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Reinventing the runway – on format and fashion

NYFW has seen designers push the boundaries of the fashion show format – so is it time to move on from a hundred year old tradition of women walking in a line?

When runway shows are live-streamed and looks instantly posted online the moment the model pivots to head back down the runway, it's easy to ask: why do we actually, physically bring ourselves to shows? Ok, there are a lot of good reasons, so the better question may be: why do shows still unfold in the same format adopted in Paris couture salons in the 19th century? Is it the best way to see when the internet has essential redefined what it means to see something, to be somewhere?

Here's how the sit-in-seats-and-watch-them-walk format originated: the French fashion parade was imported to America at the turn of the last century as a way to promote department store commerce, and by the 20s thousands of members of the public would show up for the events. If you thought the elevator at Thom Browne was crowded yesterday or you've felt time stand still as you stand in the entryway of The Standard, consider what former Vogue editor Edna Woodman Chase wrote in her memoirs in 1954: "Now that fashion shows have become a way of life...a lady is hard put to it to lunch, or sip a cocktail, in any smart hotel or store front [in] New York...without having lissome young things swaying down a runway six inches above her nose." (Thanks to Slate's Amanda Fortini for that quote).

The same sentiment can be heard now (except we don't use the word lissome enough), when, in an age of e-commerce and six seasons per year, it sometimes feels like there's just too much fashion in the world. So far this week, Opening Ceremony, Gareth Pugh and Polo Ralph Lauren have all tried something different, something other than models walking a catwalk, and the resulting conversations have made it clear it's a good moment to consider what we get out of a show (which costs brands at least 100k to put on) and whether we're ready for a change. Are runway shows expensive and homogenising? For many, they're vital because there's an emphasis on seeing the clothes in – well, on – the flesh. On many occasions pieces that are stunningly beautiful in person read as flat in a photo. The drift of a dress hem around a model's legs, the gentle clink of chains on a garment as it walks by, the sheen of beautiful wool, tufts of fur wafting as it moves through the air: all of these things fail to translate in a runway photograph.

But, for a generation that's spent most of our shopping years spending money online, on pieces we haven't seen, does seeing have to be in person? For buyers, there's market week. For editors, re-sees. Perhaps re-sees should be sees, and for the rest of us, fashion presentations should focus on energy: the feeling of discovery and branding through experience. An event like Opening Ceremony's – Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill wrote a play that held a mirror up to the fashion industry – showcases the brand's community and cultural stronghold. The clothes were secondary, but the thought, originality and enthusiasm from talent like Kathleen Keener, Rashida Jones and Elle Fanning illuminated what was otherwise a cool but not earth shattering collection. At certain moments, fashion vets wriggled in their seats, hearing exaggerated versions of themselves treat assistants badly, call models "model" instead of by name, and curse at each other all to sell clothes. The moral of the play was that we needed to reflect on why we got into fashion in the first place: what was it that made it fun? Glamorous? The be-all-and-end-all of success?

Gareth Pugh also had a lesson for his attendees. There was no assigned seating, so to experience his interactive dance-and-projection presentation (which included a live tornado, by the way) you had to shove to the front. You had to be there early. At first, it was frustrating, but Gareth illuminated his intentions: you have to want to see. The show format forced audience members to take their own temperature, just like Jonze's play. Why are we here? What do we want to see? And most importantly: what do we need to see for it to be a fashion show? At Polo, David Lauren executed a production on an impressive technological scale. Seeing massive holograms walking on the water in Central Park was dazzling, but it also showed what you can do with a show budget besides have women walk in a line.

Granted, most brands don't have the finances to mount a futuristic light show, but should we be encouraging younger designers to decide how their clothes should be seen? There's a machinery of PR and production for fashion shows. It's vital and keeps things organised, makes businesses successful and gets the information across quickly. But a generation that's grown up seeing in more ways than in person (and feeling, for that matter) may have new ideas. Plus, for those on the other end, two months of life out of the year shuffling to seats to look at shows may not be necessary to keep the love alive.

Just look at Gypsy Sport, one of the last shows of the week, who mounted a guerrilla presentation in Washington Square Park. Designer Rio Uribe spotted Lynn Yaeger walking through the park earlier that morning and invited her himself, in person. She came. He also included a performance trio who seems to always be staging a contortionist dance show in the park, and they organized viewers: "All we ask for is high energy because guess what life is based on it!" they said before hitting the bongos. A mix of tourists and Opening Ceremony employees looked on. It may have been illegal, and it didn't go down flawlessly, but there was water streaming up from the fountain behind the pavement runway (just like Ralph Lauren, right?) and, watching the incredibly inventive collection, it was clear that the announcer was right: energy is the most important part of the modern presentation, and life is based on it.