From the loud to the minimal, the precious to the poor, the fashion show invitation remains as the highly fetishised golden ticket to the exclusive world of fashion shows. A new book, edited by award-winning fashion writer and Central Saint Martins professor Iain R. Webb, explores this colourful history, functioning as a disjointed but invaluable reflection of the development of fashion and its industry. As the book launches, we asked Webb a few questions about the making of the book and what it might mean when John Galliano sends you a rusty old key with a handwritten label attached.
“It is only in hindsight that an accumulation of objects start to have meaning.”
Dries Van Noten Menswear, S/S 2013
Have you always kept and collected things? When did that start?
I guess I am an inveterate hoarder. For some reason, which I am sure a psychologist would have a view on, all my life I have just kept things. So from the start of my career as a fashion journalist, attending the international shows, my suitcase was always heavier on the way home as I kept favourite invitations sent by designers. This collection became the genesis of my latest book, INVITATION STRICTLY PERSONAL. However, it is only in hindsight that an accumulation of objects start to have meaning. I am drawn to the stuff that other people throw away or no longer value. However, in recent years I have realised that all the things I have hung onto start to shape into a valuable collection.
To what do we owe the air of exclusivity that surrounds the modern fashion show?
For all the talk of the democratisation of fashion, fashion people live for exclusivity. So, as the likes of Primark, Grazia and Gok Wan have done their best in recent years to make fashion accessible and available for everyone, there has been an inevitable backlash among the upper echelons of the industry who did not take kindly to the invasion of their ivory towers. When Tom Ford returned to the catwalk in 2010 his guest list was pared down to an elite hundred or so fashion A-listers while photographers (except for Terry Richardson) were personae non gratae. Fashion can often function like a private members club. However, in the digital age there is far more opportunity to access the fashion show via live streaming and social media. Invitations are posted on Instagram, make-up and hairstylists are contracted to tweet their backstage shenanigans and models snap-chat their way around the fashion capitals, all before the show has even begun!
Clements Ribeiro, A/W 1997-1998
What does the perfect invitation include or allude to? Except for the obvious practicalities, what is the function of a runway invitation, for a designer presenting a new collection? Is it to give a preview, or to create hype?
The invitation is the first opportunity that a designer has to share their new fashion statement. They can provide clues to the forthcoming show, or simply inform guests of the time, date and venue. At their best they are a visual continuation of the creative thread that designers are wishing to share that particular season. They should prick the imagination. Throughout his career, John Galliano has used his show invitations to introduce the story of his forthcoming collection, constructing an intriguing narrative be it a leopard clutch bag filled with a lipstick, match book, party streamers and bank notes or a rusty old key with a handwritten luggage label.
Invitations can also reflect the wider world. When terrorists attacked Paris during the summer of 1995, security at the Spring/Summer 1996 shows was duly tightened. To aid guests through the numerous checkpoints Hermès sent their invitation in a transparent plastic version of their trademark Kelly bag, which soon became the cult accessory of the season.
“I am drawn to the stuff that other people throw away or no longer value.”
Giles, A/W 2007-9
What are the different invite strategies? Loud and bold, mysterious, non-descriptive, fun? Did that influence the way you categorised the book?
Invitations can be decorative, political, humorous or provocative but even the most basic and pragmatic inevitably reflects the designer’s aesthetic and ethos. In the foreword of the book, New York designer Anna Sui explains that she can agonise over the paper weight and printing effects, the colour of the envelope and even which stamp to use, so that it echoes her particular vision at that moment.
I made the decision early on that the layout of the book would be purely visual. While editing the invitations, they began to fall into certain categories – invitations that featured designer’s portraits or illustrations, others that appeared futuristic, musical or X-rated. Travel, fabrication and nostalgia also formed themes. During the process I identified certain invitations missing from my collection (sadly many had been lost along the way in the art departments of the magazines and newspapers I worked for), so I borrowed these from my front row friends including Adrian Clark, Hywel Davies, Charlie Porter, Lou Stoppard and Liz Shirley.
Alexander McQueen, S/S 1996
Have you always kept and collected your invitations? When did that start?
I am guessing the first invitations I received were for a college graduation fashion show at St. Martin’s, RCA or Kingston. While still at art school I would hustle my way into the London Designer Collections at the Inn on the Park by pretending to be a fashion writer from the achingly trendy RITZ newspaper. Those press passes became the ultimate accessory. Of course, I still have them.
A Kenzo invitation from 1982 is a personal favorite, as it was for the first major Paris catwalk show I ever attended. At this time Kenzo’s presentations were the hottest ticket. I bagged mine by begging guests as they arrived at the Louvre venue. Each invitation in the book evokes similar unique memories.
“The fashion show invitation offers a designer the opportunity to contextualise their collection, to add a narrative to the style statement they are making that particular season.”
Valentino, circa 1990
How have you seen a change in invitation formats and style over the years?
Invitations still remain an essential part of a designer’s vocabulary/armoury and can veer from the classic and formal to the complex and conceptual. It is always exciting each season to get that first glimpse into their world. It saddens me that the e-invite is becoming more popular, however, there are still always invitations that make me swoon.
I feel that invites are so interesting because they represent the intersection between marketing, fashion and graphic design. How do you find them relevant in the way we understand fashion history?
There was indeed much discussion at my publishers when it came to promoting my book because, as you say, the invitations encompassed not just fashion but marketing, graphics, illustration, photography and also popular culture. The fashion show invitation offers a designer the opportunity to contextualise their collection, to add a narrative to the style statement they are making that particular season. In this way they are key artefacts that help tell the story of fashion.
Maison Martin Margiela Menswear, S/S 2012
Which invite have you found to be: 1) the most innovative 2) the most beatiful 3) the funniest?
I have so many favorites that it is hard to choose. If forced I might pick the McQueen BLACK show invitation as it is not only a fabulous object (x 2 cardboard and Perspex business cards) but also the show was a totally unique event – a retrospective of the designer’s greatest hits that opened with Kate Moss dancing a pas-de-deux with punk ballet dancer Michael Clark. Totally a fashion moment!
Clements Ribeiro’s hand embroidered handkerchief is also a very special souvenir. The duo, who at the time were the toast of Cool Britannia, personalised each invitation by embroidering the names of their guests. This also highlighted a return to handcrafted fashion that was a reaction against mass production. Jean Paul Gaultier’s hand scripted couture show invitations that came with a sample of lace pinned on were equally exquisite and I also loved Bodymap’s metallic fishy stickers that accompanied their ‘Cat In The Hat Takes A Rumble With A Techno Fish’ collection. These ended up sported by many an 80s club kids, including me!
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig
Featured image: Kenzo Menswear, A/W 2011-12