‘Subverting what a show is’: London fashion week goes beyond the catwalk

Those in the front row at London fashion week should expect to see something different from the familiar format of models walking down a catwalk this season. Vogue World – the star-studded event curated by the magazine on Thursday night at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane – is leading the way. Featuring interpretive dance by Kate Moss, performances by Stormzy and Annie Lennox, a soliloquy by Sophie Okonedo and a finale of four supermodels, the event was a masterclass in what “fashion show” can now mean. A new hybrid of performance and fashion is emerging as the 2023 interpretation.

Ballet dancers, live performances from musicians and “happenings” akin to performance art are all on the schedule at London fashion week. Harris Reed even began the theme before Vogue World – on Wednesday night, he staged a show that saw models including Ashley Graham strike poses in dramatic black and white gowns to the music of Cosima.

On Saturday night, Matty Bovan, a designer known for upcycling materials into new clothes, will turn his fashion show into an art gallery-worthy immersive experience: he will stage a dinner backstage as his show takes place. Selected guests will watch the show from the backstage set-up while eating a three-course meal.

Patrick McDowell, meanwhile, has collaborated with Rambert for their show on Monday. The dance company’s artistic director, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, has choreographed dancers and models on the catwalk for a collection inspired by Frederick Ashton’s 1926 ballet A Tragedy of Fashion.

Speaking after his show on Wednesday night, Reed, originally from Los Angeles, emphasised how this new type of fashion show was integral to London. “I think performance is everything,” he said. “Now that London is home, I think about the performative element constantly in this city … We are creative people trying to make something that makes us feel moved.”

This sentiment was echoed by McDowell, who has previously been inspired by firefighters and football for collections with sustainable credentials. “The original purpose of the fashion show has changed completely,” they said. “It sells clothes indirectly but it’s not people literally sitting there writing numbers down and ordering any more. It’s about a kind of spectacle and show and creativity, [so] it feels natural that that will kind of tie into performance.”

Bovan’s idea – with some guests having dinner and others merely watching the show – plays with the hierarchies entrenched in the fashion industry. “You could say, ‘What is better than front row?,’” he said. “Dinner guests are going to be literally embedded in the live creative backstage show hub … I love the idea of subverting what a show is, and how people consume fashion in movement.”

A design by Matty Bovan is adjusted byElise Foster Vander Elst, the head of exhibitions at London’s Design Museum, at the Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion show.
A Matty Bovan design is adjusted by Elise Foster Vander Elst, the Design Museum’s head of exhibitions, at the Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion show. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

There is a tradition of experimenting beyond the catwalk show in London, as seen in Rebel, the new exhibition at the Design Museum that explores the last 30 years of fashion in the capital. Work by influential names such as Alexander McQueen and Gareth Pugh is included – designers who, respectively, spraypainted a supermodel live on a catwalk and staged a show in a Camden nightclub. More recently, designers including Molly Goddard, Charles Jeffrey and SS Daley have pushed ideas of the fashion show. Daley memorably worked with members of the National Youth Theatre for his spring/summer 2022 show.

In the past, some experimentation like this has lost its impact with models being asked to go beyond the usual brief of looking good in clothes and to transform into dancers. This has been somewhat mitigated by designers this season. McDowell said Pouffer choreographed movement for the Rambert dancers at their show, while models played the easier roles of the mannequins.

Reed said he was helped by the dancer and choreographer Simon Donnellon. “It was really about each person not just being a character but another facet of themselves,” he explained. “Instead of telling them ‘You’re a pirate’, you are yourself.”