The Big Question: What is the point of fashion shows, and how do they influence the high street?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this question now?

The international collections are currently in full throttle. This week, the haute couture season hit Paris, showcasing the world's most expensive and exclusive garments, all hand-stitched, beaded and embroidered by the world's most accomplished craftspeople who do their jobs wearing little white lab coats and with tiny purses of pins tied round their necks. Anachronistic? Surely not?

An haute couture garment costs upwards of £10,000 a pop, which makes it unsurprising that there are only around 1,000 women in the world wealthy enough, and indeed with the inclination, to buy them. The rather less rarefied although still reassuringly expensive Paris menswear collections follow the haute couture. Then the fashion caravan moves to New York, then London, to Milan and finally back to Paris again for the month-long haul that is the autumn/winter 2007 women's ready-to-wear.

What's in it for the rest of us?

Good question. After all, it does seem somewhat previous to dwell for any length of time on what we may - or may not - be wearing come autumn next year. That said, we all need clothes and they take time to produce.

More importantly, however extreme the designs seen on the catwalk may appear, they do actually inform clothing right across the board. M&S (yes, even M&S) may not choose to plunder directly John Galliano's Madame Butterfly looks for the esteemed house of Christian Dior - not many mere mortals are likely to dress in a full geisha make-up and with floor-sweeping kimono to match, even for the office party - but the powers that be everywhere else on the high street will probably take note of the colours, say, and even the basic silhouette. Similarly, if, in Milan, Miuccia Prada - aka She Who Must Be Obeyed - decrees that everything we wear should barely graze the thigh, then rest assured that Topshop, Primark, New Look et al. will follow suit.

What's in it for the designers?

That's more straightforward. In the first place, the shows are attended by buyers from around the world who purchase the clothes to sell in their stores six months from now. For lesser known designers in particular, the shows are a direct source of income. It should be noted, however, that buyers also visit designers' showrooms following the initial impact of the show and, depending on the brand in question, are likely to see the more obviously commercial pieces behind the scenes.

The shows are packed with journalists interested in the more show-stopping pieces. These duly appear in print, on television and on the internet even before the last model has made it backstage. Although the more expensive shows may cost upwards of £500,000, they still work out cheaper than advertising campaigns shot with big-name models and superstar photographers and have a much more immediate and mainstream audience.

Finally, and most obviously , such marketing may well persuade us to buy more affordable, spin-off designer sunglasses/ cosmetics/fragrance and so forth.

Can you buy the clothes you see on the catwalk?

Sometimes you can. There are certain designers who feel very strongly that what you see on the catwalk should be just what you get in a store six months down the line. There are others who use the shows as inspiration, a high-impact, quick fix to let press and buyers into the mood of their forthcoming collection, safe in the knowledge that a great pair of black trousers, say, and, more crucially, the season's "must-have" accessories are best seen in the showroom, after the main event.

Most designers do include at least some "show pieces" in their collections - gowns made entirely out of fresh flowers, say, or so huge the model wearing them needs to be escorted as she walks. Even these have their use beyond the catwalk. They may appear in the windows of designer or department stores, for example, or may be ordered by those who, well, let's just say like to stand out in a crowd.

How important are the models?

Very. It doesn't matter how impressive a garment may be, if the woman wearing it is less than lovely or supremely elegant it will die a death. It's been a while since the era of the supermodel and it is these days considered more chic to spot fashionably obscure new faces - the models who everyone will be clamouring for six months from now - and employ these young women to showcase the clothes. Only the desperate resort to celebrity appearances - Julien Macdonald take note - and Kate Moss and the like usually appear in advertising campaigns rather than on the catwalk itself.

What about the high street?

It should perhaps be noted that to buy and take considerable pride in wearing cheap fashion - as opposed to just clothes - is primarily a British, and indeed middle-classed, obsession. Time was, anyone even remotely interested in design would save up to purchase a single piece from their favourite name and the less said about snapping up a dress to wear out on a Saturday night then never again the better.

The high street likes to claim that it takes inspiration from the catwalk but many of the items that fill the rails are, in fact, almost exact copies sold for a fraction of the price of the original and available even before it. Designers - particularly those heading up big brands - don't seem to mind this too much, the general view being that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Whichever way one chooses to look at it, all sides are laughing all the way to the bank.

So what's the point of fashion anyway?

Another good question and one that can be answered variously, depending how you choose to look at it. For those who bow down at the altar of designer fashion, the industry is a valid reflection of society as a whole and, for that reason, as important a part of culture as, say, pop music. More basically, we all need clothes and there are now very few clothes that are purely functional. Most of the things we wear these days may loosely be branded fashion. The sight of someone dressed in clothing from a different era entirely would seem remarkable, after all.

Most tellingly, the importance of considered design in our lives - from cars, to interiors and from architecture to, of course, clothes - should not be underestimated. The sheer beauty of the finest fashion shows has been known to bring tears to the eyes of even the most hard-nosed fashion followers' eyes.

Do we need fashion shows?

Yes...

* We can't go to work naked. Even if we don't all buy designer fashion, the vast majority of us wear clothing that is informed by it

* Design is important. Considered clothing - like considered cars and homes - improves our quality of life

* Fashion shows, even the worst, are entertaining - which makes a welcome respite from the usual run of news

No...

* Given most people's clothing budgets wouldn't run to designer pieces, this is one indulgence too far

* So long as we cover our bodies when we leave home, it really doesn't matter what clothes we wear

* Fashion shows have always been, and still are, unashamedly elitist and anachronistic to the point of folly

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