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At Fashion Week, Who Cares About the Clothes?

Much like retail, it’s all about the experience.

Solange is behind the mic, wearing a gray top by the designer.
Solange performs at Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s runway show.
Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images

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Designers have long used fashion shows to spectacular effect — just think of Alexander McQueen’s spring 1999 show, where model Shalom Harlow stood between two robotic arms as they spray-painted her white dress yellow and black. But as retail becomes more about “experiences” and social media pits brands against each other to create the most Instagrammable moment, it follows that Fashion Week would evolve along the same track.

During a standard runway show, models take their turns around the catwalk; the seated onlookers watch, then disperse to their next appointments. Increasingly, this format seems equivalent to opening a traditional store where shoppers can look at the goods, buy them, and walk out. It gets the job done, but you may as well have done it online.

Peak experience came last September, when Tommy Hilfiger set up a two-day carnival in New York’s South Street Seaport complete with a Ferris wheel, game booths, and a retail space selling the brand’s new collaboration with model Gigi Hadid. The event wasn’t just for editors and buyers, but for Hilfiger fans, too, hence the product for purchase. This season, the designer is taking his show (and massive event budget) to London.

“It’s about the fusion of fashion, entertainment and pop culture with experiences, performances and inspiring interactions that are designed around our consumers,” Hilfiger told WWD in June.

Numerous designers followed Hilfiger’s playbook this week, enlisting big-name musical artists to turn their shows into can’t-miss concerts that drew out editors and baited the many social media users who don’t care about Fashion Week at all.

A model walks down the street wearing cargo pants and a white lace and black leather top.
Model Candice Swanepoel walks the “runway” (a street in Bushwick) at Alexander Wang.
Photo: Gotham/Getty Images

Future and Nicki Minaj performed at Philipp Plein’s runway show at Hammerstein Ballroom. Solange Knowles sang at Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s show, a remarkably low-key and efficient event that used the running track at the John V. Lindsay East River Park as a catwalk. Ja Rule, Ashanti, and Cardi B. all performed at Alexander Wang’s post-show rager, a tradition the exuberant designer has become known for.

#WANGFEST, as it was known on social media, highlights the inevitable result of experiential fashion shows, which is that the actual fashion gets subsumed by all the other stuff.

Scheduled for 9:30 p.m. sharp on Saturday night, Wang’s show took place on a dead-end street between two buildings in the part of Bushwick that’s all warehouses and hipster venues. A large crowd formed, circulated through the bar next door, and reemerged into the night well before Wang’s team began checking people in. (Two production guys had to come remove a bike that someone had locked to a post, which was in the way of the ticket line.) The night got later, the group swelled, and eventually it began moving to fill in the perimeter of the street that doubled as a runway.

Men dressed in black passed out Shake Shack burgers, Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner arrived, and after another long pause (because even a Kardashian has to wait sometimes), a party bus rolled up. Models emerged out of it one by one, stalking down the pavement toward the blinding lights mounted on the back of two trucks. They disappeared through a doorway under a #WANGFEST sign, 32 of them, and did not reappear.

It was over in minutes. Then the crowd surged into the party and the night began for real. Here’s what people didn’t get a good look at: the collection. Here’s what they posted to Instagram: the piles of donuts, the ice luge, Ja Rule.

If that sounds like a condemnation, it’s not. Downtown debauchery is Wang’s aesthetic, so treating his runway show as an amuse bouche to an epic party is about as honest and effective as a Fashion Week presentation could be. That’s the advantage of an experiential show: Rather than conforming to standard-issue choreography in a white-box space, brands can show viewers exactly what they’re about.

At its best, this type of show can give you the most earnest kind of FOMO. I’m not talking about the paranoid desire to prove how important and in-with-the-in-crowd you are; I’m talking about regret at not seeing or doing something in person because that’s the best way to take it in. I feel this way about the show Maryam Nassir Zadeh held two seasons ago, where her models smashed a bunch of pottery. Celebratory destruction is just not the same on Instagram, although you can bet your pastel glove shoes that’s where it’s going to end up.

Designer Suzanne Rae inside a mirrored box at her fashion week presentation.
Suzanne Rae inside the mirrored box at her Fashion Week presentation.
Photo: Lindsey Eskind/Suzanne Rae

Hours before #WANGFEST, Suzanne Rae hung her new collection like art against the walls of a rented showroom in Chinatown. The designer stepped into a cloaked box designed as part confessional, part peep show booth. When guests arrived at her presentation, they were invited to join her inside the mirrored enclosure on the opposite side of a plexiglass wall. Under a red light, Rae swayed to the music playing overhead, smiling gently and nodding that, yes, you could take her picture. Both figures were reflected into infinity until the second decided to leave.

Ahead of her presentation, Rae told me over the phone that with this collection, she was interested in exploring objects of desire — indulgent, delicate pieces like corsets, bras, and garments made of silk or organza. She was playing with the sacred and the profane, hence a color palette of powder blue and bright, deep red. Hence the confessional-slash-peep-show-booth.

Rae launched her collection in the fall of 2010, and while she staged presentations and small runway shows for a while, she felt that they weren’t having the impact she wanted them to. So she took a break from Fashion Week for a few years, opting instead to put out experimental videos that showcased her new collections, and only returned to it last season.

“I wanted to do something intimate and fun and different, just a departure from what was expected,” she says.

So she took out a gallery space, where the photographer Mae Kaufman sat at a vanity table and dressed herself up in different wigs and different outfits, taking pictures of herself and uploading them to Instagram. The audience stayed much longer than Rae had expected they would out of, she supposes, voyeuristic curiosity.

In the same way that Wang’s mega-party tells editors and shoppers what his work is about, Rae’s presentations communicate her intellectualism and the smallness of her operations. She handles her own sales; she stands in the peep show booth herself.

“I feel like doing [this sort of] presentation is more like expressing the values of the brand, and you either like it or you don’t,” Rae says. “I don’t think I’m trying to please an audience. I think I’m trying to please myself, to be honest.”