The Extravagant, Overlooked Design Of Fashion Show Sets

In a new book, the over-the-top backdrops of haute couture fashion runways get a chance to star.


In 2007, Fendi hosted a fashion show on the Great Wall of China, transforming part of the 2,000-year-old, 4,500-mile-long structure into the world’s oldest and most historically significant catwalk. Five hundred people from around the world flew to Beijing, drove 90 minutes out of the city, and climbed a not-insignificant amount of steps to see the show, put on by then-creative director Karl Lagerfeld.

FENDI, SS 2008, Ready-to-wear, Juyongguan. [Photo: Vincent Lappartient]

Securing the setting, however, was the job of Paris-based design agency YO Fashion & Luxury Events. YO is behind many of fashion’s most high-profile shows. And although you might think that the Great Wall wouldn’t need much dressing up, the production still cost an estimated $10 million, according to W magazine.

“[Fashion] sets can take anywhere from three days to six months to execute, at times involving hundreds of craftsmen, all to create 12 minutes of magic which, at its finest, can make the fashion experience come alive,” the Huffington Post editor and author Federico Poletti writes in the introduction to the new book The Fashion Set: The Art of the Fashion Show.

Companies that specialize in the construction of sets spend the months prior to the show designing, choosing, or building a set that is exciting and immersive, while still falling in line with the brand and the feel of the new collection. Though their work is often unsung–and their sets very temporary–the backdrops of fashion shows can be architectural marvels in their own right.

While many fashion sets are lavish and enthralling and completely over-the-top, set designers know that they also have to be more than just spectacle. For example, Miuccia Prada has worked with Rem Koolhaas’s research and design studio AMO since 2004, and the trust and familiarity of the partnership has allowed them to consistently push into unexpected territory. In 2012, Prada and AMO turned the runway into an indoor golf course, channeling the sport that may be as far from the avant-garde ethos of the high-fashion world as you can get. They lined the floor of a spacious, vaulted building with astroturf and sky-blue cubes for seating. The models walked the spare, stadium-lit set in bejeweled golf shoes.

Prada AW 2015, Menswear. [Photo: Agostino Osio, Courtesy of OMA]

In The Fashion Set, Prada’s golf set is completely void of people–a rare occasion in runway photography. Sets are usually captured within the context of the show, with models stalking down the catwalk and famous front-row audience members staring on. But these photos allow you to appreciate the setting as its own entity. In another example, a photo of the 2015 Prada show shows an empty industrial space with metal floors and ceilings. A photo of a 2015 Shiaparelli show depicts an empty pink-soaked room in a building in the famous Parisian square Place Vendôme. Sometimes a fashion set is fabulous just by virtue of its fabulous locale (recall the as Great Wall of China Fendi show).

Whether meticulously constructed worlds or architectural treasures reimagined as catwalks, The Fashion Set pulls these immense, thoughtfully designed, often otherworldly backgrounds into the foreground. Check out some of our favorite sets in the slide show above, or find the full book here.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.