Utilitarian Decadence: BURBERRY’s Heady Summer Fashion Celebrates Writer Bruce Chatwin

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For the Burberry Prorsum Summer 2015 show in London, chief creative and chief executive officer Christopher Bailey presented a collection inspired by the myth-making and enigmatic British writer Bruce Chatwin (1940–1989). It had dark and rich colours and gestures of both utilitarianism and decadence. Bright bucket hats recalled an archeologist’s staple in the field—Chatwin, known for his travel writing, was also an amateur archeologist—while the leather-bound notebooks the models carried seemed cartoon versions of old travelogues, and the loudly-coloured sneakers encapsulated today’s sporty quirkiness—good accents to British eccentricity. A handful of shirts printed with the covers of Chatwin’s books created an appropriate ambiguity about fashion as history or history as fashion. “The world is changing so quickly,” said Bailey after the show, “that it’s even more important to reflect on heritage.”

burberry_07Chatwin was a controversial figure in British society, for both his fictionalising of fact and for being one of the first high-profile individuals to contract HIV and die of AIDS in the country. (Although Chatwin himself, an open bisexual married to the American aristocrat Elizabeth Chanler, claimed his illness was because of a rare fungus of the bone marrow “known only among 10 Chinese peasants and the corpse of a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia.”) Nonetheless, Chatwin’s writing—which numbers nine books, including In Patagonia (1977) and The Songlines (1987)—is fascinatingly good, and some even say a precursor to the Internet, “a connective superhighway without boundaries,” wrote his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare. With a lapidary and spare style, Chatwin, Shakespeare continues, told “not a half truth, but a truth and a half.”

burberry abstract_06Yet it is Chatwin’s very enhancement of truth, global presence, and often perverse fetish for design (he began his career at Sotheby’s) that make him a good reference point for fashion. Writing in 1968 to his friend Cary Welch, an American collector, Chatwin mentions that he has bought “the largest coco-de-mer I have ever seen. Beautiful and obscene. We take it to bed.” Using a lifestyle of myth and seasonal transition as armor, Chatwin also had an inability to remain happy in one place for too long. About Patmos, Greece, he wrote, “One was really ready for the Revelation. Everything that had been paradise on earth turned into the biggest bore. It happened everywhere.” In his collection, Bailey managed to dress this ardor and impatience with British legacy, while also underlining the core device of a unique writer and fashion in general: imaginative superficiality. Speaking about Chatwin, fellow author and friend Salman Rushdie says, “[he’s] the creature at the perimeter prowling around. All this fantastic entertainment and language and originality and erudition and display is a kind of hedge against letting in the truth.”

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