Herstory 5: Haute Couture and Runway Music
The Evolution of Haute Couture
So much has changed since the beginnings of haute couture in 1860's Paris. Something that we've found interesting is fashion's connection to music, especially techno and EDM. Through some research, we learned that this special bond has a lot to do with Delia Derbyshire, one of the pioneers in UK electronic music. Delia was critical to changing the public's perception of electronic music but her musical contributions went unknown and unrecognized for most of her lifetime.
Before Robert Moog created synthesizers (and Wendy Carlos popularized them), Delia was playing notes and then distorting the recordings. She would speed them up, slow them down, change the pitch - all these tasks required great precision.
Her musical influences include Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, as well as the sounds of her childhood during the World War II. This gave her work a distinctive sound that was alien-like and robotic, but she also made it incredibly playful. These are the same characteristics of the original Doctor Who theme song – Delia's most notable piece of work.
From 1960, Delia was a trainee studio manager at Radiophonic Workshop – this department created original sounds for BBC productions. Delia was soundtracking radio programs and eventually, TV shows. One of the those TV shows was Doctor Who for BBC's Saturday night timeslot. The Doctor Who theme song was one of the first TV theme songs made of entirely electronic sounds. Delia's Doctor Who theme song was used for the first 17 seasons (1963-1980). Doctor Who made electronic music part of pop culture for the first time. For many people, the Doctor Who theme song was their introduction to electronic music.
Before Delia Derbyshire, the general public dismissed electronic music as being out of this world and only useful for horror sounds. "Delian" tracks proved to them that electronic could also be incredibly beautiful.
The Doctor Who musical score was actually written by Ron Grainer but Delia took his composition and re-imagined it electronically. When he heard her version of the theme song for the first time, he didn't even believe that it was derived from his work.
While Delia Derbyshire's theme song was so instrumental to the early days of electronic music, few people knew her role in this historic moment. This is largely due to the fact that Ron Grainer was credited as the sole-author of the theme song. BBC policy at the time did not give Radiophonic Workshop staff individual credits. Because of this, the credits say "Ron Grainer and Radiophonic Workshop." Ron Grainer advocated for Delia Derbyshire but the policies were not changed.
Delia is a Haute Couture Legend Too
Society has taken steps to credit Delia Derbyshire for her iconic Doctor Who theme song, but some of her other contributions are even harder to find in our history books. Delia Derbyshire also created the first electronic soundtrack for a fashion show. This is an innovation that has made waves in the world of haute couture. Delia Derbyshire showed the world that electronic music could live in many forms - on the radio, television, and even on the runway. Over the years, electronic music has become a staple in the fashion world. For musicians, runways have become a way to get their sounds in front of influential spectators. Runways can also be seen as an experimental, testing ground if you're working with the right fashion designers.
Music is the secret ingredient that can take a collection to the next level. Fashion designers have different ways of sourcing runway music, sometimes they keep control but they usual call for outside help. Sometimes artists are commissioned to create original music - like the time Daft Punk sound tracked a Saint Laurent show in 2012. Most times, the sonics are done in-house by the music director. They'll decide if a collection needs original soundtracks, DJ mixes, or live performances.
Every show is different, and music directors will use different tactics to bring a collection to life. Women's collections tend to use more lyrical music and men's collections tend to focus on the beats. Even within those trends, the creative freedom is so vast. Thanks to music directors, we've experienced pairings like Prada with Britney Spears' "Work Bitch" and Chanel with Jay-Z's "Picasso Baby."
Runway Music isn't for Us
Many people think that runway music is for models and that the beats should coincide with their catwalk. In reality, It's not about the models at all. Fashion designers have a very clear story and statement that they are making with a collection - it's the music director's responsibility to make sure that the runway music reflects the collection's mood and message. The models will be able to walk down the runway to anything.
Runway music isn't for the audience either. When you're DJ'ing or performing live, the focus is always on the crowd's energy. With music direction and runway soundtracks, you're looking to please the fashion designer. It's actually better if you don't impress the spectators too much. Imagine leaving a fashion show and remembering the music more than the designs. Fashion shows have also evolved to be lightning fast – the designer has a limited amount of time to grab the audience's attention. Rather than distracting the crowd with exceptional music, the soundtrack has to complement the collection – cohesion is key.
Runway Music is an Extension for Styling
Music directors work closely with the designer to bring their vision to the runway. This process can span several weeks or it could be done within the days leading up to a showcase. It ultimately depends on the team and their workflow. Music direction also changes depending on the fashion house – more independent and underground designers are riskier while older fashion houses may want to play it safe. Either way, fashion shows are more experimental that the club circuit – this might be why it intrigues so many DJs and producers.
During early meetings, the fashion designer may share their moodboard with the music director or other items that inspired the upcoming collection. From there, it's the music director's job to curate a soundtrack that will take those designs to the next level. To get it right, there's a lot of back and forth before a the soundtrack is finalized by the fashion designer and music director.
The industry has changed significantly since Delia Derbyshire created the first electronic soundtrack. We wanted to learn more about runway music and what it's like to be in the game today. Ann Demeulemeester is a name that comes to mind when thinking about contemporary runway music. She's not a musician, but she was one of the few fashion designers that handled her own show music (effortlessly). The fashion icon told Interview magazine that music is a beautiful way to bring emotions together. Her fashion designs are often inspired by music and other artforms (film, poems, books). She believes that music offers a creative energy - we couldn't agree more. Ann Demeulemeester retired from the fashion world a few years ago and we were wondering who else is making waves in runway music.
At first, our google searches brought up a whole lot of men. It's always surprising that a female-focused industry like fashion is so male-dominated behind the scenes. But after some digging, we came across some remarkable women that are blazing an impressive trail for the next generation of music directors and sound designers. One of them was Mimi Xu.
Meet Today's Musical Mastermind
Mimi Xu: DJ & Producer
Mimi Xu, also known as DJ Misty Rabbit, wears many hats in the music world. She owns a record label, started a Parisian music magazine, and is a producer for some of the most influential runways and fashion films. Her impeccable style has also made her a fashion icon in the process.
She considers her relationship to music to be organic. She's the daughter of an acoustic architect and grew up studying classical instruments like piano. Mimi grew up in a number of cities, and her musical taste is just as borderless. She started her DJ'ing career in Australia and made the move to Paris. In France, she was DJ'ing the Paris club circuit and eventually began working with designers, spinning for their fashion shows. Once she entered the world of runway music, she quickly made name for herself. She got her start in 2007, and has worked with brands such as Mary Katrantzou, Roksanda, Acne, Topshop, and H&M since then.
You can learn more about the future of runway music through Mimi Xu's feature for Grazia Magazine.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for unlearning music misogyny.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
If information looks incorrect, please let us know! When we're retelling stories that are left out of our history books, finding info can get tricky. We want to make sure we're portraying these stories as accurately as possible!