A Brief History of Fashion Week

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22nd April 1950: Guests watching a fashion show of a collection by Christian Dior. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

With the start of the Spring 2014 shows in New York, London, Milan, and Paris nipping at our heels, our features editor, Dylan Essertier, takes a look back at the history of the “Big Four” Fashion Weeks.

Today kicks off Fashion Month, the unveiling of the Spring/Summer 2014 designer collections, where you can expect hordes of editors, photographers, bloggers, and socialites to descend on the four fashion capitals, New York, London, Milan, and Paris, to view the runway shows and presentations, attend the parties, and mingle with fellow fashion elite.

For fashion fanatics and editors alike, these semi-annual Fashion Weeks mean very little beauty sleep.

For fashion fanatics and editors alike, these semi-annual Fashion Weeks mean very little beauty sleep. We eagerly wait, hungry for designers to unveil their collections to the world, taking copious notes from show to show, scrutinizing the trends, and talent-spotting the next model of the moment. However, through the flicker of the flashbulbs, the madness and the glamour, season after season, it’s finally time to stop and ask: How did this spectacle known as Fashion Week come to be?

Long before Fashion Weeks became the displays they are today, fashion reigned, as you may have guessed, in the salons of France. The concept of the fashion presentation dates back to 1858, when Charles Fredrick Worth first developed the concept of showing his clientele a pre-prepared selection of original designs (a collection). Furthermore, he shocked high society by showing his designs on real, live women (models) for all to view. Both were highly novel ideas at the time.

In 1868, Worth helped create the Chambre Syndicale de la Confection et de la Couture pour Dames et Fillettes, a trade association whose mission was to develop the French fashion industry. One of the most noteworthy functions of the association was to legally regulate the phrase “haute couture” – meaning it could only be used by registered members of the Chambre Syndicale. The organization also set a minimum number of looks for those designers who were granted membership. Voila! Here we have the first glimpse of an official fashion calendar.

The tradition of bespoke fashion presentations in private residences or in a designer’s salon for aristocratic clients continued in France into the 20th century, securing France’s reputation as the fashion capital of the world. As the trend grew, the presentations became more and more grandiose, engaging all of the senses in a full experience of photography, music, sophisticated staging and sets and, of course, the paparazzi. Designers started calling them fashion “fêtes” and thus the basis of the modern fashion show was realized. As the world looked almost exclusively to Paris for fashion inspiration, international fashion magazines from around the world filled their pages with chic styles being shown at these fêtes.

The course of fashion history changed, however, in 1943. With World War II at its height, fashion journalists were unable to travel to Paris for fashion inspiration, with the shows being cancelled due to the Nazi occupation in France. In an unprecedented maneuver, a fashion publicist named Eleanor Lambert seized this opportunity to divert the attention of the fashion industry from Paris to America, in order to enhance the reputation and prestige of local American designers on the international scene. She invited all of the journalists to New York instead, arranged shows, and advertised that “Press Week” was coming to town.

Using her previous experience with retail manufacturers in New York, Lambert was able to stitch together a showcase of American designers for the national and international media. According to Time magazine, Lambert even offered to pay the expenses of any out-of-town journalist who traveled to New York to attend Press Week. In total, there were 53 designer shows held at the Plaza Hotel, and similar to today’s event, every editor received press materials and runway photos as part of the package.

Lambert’s mission to change the image of American fashion was very successful. As premier fashion magazines released their issues following Press Week, the pages were full of American designers, a drastic departure from the previous Francophile-centric glossy pages.

Notably, in 1944, the first Fashion Calendar was launched by Ruth Finely who was tasked with compiling all of the week’s events into one comprehensive guide. This definitive guide was essential for bringing together the fashion and beauty industries, including buyers, manufacturers, designers, and editors around a single itinerary. To this date, Finely is still in charge of New York Fashion Week’s official calendar.

To this date, Finely is still in charge of New York Fashion Week’s official calendar.

For the next three decades, designers continued showcasing their collections twice a year (February and September) in an event that would eventually become known as New York Fashion Week.

Inspired by Lambert’s success in New York, Italian aristocrat Giovanni Battista Giorgini grasped the opportunity to capitalize on this new concept of inviting national press for a preview of the season’s collections. In 1952, in a landmark moment for Italian fashion, he organized a series of shows in the famed Palazzo Pitti of Florence, Italy. Italian fashion took center stage in the fashion world, with Emilio Pucci and Missoni finding an exciting new platform for their designs. Shortly thereafter, the outrageous success of the shows far exceeded the capacity of any venue in Florence, and the city’s tiny airport could not accommodate the influx of fashion royalty coming from around the world. Ultimately, it was decided to move the event to Milan. In 1975, Milan presented its first “Settimana Della Moda” (Fashion Week) calendar of fashion shows.

With the showcase of the Grand Divertissement à Versailles, also known as the “Battle of Versailles”, November 1973 witnessed another defining moment for Fashion Week – the one that turned the tables and continued the tug-of-war between Paris and New York for the heart of fashion. The show was held in the opulent Versailles Palace not far from Paris, and pitted old masters of French design against American newcomers such as Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta. Not only did this event break barriers for American designers, who received excellent reviews, it also sparked the official inauguration of Paris Fashion Week, which commenced the same year.

Less than a decade later, London Fashion Week began in 1984 – in a West London car park, no less. With the support of Vogue UK, the British government agreed to sponsor the event, with designers such as John Galliano and Betty Jackson emerging onto the scene. The week was credited with giving a major boost to Britain’s designers, labels, and models – and in particular, the rise of supermodel Kate Moss.

Less than a decade later, London Fashion Week began in 1984 – in a West London car park, no less.

Back in America, Lambert was continuing to pave the way for the fashion industry. As the event grew, she organized the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CDFA), an organization whose mission is to further the position of fashion design as a recognized branch of American art and culture, and to support the overall growth of American fashion in the global economy.

The evolution of the concept of the fashion show continued to evolve in New York over the years. Initially, designers showed their collections in their own spaces – lofts, galleries, and even restaurants. However, after an incident in 1990 when part of the ceiling collapsed in a gritty loft during a Michael Kors show, the executive director of Fashion Designers of America, Fern Mallis, knew that things had to change. Fast.

Cue the white tents of Bryant Park and the rise of the invite-only status. In the spring of 1994 the first show took place in the park, continuing Lambert’s mission to draw greater international exposure to American designers. Shortly thereafter, Fashion Week was able to secure major sponsors – such as Mercedes-Benz, for which the event is now named.

The “tents” at Bryant Park attracted A-list celebrities, and thus, large crowds eager to get a glimpse at them. The tents could no longer accommodate such large crowds, so, once again the show hit the road and moved uptown to the Lincoln Center.

Fast forward to 2013, with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week being held today in Lincoln Center and 138 Fashion Weeks having emerged in different cities around the world, from Buenos Aires to Shanghai. For city councils and governments, Fashion Weeks have proved to be an excellent way to enhance the reputation of their local designers and promote local creative industries.

The next twist? Who knows how the internet will continue to transform the events, with live streams of shows and instantaneous access to backstage action – all available to the world through Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Whichever direction it takes, you can be sure that this dynamic and exhilarating event will continue to unfold like the beautiful designs it exhibits to the world.

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