Runway Fashion: Does Anybody Really Wear That?

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A model presents an outfit by Maison Martin Margiela A/W 2009-10 Haute Couture at Grand Palais on July 7, 2009, in Paris

Would you wear a mock-turtleneck catsuit? A ball gown that covers only your lower half? How about a Speedo with a strip of fabric that extends up your torso and around your neck, for an aquatic S&M look? No? Oh, you are no fun.

Runway shows are notorious for their over-the-top, impractical outfits, and the Spring 2010 New York Fashion Week (which runs Sept. 10-17, 2009, obviously) was no exception. Alexander McQueen showed off his Speedo design; Christian Dior went for some sort of 19th century French-prostitute look; and Y-3 paraded their models in see-through outfits that literally had no armholes. While fashionistas and critics praised the designers for their original ensembles, the rest of us were left to wonder, Would anybody really wear that?

No, and they're not supposed to. Runway designs are a form of wearable artwork; the emphasis is on beauty and innovation, not functionality. "It's fun to do these really extravagant, exciting runway pieces," says George Simonton, a fashion designer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, "but very few of the truly wacko designs are meant to be worn." In other words, missing armholes aren't an oversight; they're a statement.

Basically, fashion designers spend large sums of money — the average runway show costs around $40,000 — to show off clothing they don't expect anyone to buy. But runway shows aren't intended to sell individual items; they're about publicity, prestige and the overall feel of a designer's collection. Every seasonal collection has a theme — nautical, rustic, Victorian, gingham, clowns — that is later translated into more wearable items sold in boutiques and department stores. The colors, fabrics and overall aesthetic will remain true to the collection, but most of the more bizarre features — like the time Isaac Mizrahi sent his models down the runway with purses on their heads — will disappear.

"I was so full of glee when I saw the purse hats," says Jessica Morgan, New York magazine fashion writer and blogger, recalling Mizrahi's Fall 2009 New York Fashion Week show (held, naturally, in February). "Of course, if you wore it in real life, you'd look like a crazy person trying to shield herself from alien brain waves." Mizrahi wasn't the only designer to favor impractical headgear that season. That same week, designer Narciso Rodriguez sent one model down the runway in a cow-print-camouflage outfit accessorized with a bucket over her head. British Vogue described the ensemble as something that "put one in mind of Fat Albert."

Despite the outfits' impracticality, celebrities and the extremely wealthy will occasionally wear a designer's outrageous creations in public. Actresses Diane Kruger and Leighton Meester frequently show up to events in runway gear. Victoria Beckham — who debuted her clothing label at this season's Fashion Week — has paraded around in everything from a tutu to something that made her look like a space robot. Last May, Madonna wore a pair of Louis Vuitton bunny ears to a gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. Yet even at a place called the Costume Institute, the headpiece looked a little ridiculous. "Of course, Madonna did all the Louis Vuitton ads," Morgan points out, "so I guess it was good synergy." That may be, but she still looked like a rabbit with sculpted biceps.