Publicity stunts have become more common at fashion shows as brands try to go viral on social media. Are these gimmicks a detriment to the artistry of fashion week?
In the digital age, a strong social media presence is key to a brand’s success. If a designer can create an iconic, talked about moment on the runway, or the next viral ‘It’ bag then the collection is deemed successful.
Are these gimmicks creative or do they distract from the main event – the clothes?
Elements such as dancing, elaborate set design and special effects used to be less common. However, now it seems gimmicks have become expected at every show.
If the show does not include a famous supermodel or the concept spelled out on a hoodie then no-one will talk about it. Even accidental iconic moments at shows seem less special and are mistaken for PR stunts.
When Naomi Campbell fell at Vivienne Westwood’s Autumn/Winter ’93 show, an iconic runway moment was created. Walking in 12-inch, purple super-elevated Gillie heels and rubber tights, the combination caused the supermodel to wobble and fall. The moment became front-page news the next day.
In a conversation with Vivienne Westwood, Campbell said: “afterwards, a couple of designers asked me if I would fall for them,” because of the press Westwood received. Westwood responded: “that would make them somehow for me feel like ‘we’re a second-class designer, we have to take an idea from somewhere else’.”
From the crazy high heels to Campbell’s cheeky, embarrassed smile, a moment that could have been bad for both Campbell and Westwood’s careers became fondly remembered. Westwood commented on the fall: “it was beautiful when you fell down, it was like a gazelle falling, it was fantastic.”
Compare this to Valentino’s Haute Couture Spring/Summer ’23 collection, which saw models wobbling and tripping over shoes that clearly did not fit them for the entire show. Supermodel Kristen McMenamy tripped and fell, but in contrast to Naomi Campbell’s smile, she was visibly annoyed and threw the broken shoes into the audience to continue walking.
Many people first believed that this was a publicity stunt, a rehash of Campbell’s fall. However, Valentino made a statement on the contrary. They told the New York Post: “Maison Valentino cares about the safety and wellbeing of the talented men and women hired to walk in the runway shows. Models were able to practice in the shoes and offered alternate shoe choices to ensure their comfort for the show.”
While this moment certainly brought press to the brand, it was surrounding the bad quality of Valentino’s shoes. Comments on a TikTok explaining the situation speculated: “she looked upset so very likely not staged,” and “she looked SO MAD. PR would not have them looking that frustrated, that’s really bad press.”
Unfortunately, this viral moment was negative for the brand. While it was not a deliberate stunt, in the digital age audiences are disillusioned by gimmicks and often react negatively to perceived PR campaigns.
I spoke to Luca, a fashion student, and he told me: “I do think there have been more gimmicky things that have been going on, especially this year and last year. Like AVAVAV, they’ve done gimmicky stuff before, but this year I think it was a little too much and people are relying on it too much in recent years. I’m there to look at the clothes, I’m not really there for a performance.” However, Luca went on to clarify: “I don’t think they have a negative effect on creativity, you could argue it adds to creativity.
“Sometimes it’s cool, but sometimes it’s not the place. I feel like fashion week isn’t the place for it. Fashion week is for showing off the collection, the clothes, when you have gimmicks like that where the performance part might get in the way of that, it’s frustrating as a viewer. If it was a standalone thing outside of an official fashion week show it would be really cool.” Perhaps performance art and fashion week can coexist, but separately so the collection can shine,” Luca said.
“I don’t want to call it a problem but it’s definitely a little more frustrating to see. I wouldn’t say there’s a negative effect, fashion brands have had gimmicks for years, like Margiela in the ’80s doing a show in a playground. It’s been there, it’s just ramping up now because they need the publicity.” As Luca suggests, the need for visibility on social media has led to brands leaning on gimmicks to create buzz around their collection.
As Luca mentioned, AVAVAV’s Spring/Summer ’24 show at Milan Fashion Week used gimmicks to convey the concept of the collection. Models rushed down the runway half-dressed, with “add back?!” and “add shape” printed on the clothes.
There was a unique use of tape, safety pins and sticky notes to create the clothes, with the message of the art clearly represented. The collection had a strong narrative of the fast fashion industry’s unrealistic expectations for designers.
This is not the first time gimmicks have been used by AVAVAV. The brand’s SS23 show had the models falling to their knees on the runway, perhaps yet another reference to Naomi Campbell’s fall in 1993.
Performance art may have become their brand, but as user @boymolish on X says: “these types of fashion shows lose the word fashion, and just becomes a show. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because this could be its own thing and in its own the world. But it does ruin the concept of what a fashion show is like.”
Many of the outfits were not ready-to-wear, which is what fashion week shows intend to present. As user @FILLEFATALE replied: “this definitely requires its own genre. the manner in which this collection was shown (along with a few of the ensembles) seemed completely unsuitable for a rtw collection, something that’s meant to be at least the slightest bit more practical than other categories.”
Maison Margiela’s Spring/Summer ’90 fashion show is an early example of other elements of the show being just as important as the collection. The show was set in a playground with local children sat amongst the other guests. The models stumbled on the uneven runway, with children playing between them.
Designer Martin Margiela had asked the models to assist styling the looks, so his collection would look less polished. The year before, Margiela had unveiled the now iconic Tabi Boots, a stark contrast to the stilettos most models wore down the runway. These elements created a legendary show.
The derelict landscape of the neglected, ramshackle playground mirrored the frayed and deconstructed clothes. Margiela even instructed the local children to create the invitations for the show. Perhaps it was Margiela’s clear respect for the location used, or the coherent synergy between the setting and the clothes, but this show has gained more respect for it’s gimmicks than modern shows have.
It seems that today, it is difficult to create a genuinely unique, iconic fashion show without seeming gimmicky or referencing something from the past. As brands constantly try to one-up each other to get the next viral moment, it feels like everything has been done before and the clothes become less important to the show. Audiences may be less enthusiastic to see performance art in a show as it feels unoriginal.
As social media users have suggested, the logical next step is possibly to separate shows with theatrical elements from traditional fashion week shows. Just as haute couture and ready-to-wear are presented separately, it may be time to separate the gimmicks from fashion week.
Featured image by Pexels via Pixabay CC