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The great escape: are outdoor runways the way of the future?

By Jackie Mallon

29 Sep 2020

For half a year now Covid has challenged designers to figure out new ways to present their collections to maintain social distancing, and to reach international editors and buyers who are staying away from fashion weeks. While Moschino won the prize for cutest presentation with its puppet show runway during Milan Fashion Week, the outdoor runway as opted for by, among others, Burberry could be the most forward-thinking––and how better to honor the house’s 150-year history of outfitting Arctic explorers, mountaineers and British troops with its signature gabardine and waterproof trench coats than en plein air?

While the decorative and artistic value of clothes cannot be denied, their purpose is also to protect us from the elements. Outdoor runways would offer designers the opportunity to demonstrate the seasonality of their offerings in real time and put together outfits the same way as we, the consumers––by looking out the window in the morning, then choosing what to put on. Spontaneity is the best ingredient for exhilarating outdoor adventures after all. The outdoor runway would place fashion, one of the most notorious polluters, in direct organic connection with the environment. Under wide open skies, leafy canopies, or city smog, we would be reminded of what we stand to lose if we do not restore our relationship with Mother Nature and place eco-friendly measures at every step of clothes creation.

Photo: Jacquemus SS20, Catwalkpictures

For years we’ve rung the death knell on “streetwear” yet still it lingers. It’s an obsessively overused word to refer to hoodies, sweatshirts, graphic Ts, caps and sneakers, in short, clothes associated with the low-key activity of hanging out in urban spaces but seen through the uptight designer’s expensive lens. However, if every garment was presented first on the streets, not to mention on lanes, and in fields, forests and parks, that might finally put the nail in streetwear’s coffin. In many global fashion capitals, people have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality. In those same piazzas, boulevards, and avenues, we have also marched for climate change and women’s rights. Outside is where contemporary society is at; it’s not in salons or opulent palaces, under chandeliers or on grand staircases. Outside is where fashion should be too.

Outdoor runways make fashion shows a destination event again

Catwalking al fresco has been a growing trend even before Covid. Givenchy paid homage to the glitz of the Manhattan skyline in Spring 2016 while Marc Jacobs chose to extol the grit of the city’s sidewalks for Fall 2017. In May 2019 Parsons School of Design, also in NYC, staged an outdoor runway to showcase 250 looks from the school’s Bachelors program during which the models walked a city block of East 13th Street which echoed with the accompaniment of a percussion quartet. Under the late spring sun, tailoring, evening wear, and denim; scanty underthings and oversized layers; feathers and sequins, were all represented in the true light of day. Meanwhile, at night, when the rain fell on the puffy tulle confections of Rodarte’s Spring 2019 presentation which took place in the small Marble Cemetery tucked away in Manhattan’s East Village, it added mystery and romance to the occasion.

But cement and skyscrapers are not the only option. In Paris Marine Serre’s upcycled collections made from curtains and towels have incidentally included face masks since 2018, and she sent umbrellas as invitations to her Spring 2020 show held on the grounds of a racetrack. And how much more arresting was the visual of Jacquemus’s Spring 20 collection insouciantly worn by models striding through a lavender field in the French countryside that stretched to the horizon, than Balenciaga’s claustrophobic auditorium entirely carpeted in EU-flag blue?

Photo: Burberry SS21, Catwalkpictures

Karl Lagerfield spent millions of dollars in his last years at Chanel creating awe-inspiring sets mimicking natural phenomena for the house’s shows inside Paris’s Grand Palais. A 100-foot high cliff with waterfall and lichen-covered rock face towering over a boardwalk for models to walk along and a cave from which the designer would emerge to take his bow in Spring 2018; a garden with trellised arches for the couture show of the same season; an idyllic sandy beach, thatched beach huts and full panorama of azure sky with wispy cirrus clouds for Spring 2019; an Alpine ski resort complete with snow-covered mountain chalets for Fall 2019. They were all feats of engineering, but is there anything better than the real thing?

As Paris Fashion Week gets under way, Chanel without Lagerfeld, along with Dior, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton are scheduled to present traditional runway shows before a minimal audience. But looking ahead, perhaps it’s time to leave the walls behind, to peek our mask-covered noses out the door, feel the fresh air on our faces and plan our great escape. The future is wide open.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Header photo Parsons runway FashionUnited