LONDON, United Kingdom — On a Saturday evening in late January, just a few days before the start of New York Fashion Week, nearly 800 guests gathered to see Opening Ceremony’s latest designs. The crowd was composed of musicians, actors and fashion industry insiders. But they weren’t there to see a runway show. Instead, they had assembled at the Lincoln Center to take in “The Times Are Racing,” a performance piece created by the New York City Ballet’s wunderkind resident choreographer Justin Peck and costumed by Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon, who used the dancers’ outfits as the inspiration for the brand’s Spring 2017 collection.
But Opening Ceremony’s event was by no means the only instance of the cross-pollination of fashion and dance in recent seasons. From the unexpected model dance-off at the end of Stella McCartney’s Spring 2017 show in Paris (followed up by a three-part choreographed fashion film featuring models frolicking and throwing shapes) to Mercedes-Benz, American Vogue and Desigual all tapping the Hiplet ballerinas (a Chicago-based dance troupe known for their viral videos blending hip-hop with ballet) to Dior’s “Poison Club Dance Battle” film launching the brand’s new Poison Girl fragrance, fashion has taken to dance with new enthusiasm.
Of course, the coupling of fashion and dance is by no means a new phenomenon. The two metiers have a long and storied relationship, stretching back at least to the beginning of the 20th century, when Coco Chanel crafted designs for the Ballet Russes, whose oriental costumes inspired the likes of Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent. In 1949, Christian Dior debuted his memorable “Black Swan” couture gown, which noticeably echoed Swan Lake. And since then designers from Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix to Valentino Garavani and Riccardo Tisci have outfitted dance companies and drawn references from their traditional costumes.
Many see a natural crossover between the two art forms, which are both centred around the study of the body and it’s movement. Indeed, for designer Hussein Chalayan, who has created costumes for choreographers including Michael Clark and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and in 2015 directed his own contemporary dance piece, “Gravity Fatigue,” for London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre, his interest in fashion and dance are one in the same. “Any designer or person that works around the body, I would find it abnormal if they’re not interested in dance, because that’s the body in movement,” Chalayan says. “The interest in it is so intrinsic and pivotal, that I can’t separate the two, because what you wear could accentuate or restrict or enhance or expand movement.”
“Fashion is interested in the body’s movement and how it interacts with garments,” agrees Becca McCharen, designer of swim and activewear brand Chromat, which featured dance performances in both its Spring/Summer 2017 and Autumn/Winter 2017 shows. “That’s why we have runway shows, because you get to see clothes move when they walk, but there are so many other possibilities for movement and having dancers highlights the possibilities.”
For some designers, dance is a powerful storytelling device that can be used to better communicate the inspiration behind a collection, or elicit a more emotional response from viewers than traditional runway shows. “Dance is so much more than entertainment. It makes you think, it provokes something in you, and I think that’s what a designer wants to do — they want to provoke a thought, to make you feel something through what they’re wearing,” says Jermaine Browne, a dance choreographer who has worked with brands including Carolina Herrera, Rachel Roy, Nike and Victoria’s Secret.
“For some brands, they have a really elaborate set that they build out. For us, the performer sets the mood and explains our inspiration,” says McCharen, who chose to open Chromat’s Spring/Summer 2017 show with a performance by pregnant dancer Mela Murder, which she says underscored the collection's themes of female strength and extreme athleticism.
Likewise, the themes of defiance and unity present in Opening Ceremony’s Spring 2017 collection — shirts and hoodies were emblazoned with slogans like “fight,” “act” and “unite” — were reinforced by “The Times Are Racing,” which centred on ideas of protest and community.
Other designers have used dance to demonstrate functional aspects of their clothing, such as Paul Smith, whose PS by Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2017 presentation at Pitti Uomo featured dancers and gymnasts performing dressed in the collection.
“The particular pieces we chose to focus on had functions like shower resistance, wind-defence and added durability. It made sense to show the clothes in a more dynamic way than on mannequins or models walking down the catwalks,” explains Smith. “It’s about showing that the clothes are made for modern people who want to be able to live their lives in their clothes, not be constrained by them.”
But the recent surge of interest in dance is also linked to the evolution of fashion shows from trade events to consumer marketing spectacles and the need to cut through the clutter and connect with fans and followers on social media. Indeed, for many brands, using dance is a powerful way to stand out in an increasingly noisy and fragmented media landscape. “There’s no question that with the rise of the internet, fashion has become much more of an entertainment phenomenon. And when there’s just hundreds of fashion shows, you do need a gimmick to get attention,” says Valerie Steele, fashion historian and museum director at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who curated FIT’s 2014 “Dance & Fashion” exhibition.
“Fashion shows are not just for stylists, press, buyers and industry people any more. It’s usually the first communication a designer or brand has with their potential customers that season,” says Theo Adams, director of Theo Adams Company, a London-based collective of artists and dancers that has worked with brands including Louis Vuitton, W Magazine and Charles Jeffrey.
“To stand out and be memorable, you have to go beyond models just walking up and down a catwalk, however interesting the clothes are. It’s called a fashion show for a reason,” he continues.
Certainly, clips of dance performances are much better disposed to travel on social media than static catwalk or advertising images — an increasingly important litmus test for brands when they consider how to showcase their collections. Some videos shared by the attendees of the dance spectacle ending Stella McCartney’s show have been viewed more than 170,000 times on Instagram, while the Spike Jonze-directed “Kenzo World” fragrance film, featuring model Margaret Qualley dancing her way through LA’s Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, has been viewed more than 5.5 million times on YouTube. Indeed, the emergence of video as a key medium of communication for fashion has undoubtedly fuelled the trend for dance.
“For a very long time, we’ve been thinking of [fashion] images as still images, whether they were fashion campaigns or fashion photography,” says Steele. “[With video], you get the opportunity to have a whole other way of presenting fashion, which can be extremely compelling — seeing it in three dimensions.”
Dance’s universality — it is present across all communities and classes — can also help brands tap into a wider consumer base, which might have felt excluded from the world of high fashion, says Jermaine Browne. “You can use dance to reach a new eye, a new demographic in your customers… especially if you want to show you’re a little bit hip, a little bit cool.” Indeed, Dior’s “Poison Dance Battle” campaign was accompanied by a set of how-to videos breaking down the steps so viewers could join in the dance.
Effectively blending dance and fashion takes planning and precision. When creating performances for shows, choreographers have to work within the close confines of the fashion week schedule, where models often turn up little more than an hour before a show, and preparing them to participate in a performance — or even just how to interact with well-rehearsed dancers — can be a race against time.
And brands that want to use dancers in lieu of models need to bear their requirements in mind during the design process. “There’s more of a precision [to designing for dance], because obviously if you’re wearing clothes everyday, you and I are probably not doing a leg kick over our heads, so we might not need full flexibility in a pant,” explains Humberto Leon, creative director of Opening Ceremony and Kenzo with partner Carol Lim, who has incorporated dance into the work of both brands.
Jumping on the bandwagon and including dance just to be part of the trend is unlikely to sit well with viewers either, says Leon, who believes dance is most effective when used as an authentic storytelling device.
“The bar has been raised quite high now, because dance is used pretty regularly,” says Leon. “I don’t believe in entertainment for entertainment’s sake. If you’re telling a story through dance that [has to be] a story threading from the conception of the collection. If it isn’t, it just comes across to everyone as a PR gimmick.”