Coffins, Spikes, & 100M Tracks: The 10 Craziest Catwalks Of All Time

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The Great Wall of China. A science lab. A subway. A hamster wheel. Before you guess the riddle, we'll go ahead and remove the idea that these places hosted Charlie Sheen’s last NYE bash. Actually, these locations make up fashion's most outrageous, over-the-top, out-of-bounds catwalks of all time. While the rest of fashion world simply opts for the standard, long-runway configuration, there's a small selection of visionary designers equipped with illusions (or delusions?) of grandeur. 

From Fendi to Chanel, the typical fashion-show runways have had a makeover that only wildly brilliant designers would dare to dream. (Mr. Lagerfeld, we’re looking at you.) Take a cruise down memory lane for the 10 craziest catwalks of all time.

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Death-Defying Heights — Naomi Campbell was once quoted as saying that Alexander McQueen fashion shows are the most terrifying yet the most fun experiences. She must have been referring to his spring '00 collection. Eschewing the conventional runway, he lined the catwalk with metal spikes and nails, forcing his models to be lifted above the stage, gracefully floating through the air above stunned showgoers’ heads. It was dark, ominous, and a wee bit dangerous, but, hey, at least the models didn’t have to walk in those infamous armadillo heels. Now that’s terrifying.

History Lesson — In October '07, fashion mastermind Karl Lagerfeld’s collection for Fendi needed a dramatic backdrop, and the only place he deemed appropriate was The Great Wall of China. Inviting 500 guests from around the world and costing a jaw-dropping $10 million to produce, Lagerfeld pulled off what has to be arguably the most extravagant, most expensive, most impressive catwalk of all time.

Guiness Book Record Holder — The "walk a mile in their shoes" phrase has a whole new meaning, because this has to be the most exhausting runway on the list. During Copenhagen Fashion Week in 2010, a monstrous catwalk spanning one-mile long was manufactured to hold the record as “The World’s Greatest Catwalk.” Erected in the city center along the pedestrian street, Strøget, Helena Christensen, along with 250 other models, walked the neon-pink catwalk in sky-high stilettos and sporting designs from roughly 500 different Scandinavian brands. For the models’ sake, we’re hoping they at least had rehydration stations along the way.

Photo: Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
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Gold Medalist — Riddled with a mad case of Olympic fever, Dutch designer Joline Jolink had a slight obsession with legendary Olympian Florence Griffith-Joyner, aka Flo-Jo...so much so that her spring '09 show showcased her fascination with the running champion. The only reasonable option was to stage the show in the old Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam…on the 100-meter track. The sportswear collection, worn by models as they sashayed down the track, paid tribute to the flamboyant and feminine style of the famous sprinter — minus the mile-long nails and one-legged lace tights.

Enter Sandman — The designer: Pierre Cardin. The setting: Dunhuang Desert in China. The inspiration: Marco Polo. It took the dunes of the Whistling Sand Mountain in Dunhuang, China for famed French designer Pierre Cardin to truly express the sentiment of his spring '08 show — a traveler arriving in a faraway Eastern land, or more specifically, how Cardin envisioned Mr. Polo would travel. The fantasy story behind the 200-dress collection was just as imaginative as the exotic locale. Oh, and did we mention the show ended with a model in a wedding gown traveling by camel?

Photo: Courtesy of Joline Jolink
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Death Becomes Her — Registering at 9.9 out of 10 on the creepy scale, the only thing to explain Thom Browne’s fall ’12 show is confirmation that Tim Burton produced it. Throwing out the idea of a traditional presentation, Browne chose for his models to lie in dark wood coffins dressed in sleek, wool gray suits, while another set of models wandered somberly in and out of the coffin layout, as if in mourning. But, really, they shouldn’t feel too bad for them: According to the speech given before the start of the show, they “died” the honorable way — for fashion.

Let’s Get Physical — Danish designer, Henrik Vibskov, might not be as universally known as, say, Valentino, but in terms of dominating the kooky, off-the-wall, seriously strange category, he sits pretty in the top five for the most WTF? moments on a runway. At Copenhagen Fashion Week in '09, he tossed aside the classic catwalk and presented his collection on black-and-white striped, life-sized spinning hamster wheels, making the models work out, in heels and all. A scene reminiscent of the Twilight Zone, Vibskov wasn’t even fazed when a few models fell off the track after trying to keep up pace on the high-speed wheels. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo that beauty is pain.

Boardwalk Empire — Let’s not pretend we’re shocked that Mr. Lagerfeld is featured twice on this list. The prolific designer’s eccentricity has created some seriously intriguing shows. Case in point, the Chanel cruise '10 collection in Venice. Set at sunset, the show’s audience sat in deck chairs, as models, embodying a modern day Marchesa Casati, sauntered down a boardwalk of the Excelsior Hotel along the Lido — a poetically whimsical setting for a poetically whimsical designer. And here we thought a show at the Grand Palais in Paris had the most amazing backdrop.

Photo: Courtesy of Thom Browne
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Great Escalations — Talk about making an entrance! For their fall '12 show, design duo Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Kenzo transformed a university science lab building into a runway of epic proportions. Models entering the show wound their way down several escalators and class hallways before making their way to the remaining catwalk. The theatrical zigzagging, kicked off by the stunning Karlie Kloss, left showgoers tipping their hats in admiration and praise to the relatively new design team. Note to Leon and Lim, we’re eagerly anticipating September’s show!

The Sexiest Morning Commute — Didn’t get an invite to Fashion Week? That’s okay. If you live in Berlin, you would attend a show even if you didn’t expect to. During Berlin Fashion Week, U-Bahn subway commuters are treated to fashion shows featuring up-and-coming designers, as models strut their stuff through the train cars. And the last stop on the fashion train is an underground rock-’n’-roll club. Perhaps that 10 a.m. conference call can be postponed a few hours.

Photo: Courtesy of Kenzo