The Constant Gardener
By Tim Blanks
The menswear shown by Burberry during the spring 2009 shows in Milan was a wonder, though not for the reasons you might expect. The label's $2 billion in sales places it squarely in the company of fashion's titans, but the clothes by designer Christopher Bailey for Prorsum, the signature range that determines Burberry's image for the new season, looked humble, weathered, and droopy, and their haphazard assemblage on the angular frames of Bailey's boy army had an air of melancholy. 'Crumpled Classics' was the name he gave the collection. 'To me, a disheveled, unpolished look is far more beautiful than a pristine look of perfection,' he said later.
Even in the context of a big international runway show, there was something casually intimate about the presentation, as though the models had pulled their clothes from a random pile on the floor, thrown on a floppy hat and a coat, and stepped straight outside. Was I the only person in the audience who thought there was also a quiet audacity at work? This was, after all, the new public face of a $2 billion business.
Melancholy, intimacy, audacity -- they're all common ground between Bailey and his inspiration for his new collection. Derek Jarman, the radical filmmaker and artist who died of AIDS complications in 1994, is the latest in a series of iconic Englishmen the designer has referenced in his work. Last season it was the artist L.S. Lowry. Before that came the Duke of Windsor, interior design guru David Hicks, fashion designer Ossie Clark, and Bailey's fellow Yorkshireman David Hockney. What they all share is a somewhat eccentric, maverick spirit (even the duke was a royal runaway). It's something Bailey almost willfully refuses to recognize in himself, even though his appetite for what he refers to as 'disheveled elegance' marks him -- on the surface at least -- as an unlikely heir to Thomas Burberry, who launched his business 150 years ago to provide functional high-performance clothing for risk-takers like polar explorers, military men, and, much later, early aviators. Humble he may be, but Bailey certainly isn't risk-averse, so there's every chance Thomas would have recognized a kindred soul.
Maybe Derek Jarman would have too. 'There are certainly things I can relate to,' Bailey says of Jarman, 'things I look at and think I really understand -- that feeling or that passion, that suffering or that dedication.' After Jarman was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1986, he moved to Dungeness, a bleak, storm-wracked stretch of coastland where he lived in a simple shingle cottage around which he created a garden that became a recurring metaphor -- struggle against elemental nature, beauty where you least expect it, tranquility in the midst of storms -- in his work while he was living and a memorial when he was gone.
The evolution of the garden was exhaustively documented. Some of the black-and-white portraits of Jarman remind me of the stoic faces in the photographs taken by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. The color images of the garden are softer. They highlight its subtle, unlikely beauty, with tiny spots of color flowering amid inhospitable rocks and sand. And if that sounds like a florid metaphor for the experience of a gay man in Jarman's younger days, it probably wasn't lost on him. He saw his garden at different times as both Eden and Gethsemane.
The way that the garden came to stand for its creator fascinated Bailey. 'He toiled over the garden; his clothes had memories, history,' he muses. 'They had experienced every moment he had in that garden.' This was the quality he wanted to capture for Burberry, the sense of clothes crumpled, worn, loved. Hence, prints of raindrops and mud splotches, colors of earth and stone, fabrics that are soft and comforting.
You might care to note Bailey's backstage insistence that 'Crumpled Classics' was at heart a statement about outerwear, which was what made Burberry great in the first place. And Dungeness is certainly a dream locale to test the weather- and waterproofing capability of his latest update of Burberry's signature trench. That isn't necessarily the cause and effect of the new collection, but it's a reasonable analogy for how Bailey has managed to successfully combine his professional commitments and his personal interests. And what has stood out for the past few seasons is how much more personal he's getting. 'I don't think it's deliberate,' is his response to that suggestion. 'I think the world is full of emotions, with so many things happening that affect us all at different times in different ways. I am fortunate that I get to express my feelings in a creative way, which is sometimes quite cinematic and emotionally charged.'
It's significant that the emotional charge has intensified since the death of Bailey's partner, Geert Cloet, in 2005. With that in mind, it's not such a stretch to compare the effort he expends on creating a collection with Jarman's dedication to his garden, especially when the designer says, 'It was a very cathartic place for Jarman. He was able to truly express himself there in a way that words -- even his eloquent words -- perhaps couldn't always do.' Does design fill the same function for Bailey? 'I think I've grown here at Burberry, and I've changed and evolved as a person, shaped by my experiences in life and by the amazing things I've been privileged to work on here.'
Cloet's cancer was diagnosed at the same time that Bailey's responsibilities at Burberry were soaring, so he was challenged on every front. 'Sometimes you experience things that change you forever,' he says now. 'The way you think, your approach, and the level of your understanding. There are things you wish you had never had to learn, but it happens whether you want it to or not.' He describes his current state of mind as 'extremely happy.' The fact that the happiness is hard-won surely makes it all the sweeter.
But still, there's always the melancholic undertow. Incongruous though it may sound, I feel it's an asset, because it's the thing that makes Bailey's most recent collections stand out from the competition. One of the qualities he admires most in Derek Jarman is that he was never afraid to show his vulnerability. That is exactly what is coming across in Prorsum. 'And I liked the idea he succeeded against all the odds,' Bailey says. 'The garden should never have flourished in those surroundings, should never have been so breathtakingly beautiful, but it was. It was his final work, the masterpiece that would live on.'
Also on Out.com: Xevi Muntane's photo gallery of Burberry's spring-summer 2009 collection, featuring perfectly disheveled looks.