Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” came to mind as we witnessed Sarah Burton’s show at The Arches in Southwark today. Nautical motifs, mythical creatures, and Edwardian tailoring spoke of an epic journey on the open seas. An imminent sense of danger that used to pervade many of Lee McQueen’s shows prevailed in the space’s crimson light as ominous whispers ebbed in and out of the background soundtrack. With the Savage Beauty exhibition still ongoing at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is hard to treat today’s show at face value without tying all the latent dark romanticisms and notions of internal tensions back to Lee’s memory. If the clue were in the invite, there was a portrait of a man of Victorian boxer pastiche with Bright Eyes’ lyrics tattooed on his sleeve: “When everything is lonely, I can be my own best friend.” The theme of solitude is one commonly shared across the personal trajectories of McQueen, Coleridge, and the Mariner – and also happens to be the most resonant chord in the collection.
Its strength, as was the case last season, was in the precision of cut. The optical white opening look with Victorian embroidery across the chest echoed Sarah Burton’s celebration of gentry last Fall/Winter. Admittedly, the mariners today were looking considerably more disheveled, but it made way for more directional pieces. Cardinal direction graphics and anchors adorned pyjamas coordinated with navy piping collars; metal eyelets punctured oversized peacoats; and nautical stripes were abstracted, spliced, and diced on the dinner suits. There was a modernity to the tailoring that we haven’t seen in a while: hemlines were cropped, waists cinched, and the detailing (like the pockets) more off-kilter. The show crescendo-ed in the last three ensembles with full-bleed renderings of enchanting sea monsters from Medieval maps of the 16th and 17th centuries that would have easily cameo-ed in Coleridge’s tales. The regency robe that closed the show punctuated the collection at the perfect moment; the pacing was excellent.
As it goes, Burton will always have the legacy of Lee McQueen looming over the house. But her expertise in tugging at the heartstrings of Lee’s most ardent fans, through a masterful blend of nostalgia and drama, deserves its own commendation. Today’s show was a demonstration of Burton’s capacity to pull off highly-emotive clothing that was arguably the ultimate touchstone of Lee’s work – another smooth execution that lives up to the house’s iconic standing.