Sometimes a designer’s vision is just so vast that no traditional catwalk can contain it. When that happens, the only option is to look further afield…

Fashion shows are notorious for their extravagance. From the lavish worlds created by John Galliano for Dior or Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, to the outlandish antics of Rick Owens or the conceptualized productions of Givenchy or Kanye West, designers today seem to be embroiled in an ever-escalating game of catwalk one-upmanship. As well as the clothes on display, catwalk shows have become branding exercises in themselves, with seemingly greater and greater spectacles sought each year in the quest to secure headlines.

However, over the years there are some designers who have taken things one step further, distancing themselves and their collections (quite literally) from the confines of a traditional catwalk. By relocating their shows somewhere entirely alien, these designers have been able to create an experience like nothing else, ensuring a memory that lives on long after the seasons have changed and the fashion has moved on.

From the Great Wall of China to the subterranean tunnels of Berlin, this is an exploration in some of the most unusual locations designers have ever chosen to hold a catwalk show.

Pierre Cardin 2007 – Whistling Sand Mountain

An arid, remote desert in China’s northwest Gansu province hardly sounds like the most appropriate place for a catwalk show. However, iconic Parisian designer Pierre Cardin is a man who likes to dream big. Having a long association with China, Cardin chose the isolated Whistling Sand Mountain outside of Dunhuang to showcase his Spring/Summer 2008 collection.

The hundreds of guests flown in for the event could easily have been forgiven for thinking that they were witnessing a mirage. One by one, the models — some on the backs of camels — traversed the white catwalk that snaked over the undulating dunes. The desert, with its long flowing lines and cinematic sparseness made a spectacular backdrop for over 200 men’s and women’s outfits.

Thom Browne for Moncler Gamme Bleu 2010 — Milan Velodrome

No stranger to using odd locations to enhance his shows (previous excursions have taken place at an Olympic swimming pool and equestrian riding stables), it was only fitting that Thom Browne chose Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan for his cycling influenced Spring/Summer 2011 collection for Moncler Gamme Bleu. In typical Browne style, his vision went beyond the clothing and utilized the location to add an extra layer of context to his collection.

With the audience surrounding the edge of the steep sided track, the cyclists filed in one by one before completing a series of laps to the tune of “Bicycle Race” by Queen. Full of retro cycling chic, the collection featured tricolore emblazoned peak caps, tight shorts and long flowing capes. Bridging the gap between fashion and sport like never before, Browne managed to refine the concept of traditional cycling attire and elevate it to luxurious new levels.

Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi 2007 – The Great Wall of China

Never one to shy away from publicity, Karl Lagerfeld’s catwalk show for Fendi in October 2007 went so far as to make use of the Great Wall of China as its backdrop. With the sun setting, the show began with models filing out of a guard tower onto the spotlit catwalk, all clad in Lagerfeld’s latest womenswear creations.

Fendi had to endure long negotiations with the Chinese government in order to gain permission to use the wall, and the task of turning an ancient and highly revered monument into a convincing fashion show was a huge undertaking. Clocking in at under half an hour, the whole thing cost an astonishing $10 million to produce, making it one of the most expensive undertakings of its kind at the time.

Lagerfeld has always been one to combine elements of different cultures in his shows, and Fendi’s Great Wall of China show was him at his opulent best. It’s moments like this that also cement him as one of fashion’s most creative minds, with an innate ability to both shock and compel in equal measure.

Maison Martin Margiela 1989 — Paris Children’s Playground

Martin Margiela’s irreverent and uncompromising approach to fashion was encapsulated perfectly for his third catwalk show in Paris in 1989. He was granted permission to use a children’s playground by local parents, only on the condition that their kids could come and watch.

What happened was a perfect example of how playing with the formula of a fashion show can break down the established barriers that typically separate audience from catwalk. As things started, the flowing white clothing caught the attention of the watching children, who jumped up and began playing with the models. The often sterile and highly orchestrated world of the fashion show was dramatically turned on its head.

Present was a young Raf Simons who was interning for Walter Van Beirendonck at the time. Simons would later say that the 17-minute show was one of the most poignant experiences of his career, “Nothing in fashion has had more emotional impact on me than Margiela’s third show. It was so moving. Everyone was crying. Me too.”

Berlin Fashion Week — Underground Catwalk

Often overshadowed by its glamorous and well-established rivals, Berlin Fashion Week has always been a place for slightly more avant-garde designers to showcase their collections. Running from 2005 until 2013, one particular catwalk show perfectly reflected this rebellious, subversive approach as it took place below the streets on the city’s metro system.

Found on the U5 line between Alexanderplatz and Frankfurter Allee, the Underground Runway was seen as an alternative to the main fashion shows. The idea was first formulated as a response to official Berlin Fashion Week tents being prohibitively expensive for up-and-coming designers. Instead of guest lists and VIPs, shows were conducted in public, with people hoping to see specific collections simply hopping on the right train at the right time.

This incredible process of democratization not only helped break down the hegemony of the traditional fashion shows, but also placed the clothing in a real-life setting closet to how it would be worn in real life — the exact antithesis of the fantastical and faraway concepts most fashion shows fall back on.

  • Author: Charlie Haywood for
Words by Staff