A brief guide to Europe’s big three fashion weeks

The most prestigious international shows are known collectively as the ‘Big Four’ fashion weeks: New York, London, Milan and Paris. Here’s a little info on Europe’s big three.

Each of the Big Four holds two main editions every year: Fall/Winter (in February) and Spring/Summer in (September). New York always goes first, but the others certainly don’t lag behind. Here’s a little info on Europe’s big three fashion weeks.

Since the first animal hides were fashioned into crude coverings, humankind has been obsessed with clothes, and so inevitably, the unveiling of new, designer trends always attracts a great deal of attention. The most prestigious international shows are known collectively as the ‘Big Four’ fashion weeks: New York, London, Milan and Paris. These have evolved into hotly anticipated events in the social, business, press and fashion calendars.

Each of the Big Four holds two main editions every year: Fall/ Winter (in February) and Spring / Summer in (September). New York always goes first, but the others certainly don’t lag behind. Here’s a little info on Europe’s big three fashion weeks.

The birth of the Fashion Week phenomenon

Fashion shows of one sort or another have taken place around the world for years – there are around 40 different Fashion Weeks- but as New York, London, Paris and Milan are considered ‘fashion capitals’ globally and historically, these are the events that have become the biggest.

The first of the Big Four weeks took place in New York in 1943, designed to show that the US could produce its own clothes without relying on Paris, and to turn attention away from French fashion during the WWII. Italy (Florence, not yet Milan) followed suit in 1951. Paris launched its inaugural haute couture edition much later, in 1973, while London pulled up the rear in 1984.

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London vs Milan vs Paris

The European editions vary in terms of style and feel. London is known for being edgy and avant-garde, Milan as extravagant and cool, while Paris is known for its haute couture.
London Fashion Week

The UK’s turn to show the world what it could do came a year after the British Fashion Council was founded in 1983. The first to take place after New York, London Fashion Week is vibrant, ground-breaking and exclusive. Many huge household names debuted at LFW, such as Betty Jackson, John Galliano and Ghost, catapulting them into British consciousness. Jasper Conran, Stella McCartney, Matthew Williamson, Orla Kiely, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Julien Macdonald are all London Fashion Week alumni.

It’s followed by London Fashion Weekend, a series of catwalk shows, talks and events that are open to the public, the aim being to sell items. At the most prestigious ticketed events, guests receive designer-goody-filled totes.

Naturally, there have been many memorable moments over the years. Betty Jackson told The Telegraph that her favourite (of the 1996 edition) was: "When Yasmin Le Bon opened my autumn/winter show. Before starting down the catwalk she asked my assistant whether he could see her knickers. Shocked, he confirmed they were visible, which resulted in her whipping them off, saying: "Hold these, I'll be back." Needless to say, he was useless for the rest of the show, but it demonstrates Yasmin's utter brilliance."

Related: London’s top new boutiques

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London highlights and controversy

  • 1993 – A bare-chested Naomi Campbell models for Philip Treacy, putting LFW firmly in the spotlight.
  • 1995 - Stella McCartney’s debut collection sells out. She’s still only a student designer.
  • 1997 - The world was aghast to see newly-discovered Sophie Dahl strutting down the catwalk for Lainey Keogh. Her crime was – shock horror – being size 14.

Related: London Fashion Week Sept 2016: what to see and do

Milan Fashion Week

Actually, the first (unofficial) Italian Fashion Week wasn’t held in Milan, rather in the Florentine home of Giovanni Battista Giorgini in 1951, aiming to ‘give emphasis to the value of our fashion’. Giorgini, an aristocrat, was perceptive enough to recognise the financial opportunities of Italian Fashion on an international scale. The show didn’t move to Milan until the 1970s, via Rome. Fashion Week was officially inaugurated in 1958, coinciding with the creation of the organisation behind it, Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana.

Fendi, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Gucci, Max Mara, Ferragamo, Emilio Pucci, Giorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli have all exhibited. There’s a huge buzz in the city, especially when public spaces, including the Piazza Duomo, are transformed into catwalks.

It’s not just the clothes that can be extravagant. Cavalli said of his Fall/Winter 2011 collection: "I want to express a new femininity that is already living in the future. My woman for next winter could become the ideal host who accompanies us on a shuttle, voyaging toward new worlds in space."

Most shows are invite-only, but the outdoor events are usually open to all. More importantly, many of the after-parties are open to all, providing you pre-register.

Related: Moschino at the Milan Fashion Show

Milan highlights and controversy

  • 2001 – The sickening issue of rape shocks the fashion world, after it emerges that a 15-year old model was attacked at an after-party.
  • 2014 – As the week begins, Greenpeace activists display a banner in the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele demanding the fashion houses ‘detox’ and produce clothes which are free of hazardous-chemicals.
  • 2015 – Claudio Cutugno upsets a lot of people by sending models down the catwalk in black, glittery face paint. He said it was inspired by Emilio Isgrò, and meant to represent bees swarming on the models’ faces.

Related: Milan Fashion Week

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Paris Fashion Week

The last of the Big Four fashion shows, Paris Fashion Week is a high-end affair, the pinnacle of which are the haute couture shows, which are typically held in late winter. Envision those models sashaying down the catwalk in billowing Dior, Galliano, Pierre Cardin, Givenchy, Hermès, Yves St Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, Louis Vuitton – there’s such a romance associated with the French designers.

Although individual couture houses had been throwing their own salon shows for some time, it was war which prompted the first ‘big’ event. Sensing the Parisian couturiers may not be able to produce gowns during WWI – and thus have nothing to sell or to appear in the pages of her magazine - then US Vogue editor-in-chief, Edna Woolman Chase encouraged the designers to create clothes and display them in a charity event attended by wealthy women. It was a success and paved the way for what was to come.

In 1945, new rules around what determined haute couture houses dictated that each should show a collection of evening and day wear to the press. Although Paris Fashion Week wasn’t inaugurated until 1973, these initial events are generally accepted as the first.

Related: Destination Paris

Paris highlights and controversy

  • 1992 – Madonna walks Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway sans brassiere.
  • 1995 – Chanel and the tiny bikini. Only small discs bearing the interlinked double-C logo spared Stella Tennant’s blushes.
  • 2014 – Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel spectacularly transforms the Grand Palais into a supermarket, with Cara Delevingne among the models ‘shopping’ for haute couture fake food.

Related: Paris Fashion Week SS17: what to see and do

What’s great about each of these fashion capitals and their various collections, is that it’s impossible to predict what’s next. Always evolving, it’s clear that Europe’s three big fashion weeks will continue to grow, tantalise, scandalise and inspire for years to come.