealing that her new single “Bad Romance” was to premiere on the runway. In what was arguably the first case of high fashion truly meeting the power of the digital masses, the site buckled under the pressure, and the stream went down. Still, as the stream struggled to broadcast itself, a gap had been crossed between the industry and the world at large – with Suzy Menkes describing the show as “the most dramatic revolution in 21st-century fashion”. It was a testament to fashion’s eagerness not only to adapt itself to a changing world but to be at its forefront, and for McQueen, it proved his status as the world’s most visionary designer. Tragically, it was to be his final show – but it was one that has gone down in history as a moment that not only defined his creative output, but set the benchmark for the future of the industry. Here, SHOWstudio founder and legendary fashion photographer Nick Knight recalls his memories of the day. 

McQUEEN ALMOST MISSED OUT

“We’d been doing live streaming on ShowStudio since about 2002 – it was part of why it was started – and we did a live streamed shoot called ‘Transformer’ where Alexander McQueen made a bridegroom into a bride. I’d been speaking to Lee about it, trying to convince him to do one of the shows live. At first, he was a bit timid but then something clicked inside him and he came back to me that season and said, ‘I really want to do it.’ That was the same season Burberry came to me and said exactly the same thing, but my affiliations were more with McQueen – I had a longstanding history with Lee. Basically, we’d gone on asking him season after season after season to do it and eventually he said yes.”

HE WAS COMMITTED TO MAKING HIS SHOWS DEMOCRATIC

“It doesn’t take much now in retrospect to link everything together and think, ‘Why are we putting so much effort into a show that goes out for three hundred journalists and buyers who are a bit pissed off to be there, ‘cause it’s an hour late?’ If you look at McQueen shows, you know they were incredible bits of theatre, fashion theatre. So it makes some sense if you’re doing that sort of spectacle as Lee was, to go out to a broader public, to go much larger. We had a sense of actually, ‘Why are we not doing that?’. It was obvious really, and I think it was just part of the dawning of when people thought, ‘Why does fashion have to be like it is, why can’t it be different?’ I think he was a hundred percent committed to the idea of making things more accessible.”

“I think it was just part of the dawning of when people thought, ‘Why does fashion have to be like it is, why can’t it be different?’” – Nick Knight

THE SPECTACLE WASN’T JUST ON THE RUNWAY

“Lee never really wanted celebrities at his shows, and I think what he wanted to do was turn the front row into a spectacle, the people you see there and their power. So for Plato’s Atlantis we had these motion-controlled cameras, sort of dinosaurs, that were on tracks and they would follow the models down the catwalk, looking at them as if they were prey. And all of a sudden these great black heads would swivel around with a quick swooping movement and do the same thing to the front row and travel back up the catwalk, looking closely at the front row, and the live stream of the show was being played on the screen. It turned everything inside out and into a spectacle.”

THINGS COULD HAVE GONE VERY WRONG

“The whole event was incredible, but I think with Lee’s shows, a lot of them, thank goodness they didn’t go wrong, because it would have been a disaster. All these motion-controlled robots were pre-programmed. So you’re not sitting there guiding them, they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do whatever. If one of those girls had fallen over or slowed down the whole show becomes a complete car crash. We rehearsed in the shoes, and nearly all the models were saying ‘I’m not gonna wear those’. Lee had a pep talk with them and said whatever he said to them – but they all went out and none of them fell over. What we didn’t do in the dress rehearsal was try Guido’s hair out, these two foot high hairstyles he built. So suddenly the models were incredibly tall, and none of the motion-controlled robots were programmed with the hair in mind, so they were swooping low across the top of them. Had they just caught one of them on the back, she would have been over, and I mean, you don’t get up in those shoes. You can imagine it was fairly nail-biting stuff.”

“We weren’t told it was going to be Lady Gaga...In rehearsal it was The Little Mermaid, and the pre rehearsal it was the Jungle Book theme” – Nick Knight

THE GAGA SOUNDTRACK WAS NEWS TO THEM

“We weren’t told it was going to be Lady Gaga, nobody at SHOWstudio knew. Lee mentioned something about two months before just saying, ‘I've got this American singer who might do a song for it’ and he walked out. And that was it. It was the last time we heard. In rehearsal it was The Little Mermaid, and the pre-rehearsal it was the Jungle Book theme. As the show started it all seemed fine and then quite quickly it began jamming and seizing up – it was very strange to watch. And we couldn’t work out what was happening. I’ve never quite witnessed the sort of confusion and panic on the technical people’s faces. Literally, the computers sort of seemed to melt in front of them. We got a bandwidth which really over-allowed for people, just in case, but we never thought so many would try and come at once. It’s like having a party for ten thousand people and six million turn up, and they all try to get in at the same time. Gaga had six million followers and she told all of them to come and watch the show, so they did.”

IT WAS A REVELATION IN THE INDUSTRY

“I have no idea exactly how many people got to see the show across the world. I think people got to see bits of it. Some people got to see nothing at all. I was incredibly upset and I think Lee was really pissed off too. It was one of those things that at the time you think ‘That’s so naff!’, because you got something so great to get out and nobody, of course, had said that this was gonna happen. It was one of those moments that just seems like the world's ending, but then it had such a seismic effect on the industry. I think everybody realised, ‘Hold on, wait a minute. Instead of showing this show to three hundred people, we can show it to six million?’ It was like a bomb going off, there was such a huge ripple-effect through every part of the industry  afterwards. All the studios and all the companies go, ‘Hold on, wait a minute, I can get through to six million people with my show, I don’t have to think of an advertising campaign...why aren't we putting everything into a show that can get through to so many people?’”

“I think everybody realised, ‘Hold on, wait a minute. Instead of showing this show to three hundred people, we can show it to six million?’ It was like a bomb going off” – Nick Knight

THINGS CAN NEVER GO BACK TO HOW THEY WERE

“Sport’s been very good in the past at articulating itself to a general public. Fashion has been rubbish at it, it’s always aimed its commentary at a very small audience as if the public don’t need to know because they’ll have this filtered through magazines and editors and then they’ll be able to understand it. The whole system is totally flawed in that way. But if you imagine how a sporting event is filmed, you get slow motion of a goal being scored, you get replays, commentary. A fashion show can do exactly the same thing, be an incredibly visual event that you can buy from. You need your televisual style to be exciting, you need a great fashion photographer or fashion filmmaker to direct your Prada show. You can watch it on the internet and hear a discussion about it – you could have somebody like Alex Fury narrating Margiela. You can imagine how fantastic it could become. I don’t think the fashion show can return to what it was, neither will it or should it. I think people are still reluctant to leave the old format behind, but it can never go back to a private group of journalists and buyers sitting in a room being shown two girls walking up and down in a line. It will never go back to that. You go forward, you don't go backwards. Especially in fashion.”