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Sarah Burton’s SS16 collection looked to the Huguenot refugees who fled France to settle around Spitalfields in the late 17th century. They escaped with their talent for weaving and their pockets full of flower seeds which they later planted in tiny urban gardens around east London. Burton had looked at their legendary skills and the serpentine curves of Hogarth’s Line of Beauty to inform a collection of clothes she wanted to feel like “artefacts of the hand”. The designer’s fascination with the weavers pulled at a more recent thread of history also: Lee McQueen claimed to be descended from the same line of Huguenots who settled in London in the 1680s.
The collection was unreservedly romantic and very pretty; in a break with recent shows, Burton had freed the models’ faces of masks or binding and kept the make-up minimal. “I wanted it all to be touchable, to be believable,” she explained. “I deliberately made everything very soft.” Even the corsetry had been gently loosened in its rigour and the fabrics were whispery and wonderful.
The clothes had been laboured over and loved into life; a hand-crocheted dress with a black integrated “spine” spoke of hours of handiwork, washed silk taffetas, shredded silk faille floral jacquards and silk white fil coupe had a tactile grace. White leather bodices had been garment washed to shrink and wrinkle to seem as though they had been patted on to the body in wet clay.
Everything had the imprimatur of industry and nimble fingers had done exquisite work often replicating original design ideas, embroideries and patterns found on antique Huguenot court dresses and English folk histories. Burton’s love for the lore of Albion could be seen in the snaking garlands of traditional English flowers — forget-me-nots, roses, cornflowers and lilies — she had wood-blocked and hand-painted on chiffons and chemise and embroidered on long leather dresses.
Despite the incredible handwork, the clothes were unfussy and there were tougher details. Seventeenth-century-style frock coats, as woven by the Huguenots, added a spice of panache to the ultra-feminine silhouettes and many of the more extravagant French lace tops with trailing trains were worn with simple wide trousers and trainers. There was denim, ripped and enriched with embroidery, chains and there were harnesses made of long chains and hung with Huguenot crosses and silver talismans of a long lost community — mildly subversive, but far too beautiful to mind. And if Burton’s show was a quiet comment on the cultural riches we have gained from a refugee workforce, it was a point very elegantly put.