This year’s season of S/S fashion shows has brought out a lot in me, namely, a new appreciation for the noughties and the colour apple green, but also, a change in how I consume fashion shows - namely, a dedicated routine of checking Vogue to browse the collections post-show instead of watching a livestream or being there in real life. This habit was born partly out of the inconvenient time difference between a number of fashion week cities and Berlin, where I now live, and partly out of the quick ease with which photo galleries allow a collection to be seen. In the aftermath of the S/S19 show season though, I’ve realised that I’ve cheated myself out of experiencing an indispensable feature of fashion shows: the runway soundtrack.
Simply put, the runway soundtrack is the music that accompanies a fashion show. And unless the songs being played are really out-of-the-box, it’s often overlooked by a show’s attendees, though understandably so. Since fashion is viewable and tactile, it’s innate for fashion show goers to focus on the material (no pun intended). But like a designer’s collection, the runway show soundtrack is a complex art form in itself.
Preparations for the soundtrack begin anywhere from months to days before the show. It depends on the designer, and whether they are using recorded songs, having a DJ create a mix for them, or employing a live performance from a singer or band. Each medium entails their own creative and legal process that has to be carried out before it makes it onto the catwalk. Recorded songs, for one, aren’t as simple as popping over to Spotify and hitting shuffle. To avoid copyright infringement and potential lawsuits, a brand must obtain permission to use the song in their soundtrack. These licenses typically include the rights to the lyrics of the song, to its recording, to its public performance, and for the song to be included in the recording of the show. All of these rights may not be owned by the artist themself, so obtaining permission from the various entities, such as the song’s publisher and record company, can be a difficult and timely task.
It’s common for fashion houses to go down the DJ route, hiring someone to create tracks or compile a playlist for their show. I was pleasantly surprised to learn this, since the likes of Daft Punk and Louis Vuitton (circa S/S 2008) were an unexpected pairing, but still a cool convergence of music and high fashion. Aside from big-name talents, brands will utilise DJs who specialise in runway soundtracks, such as Paris-based Michel Gaubert, who has deejayed for Michael Kors and Karl Lagerfeld, amongst others, and was profiled in The New York Times’ lineup of fashion week DJs in 2012.
On to my favourite approach to the runway show soundtrack - the live performance. This combines a concert and a fashion show, which sounds awesome just in writing, but I’m still waiting for the day that I get to experience this in-person. Chanel tapped the live performance method for their S/S12 show during Paris Fashion Week, which took place in The Grand Palais-turned-nautical wonderland. Fifteen minutes in, Florence Welch emerged from a shell to sing What the Water Gave Me. Other notable performances in my book include James Bay for Burberry S/S15 and Solange for Maryam Nassir Zadeh S/S18.
Though I could go on analysing the runway soundtracks’ various modes of delivery, a greater matter in creating the soundtrack is figuring out its intent. The chief goal of a runway soundtrack is to exemplify the designer’s vision for the collection, whatever emotion, environment, or concept that may be. The best way to materialise that will usually be worked out in a collaborative process between the designer and whomever is providing the music. The theme of the whole collection acts as the basis to start drawing ideas for music from, and then they alter the soundtrack from there. Either the first or last song being played should most clearly sum up the collection, with the rest of the soundtrack flowing in accordance. The customary idea of a unified soundtrack may be rejected entirely as fitting. In Comme des Garçons’ S/S13 show, for example, each look was accompanied by a sound drastically different from its predecessor. More recently, Riccardo Tisci's Burberry soundtrack this season became decidedly more contemporary and upbeat at the show's mid-point, marking the difference between the more classic looks in the former half and the more youthful ones in the latter.
A good runway soundtrack is rarely what’s playing on the radio at that point in time. Fashion shows are meant to showcase new ideas and perspectives, not recycle old trends, unless they’re being reimagined in a fresh way. Like the designs being exhibited, a runway soundtrack complies with this golden rule. An added bonus of avoiding the latest hit songs is that the possibility of using the same music as another brand does is eliminated.
As someone who loves both music and fashion, I’m excited to approach future fashion shows with a new awareness of the runway soundtrack. Next time you’re watching a show, pay attention to the clothing first and foremost, but afterwards, think about how the music shaped your experience. The runway soundtrack may not be the be-all end-all to a fashion show, but it’s an important contribution nonetheless.