Off the Wall

Fendi’s star-studded fashion show transforms the Great Wall of China into the world’s biggest runway

The illuminated runway entrance                                     ©Patrick McMullan

The illuminated runway entrance                                     ©Patrick McMullan

Here is a sight you will not see every day: A gaggle of more than 450 international socialites and fashionistas outfitted in their finest atop the Great Wall of China. “After this, the Olympics better be good!” declared actress Thandie Newton, luminous in a strapless yellow chiffon dress as she took in the first-ever fashion show at the 2,000- year-old structure . “It was a perfect setting,” joked Fendi designer Karl Lagerfeld, because “the wall is built like a big runway.” The pinnacle of four whirlwind days of dinners and parties, the elaborate October 19 Fendi event was a painstaking year in the making—and a nod to China’s growing international clout and appetite for luxury goods. As guests approached the snaking 4,000-mile landmark outside Beijing, built in the third century B.C. to keep enemies at bay, ushers handed out Fendi cashmere scarves to ward off the chill from near-freezing temperatures. “It was magical,” actress Kate Bosworth said. “I felt like I had dropped through a rabbit hole and come out into a fantasy land.” Though warned to wear walking shoes, Louboutin-clad lovelies like Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang and New York ladies-about-town Tinsley Mortimer and Fabiola Beracasa would have none of it. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Beracasa, decked out in a green Fendi gown. “When we’re 80 we’ll remember seeing the Great Wall in the most spectacular way.” First stop: cocktails and hors d’oeuvres under the marble archway of the Cloud Platform tower, where workers had installed seating cushioned by oversize Fendi pillows. At sunset, more ushers appeared to guide guests up the steep steps of the undulating Juyongguan Pass to a makeshift 200-meter runway flanked by heated benches. As daylight dimmed, a large double-F logo projected onto an adjacent hill formed a dramatic backdrop. Nearly 90 models paraded the legendary firm’s expanded spring collection, ready-to-wear clothes featuring a circle motif (the symbol for good luck in China) by Karl Lagerfeld and accessories by Silvia Fendi. In homage to the wall, belts were shaped like stacked bricks, a theme that would recur throughout the evening. “It was surreal,“ heiress Amanda Hearst said. “I was on the Great Wall of China, and I was watching a fashion show.” A gasp swept through the crowd as dazzling fireworks erupted following the finale. The normally composed Lagerfeld couldn't suppress a broad grin as he acknowledged the roar of approval during an extended ovation. “The best part of the evening was seeing that expression on Karl’s face,” said Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH (Fendi’s parent company). After traveling back to town, guests dined outside at a new Beijing shopping complex decorated with giant Fendi baguettes and a supersize dress from the collection. Centerpieces of large ice bricks surrounded by white orchids in Lucite vases anchored snow-white tablecloths, and Lucite brick-pattern paperweights marked each setting. For entertainment, acrobatic dancers flew through the air against a life-size image of Fendi’s Rome headquarters’ façade. As the 1999 Dom Pérignon flowed, diners tucked into risotto with truffles served in bowls handmade in China especially for the event, filet mignon, and dessert of orange ciambella cake. A nearby lounge tricked out with sleek white leather sofas, crystal table lamps, and concentric chandeliers flown in from Fendi Casa was the scene of after-dinner festivities and dancing. When the event finally came to a close in the wee hours of the morning, all the logistical hurdles of the yearlong planning effort seemed worth it. Observed New York society scribe Peter Davis, “In the words of Polly Mellen , it erased everything that came before it.”

-Bettina Zilkha


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