14Paris Fashion Week
For transforming a ho-hum industry showcase into an all-eyes-are-watching global event
Versailles hadn’t seen this much palace intrigue and drama since the days of Marie Antoinette. More than a century and a half after the fashion-forward queen reigned, the world’s style cognoscenti were out in full force to see what was dubbed The Battle of Versailles. Rather than bayonets and tricorn hats, this faceoff featured sequins and feather boas, pitting five preeminent French designers against five upstarts from the United States. By the time the last flakes of glitter fell that November night in 1973, the underdogs had taken down the heavyweights, sparking a crucial shift in the industry toward more practical designs and sky’s-the-limit staging.
Up to that point, fashion shows were rather pedestrian affairs attended primarily by reporters. That all changed with this battle royale. The event was the brainchild of Eleanor Lambert, a U.S. fashion publicist and inventor of the International Best-Dressed List, with the help of French curator Gerald Van der Kemp and Paris’ reigning socialite, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild. It was a fundraiser for the Palace of Versailles, which was in need of a US$60 million renovation. But make no mistake—it was also a publicity stunt. The Battle of Versailles was a victory on both fronts: Roughly US$280,000 was procured for the restoration of King Louis XIV’s legendary home, and the bill drew 800 of the world’s social and artistic elite, including Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol.
They came for a show—and got it. The French team brought the pomp, with runway designs that included a limo-length Bugatti from Yves Saint Laurent, a Cinderella pumpkin coach from Marc Bohan of Christian Dior and a rhinoceros-drawn Gypsy caravan from Emanuel Ungaro. The U.S. team brought the performance, headlined by Liza Minnelli, fresh off an Academy Award for Cabaret, belting out Broadway tunes.
Global fashion industry market value in 2017
Sources: The State of Fashion 2019, McKinsey and The Business of Fashion, 2019; Women’s Wear Daily, 2018
Year in which China is expected to overtake the United States as the largest fashion market in the world
Number of social media interactions in September 2018 across the big four fashion weeks in Paris, France; Milan, Italy; London, England; and New York, New York, USA
By transforming Paris Fashion Week, the original organizers made it a must-see extravaganza for everyone who’s anyone. The biannual event now attracts 5,100 visitors—84 percent from abroad—and €1.2 billion in economic benefits to Paris each year. The event has also fueled the growth of today’s US$2.5 trillion global fashion industry by spawning similar projects. Along with the so-called big four—in Paris, France; Milan, Italy; London, England; and New York, New York, USA—there are now fashion weeks everywhere from Australia to Nigeria. The events are also proving effective for emerging markets like Mexico, Poland, Brazil and China looking to shed their “fast fashion” label and pull in new investments—and customers.
Here’s one project that clearly hasn’t gone out of style.