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Features / Set Design

Set Pieces: We speak to the designers turning catwalk shows into pure spectacle

First published in Printed Pages Summer 2014

Words by

Maisie Skidmore

Sitting at Simon Costin’s kitchen table, I am intensely aware that I’m not alone. Opposite me, the head and shoulders of a male mannequin gaze blankly out, flanked by butterflies arranged in ornate compositions inside enormous glass domes. Beside them, animated-looking puppets slump drunkenly against one another on the shelves, and upstairs a giant Humpty Dumpty egg is perched opulently on a chaise longue. It’s a macabre yet joyful collection of curiosities I’m keeping company with. But I should have expected nothing less from the relics of more than 20 years realising the grand fantasies of fashion’s most visionary minds.

To say that Simon is heavily immersed in fantasy would be an understatemet. He designed sets for Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows for seven years before going on to create landscapes for Givenchy, Lanvin and the like. “The fashion industry thrives on fantasy, that’s its bottom line! It’s what it grows out of,” he tells me. “It allows people a moment to become something else. It convinces people they need things that they don’t; that these things will make their lives better. It gives windows into worlds that are totally impossible and can never exist.” It’s no wonder that Simon, with his innate hankering for the magical, the ethereal and the strange, ended up doing what he does, constructing the extraordinary daydreams of designers, and creating the landscapes which underpin many of Tim Walker’s iconic photographs.

It was purely by chance that he came to work in the fashion industry. “A student wrote to me from Central Saint Martins asking if I was still doing the body sculpture jewellery pieces,” he says, referring to the elaborate and sinister work he made while studying theatre design at Wimbledon. “I said ‘No, not really, but I’ve got some I can loan for your degree show.’ And that was Lee, who became known as Alexander McQueen.” It was a serendipitous match for the like-minded creatives. “All of a sudden I’m doing these massive great fashion shows, which wasn’t by design at all. Would I have pursued it had Lee not written to me? I don’t know really, probably not.”

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Stefan Beckman – Marc Jacobs Autumn Winter 2014

Simon went on to create a number of highly conceptual sets for the designer over the following seven years, including the eminent Untitled show of Spring 1998 (originally called The Golden Shower until the name was changed due to a sponsor’s objection). It was very much a collaborative partnership with Simon often helping to realise the designer’s abstract ideas. “With the Untitled show Lee knew he wanted it to rain, but didn’t know the context or how that would work. So I suggested these tanks that were filled with water as the audience came in. The collection seemed to be predominantly black in the first half and white in the second , so we devised this kind of yin yang context. The catwalk was white for the first half with a black collection, and then there was a seven minute gap when there were no models on the catwalk at all while the tanks filled up with black ink in front of everyone. Because it was lit from underneath the ink obscured the light, so the catwalk was in effect black, and then the second half came out, with the light.” The show received critical acclaim for its dark playfulness; models dancing across the catwalk in the golden rain wearing McQueen’s sinister creations. “They were quite conceptual pieces, they weren’t just making it look decorative. I don’t do that very well.”

Despite the incredible scale of his ideas, Simon is clear on the most important aspect of being a set designer in the fashion industry. “You can never forget what it is that you’re there to do, which is to show the collection,” he explains. “Often the designer has had inspirations that aren’t apparent in the clothes, so you can play that out in the scenography. It’s all about adding layers of meaning.”

This golden rule is echoed by Stefan Beckman, the New York-based designer responsible for creating notoriously extravagant fashion shows, including sets for Marc Jacobs’ shows every season since 2006. “Honestly, it’s about the clothes, first and foremost,” he tells me. “You’re there to do a creative job, but in the end you need to be true to the house and true to the spirit of the designer.”

In Stefan’s case, this notion might have something to do with his long term collaboration with Jacobs. Last season for the Autumn Winter 2014 show he designed 500 cloud-shaped pillows, which were suspended by cables from the ceiling to hang eight feet above the floor. The result was a dreamily melancholic atmosphere which reflected the serene, pastel-dominated collection paraded below. The reality of building such an environment, Stefan assures me, is slightly more complicated than it might appear. “It was a challenge trying to make it work, hanging all those clouds from the ceiling for Marc last season. That was definitely a hindrance for the lighting.”

Deadlines are among the most impressive elements of Stefan’s work. “You’re under incredible time restraints sometimes; it’s a very intense process and you’re so invested in the project. With Marc sometimes we’ll be changing things until the last minute. If he’s getting another idea and the collection’s really coming together he’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’d be great if we could try this other detail in the set.’ There are a lot of last minute changes.”

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Silent Studios – Anya Hindmarch 2014

And these aren’t the only pressures. “You have to think about how the show is going to photograph, and how it’s going look on film, because that can be really bad for the legacy of your show,” Stefan tells me, a point that Simon agrees with emphatically. “We got slated once doing a McQueen show called It’s a Jungle Out There because the lighting designer and I thought it should be very moody and atmospheric, with pools of light the models walked into. It looked stunning, but the photographers and the journalists hated it! They were like ‘Well yeah, we could see the models some of the time.’ So it’s a thin line. You can push it so far, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to see the clothes.”

The soundtrack is another element that’s often overlooked, Stefan tells me. “It’s another thing that kind of gets brought in at the end a lot of the time, and you have to figure out what to do with these giant speakers and subwoofers. You might not have room in your design for them, but you need them and have to integrate them.”

It’s a predicament that Nathan Prince, creative director of Silent Studios, is acutely aware of, though his priorities are very different. Since co-founding the studio with composer Liam Paton almost 10 years ago, the duo have worked in developing audio and visual elements side by side to create large immersive experiences on an enormous scale, working on fashion projects for Burberry, Aquascutum and the British Fashion Council, as well as art and music installations. “Audio can be such an afterthought. Even massive fashion shows still just have a DJ, or someone playing audio tracks, cross-fading them between each other. With all the thought that’s gone into the collection, to put a playlist together the night before just doesn’t seem bespoke enough. The collection and the catwalk are a given, but what happens with music and atmosphere and how that makes you feel is really up for grabs, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t start off with the audio. It can make you feel happy, uneasy, it can make your hair stand on end. Working on those visual and audio disciplines at the same time means they really do influence one another.”

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Stefan Beckman – Marc Jacobs FW 13

This was certainly the case at Anya Hindmarch’s Spring Summer 2014 show, for which Silent Studios worked alongside set designer Stuart Nunn to create a spectacle in which giant planetary orbs moved across the ceiling, bags drifted through the air on a kinetic sculpture and models flew weightlessly above the crowd to the evocative melody of a celestial soundtrack. It was an otherworldly display that both delighted and surprised the audience, sparking a sea of smartphones all struggling to capture the magic.

“The good thing about those shows is that they’re about six minutes long, which is quite short,” Nathan explains. “Anya kept talking about the orgasm moment, which was a bit uncomfortable, but I knew what she meant. It was this massive moment and then this wink at the end, when these acid house smiley faces appeared on the orbs, and I think the music really led that.” The intense combined effect of the projection and music is wholly their doing, but Nathan is clear to emphasise the designer’s role in the creative process. “When you’re working with a designer I think it’s only right that it’s their vision, because it’s been their vision for the collection. Although we put ideas to them, ultimately we’re just there to bring their vision to life in a creative environment.”

Still, he’s happy to admit that directing live, immersive experiences more than pays off with the audience’s reaction. “It’s such an addictive feeling. The risk of working in a live environment does heighten certain stresses, but I think the reward of that is that you’re an onlooker watching people experience work that just myself and Liam, and maybe Stuart have been listening to in a dark room, going ‘Yeah, I think that does make me feel that way’. So it’s just so rewarding to see people experience it.”

When it comes to the value of the audience’s enjoyment, Stefan agrees wholeheartedly. “It means a lot to know that people like going to the shows, because as a whole, fashion shows can be boring. There are hundreds and hundreds of shows that people are going to, and there are some great ones for sure, but there are not a lot of people who really push the theatricality. And it’s tough! Because people in fashion want something new.”

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Stefan Beckman – Marc Jacobs FW 12

The industry’s incessant desire for the new extends to location, too. Last season Stefan worked on the Autumn Winter 2014 show for Alexander Wang, who horrified fashion editors by forcing them to leave the confines of Manhattan and trek through the snow to Brooklyn’s industrial-looking Navy Yard to his aptly-themed Extreme Conditions and Survival show. “Oh, when Alex Wang showed in Brooklyn everyone went crazy!” Stefan tells me. “It got a lot of negative press.”

His complex set design was instrumental in making the show a success in spite of the arduous journey. Towards the end a dozen models took their places around the outskirts of a rotating catwalk, stationed in front of metal air vents, causing their heat-activated leather garments to change from blue and black to yellow and purple. “And now Dior are going to do their resort show there! So that just shows you. For me, having those designers who really push the envelope is really interesting.”

And how do these designers feel about the months spent dreaming up majestic dream-worlds just for them to be dissembled after the show is over? For Stefan, it’s all part and parcel of the industry. “I feel like fashion is all about change. Designers are forced to come up with collections four times a year, now; two big ones, and then two others that are equally important, with resort and pre-fall. By the time the collection gets to the stores they’re done, they’re onto the next season and beyond, so I don’t think preserving it would make sense.”

Simon, on the other hand, feels a twinge of remorse. “You do think that it’s madness. These things are just going to be destroyed, or go into storage and never be seen again. But there’s something about the ephemeral nature of what I do; there’s a kind of butterfly moment, because they live for such a short time; this thing blossoms, flies, dazzles and dies, all within the space of an afternoon or an evening.” Surrounded by his collection of beautifully preserved butterflies this metaphor seems apt.

“There is something exciting about that you-had-to-be-there sort of thing. It’s like a really good party; if you weren’t there, you weren’t there. But if you were, you had a fabulous time!”