Most Outrageous Fashion-Show Antics

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A look back on 30 years of fashion spectacles.

Fashion is soaring to new heights—or was at least ready for takeoff at January’s Chanel haute couture fall/winter 2012 show, which was presented in a 50-meter-long custom-made airplane, complete with a beverage cart inside and floating clouds outside, visible from 120 oval windows.

We have come to expect such spectacles from brands like Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton and, the original showman, Thierry Mugler, with antics ranging from an imported (and rapidly melting) Scandinavian iceberg to paint machines splattering a model’s white dress.

Yet fashion shows were not always dramatic productions. As recently as the early 1980s, collections were exhibited over a two-month period in the intimate setting of designers’ salons, and were primarily an opportunity for buyers and celebrities to have a first look. Throughout the decade, pioneers like Vivienne Westwood and Mugler led a transformation from small-scale “parades” to extravagant runway shows, as they introduced concept fashion shows that use design as a means of social commentary and explored the inherent theatricality of fashion as performance art.

By the late ’90s, Paris fashion shows had become over-the-top extravaganzas, as designers one-upped each other—and themselves—year after year in the race to put on the wildest show. A school of avant-garde-conceptual fashion creators rose out of London, with Alexander McQueen at the helm and Hussein Chalayan and Gareth Pugh following suit.

Surprisingly, while American and Italian designers certainly hold their own in the industry alongside their French and British counterparts in terms of design and popularity—Proenza Schouler and Prada are two of the most highly anticipated shows of the season—to this day they are not prone to outrageous demonstrations. Designers in Milan utilize the breathtaking city to stage shows in hidden palazzi and gardens, while New Yorkers focus more on the excitement of the clothing than the stage (save for Marc Jacobs, who, for years, has called the New York State Armory his exclusive home for his massive sets—one of the few locations in Manhattan with unobstructed views that can hold over 3,000 people).

With New York’s fall/winter 2012 ready-to-wear collections commencing this week, Departures looks back at some of the wildest fashion-show conceits in history. Will Karl Lagerfeld top his luxury airplane? Will Sarah Burton, who has toned down the showmanship since taking the reins at Alexander McQueen, incorporate yet another force of nature into this year’s fantastical show? Models, take your marks...