If there's one standout at any fashion week, it's when designers put on a show — not just a runway but a spectacle that stays in our minds for years to come.
At Copenhagen Fashion Week this month, Danish label (di)vision closed its Autumn Winter '23 show with model Sarah Dahl strutting away from her table, taking the tablecloth along with her as a train of sorts. The reaction to the viral clip proved that as spectators, we want the bells and whistles that turn seeing a collection into an immersive experience that pushes boundaries and, more importantly, has fun.
Of course, di(vision) rides on the coattails of a rich history of experimental, iconic and surprising shows from fashion houses and designers whose work continues to live rent-free in our collective consciousness. But the return of fashion week as a hub for performance art is a revitalising nod to its heyday, when models were conduits for a wider vision that surpassed doing two laps of a runway.
Ahead, we take a trip down memory lane with eight "wow" moments from the last three decades that brought the drama — and still stand the test of time.
Coperni: Spray-On Dress (2022)
The biggest talking point of Paris Fashion Week Spring Summer '23 was the final look on Bella Hadid. The supermodel walked onto the runway in nothing but a g-string and had a dress spray-painted onto her body in front of an amused and shocked audience.
Designers Arnaud Vaillant and Sébastien Meyer used a stringlike, instant material known as Fabrican to craft a fitted number in real time, with the final result producing a shoulderless, white slit dress. "No rehearsal, no nothing, just passion," said Hadid at the time. That, and lots of magic.
Alexander McQueen: Joan (1998)
If there was one thing that Alexander McQueen was known for — besides his exciting, striking designs — it was how to put on a show. There are a number of iconic finales in his repertoire, including the truly memorable spectacle of robots spray-painting a white dress, and placing writer Michelle Olley into a glass box, nude and wearing a breathing tube mask.
However, in 1998, McQueen turned to the element of fire in his Autumn Winter show, inspired by Joan of Arc and the Romanov family. Right at the end, a model replicates the fate of the patron saint of France, with a ring of fire surrounding the stage.
Bobby Abley: Teletubbies (2017)
As it stands, there have now been two fashion week events that have featured a Teletubby on the runway. In 2021 Tinky Winky (the purple one) showed up to help mark the return of New York Fashion Week after COVID lockdowns, but four years earlier, his green pal Dipsy paved the way.
Designer Bobby Abley brought on the fuzzy creature as part of a wider collection that celebrated the children's TV show. His human models sported wigs that looked like their antennas and bright colours dedicated to their likeness. Of course, the star of the show was Dipsy himself, who waddled onto the runway to strike a pose.
Rick Owens: Ballsacks (2015)
Rick Owens loves to provoke, to the point of exploring the taboo of nudity on the runway. We see breasts in fashion all the time, but it's more of a faux pas to endorse genitalia at fashion week. But for his Autumn Winter Men's show in 2015, Owens decided to do just that, and promptly earned the temporary nickname of Dick Owens.
It quickly became clear that his models had crotch cutouts that made their ballsacks visible. However, as Refinery29 wrote at the time, it's not like he's making the case for the average Joe to do the same: "It's not literal fashion — it's fashion presented as commentary about how we clothe ourselves and what we're saying through our clothes when we do."
Chanel: Rocket Launch (2017)
Two years before his passing, Karl Lagerfeld shot for the stars with a space-themed show that literally launched a rocket (kind of). The Autumn Winter ready-to-wear runway used a lot of nifty optical illusions to make it look like a life-size rocket bearing the Chanel logo was being sent to outer space.
Obviously, that would be really dangerous to actually do, but the simulated version was still incredibly impressive inside the Grand Palais in Paris. Up, up and away!
Hussein Chalayan: Dissolving Dress (2015)
In a real Houdini move, Hussein Chalayan danced with wizardry by turning a lab coat-like shirt into a dress using sprinklers from above. The spellbinding moment from the Spring Summer show saw one design melt into the other from a crisp staple into an intricate, embellished gown underneath.
While it might not be the most practical application in real life (sweaty girls and rain beware!), it sparked a conversation about how science can work to continue manipulating materials in ways we could only dream of.
Vivienne Westwood: Erotic Zones (1993)
Who knew something so simple could be so iconic? At Paris Fashion Week, Dame Vivienne Westwood got Kate Moss to eat a Magnum while walking down the runway, wearing only a micro mini skirt, pink platform shoes and a hat that would put Napoleon to shame.
It is, at its heart, a small spectacle, but using something as mundane as ice cream to add movement draws attention to the hedonism and lust for life centred in the show. Accompanying models fed their chocolate-covered treats to members of the audience and to one another.