The Burberry Show Was Not About a Cult

It is almost impossible these days to see billowing orange smoke in a densely wooded forest and not feel portents of doom. Especially when the smoke is accompanied by a deep atonal voice intoning, “To be human is to hide away.”

It was almost impossible, in other words, to watch the Burberry spring 2021 show — performed and filmed live in Buckinghamshire, England, streamed on Twitch with special guest hosts, conceived in conjunction with the artist Anne Imhof and the musician Eliza Douglas and complete with black-suited and -shaded G-men, white-clad dancers moving in ritualistic rhythm and models standing around them in a circle like a Grecian chorus of would-be Cassandras — and not think immediately of the wildfires strafing the American West, poisoning the air and blotting out the sun. Not to mention climate change and the dystopian future we may have wrought.

Impossible not to think that after the optimism of the New York shows, we were getting a healthy dose of British cynicism and pessimism, channeled through the Italian lens of the Burberry creative director Riccardo Tisci.

Simply consider the comments from the Twitch crowd, which included: “Is someone getting sacrificed?” “Yeah, this is definitely a cult” and “Drugs?”

Perhaps that was also because it was close to impossible, through the small screen and camera angles, to really see the clothes. Which, it turned out, were not about the ominous at all. At least according to Mr. Tisci, who hopped on the phone afterward to explain his thinking. They were actually about “the love affair between a mermaid and a shark” and about “regeneration.”

Admittedly, there’s some danger in that story line — sharks! — but the collection was entitled “In Bloom.” It was meant to be fancifully mythic in nature (no pun intended).

The striped orange and black knits and rubberized tangerine anoraks and overalls? The outfits of a lighthouse keeper! The aquatic-blue trench coat cutaways? The ocean! The silver and crystal body-con cocktail frocks? The mermaid’s tail! And the whole narrative was apparently illustrated in the prints, which were meant to mimic the naïveté of a child’s drawing, from wiggly fish to big blue eye.

Up close and in still photographs, the clothes looked kind of rigorously cool, save for some trying-too-hard cutouts around the torso (shark bites?), especially the spliced and diced outerwear and the spangled fishnet vests, button-up shirts caught just so beneath. They would have stood perfectly well — would have been better, in fact — on their own, without all the arty ambience of the performance.

The fact is that no matter a designer’s “inspiration,” once the clothes are out in the world their meaning lies in the eye of the beholder, not the mind of the creator. If ever a show and a collection illustrated the gulf between intention and interpretation, this Burberry … visual experience (?) was it.

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