It peaked at Chanel, when designer Karl Lagerfeld built a giant, pure white coral reef as a mise-en-scène for a spring/summer show that included white shift dresses covered in mother of pearl-coloured sequins and skirts made from shell-like fans of pleated pearl-hued silk. Lagerfeld even had singer Florence Welch performing from inside a shell in a dress dripping with tassels that resembled seaweed fronds, like an indie-pop Botticelli’s “Venus”.
It continued at Alexander McQueen, where designer Sarah Burton’s inspirations included “the ocean bed, seashells, anemones and the crests of waves” and clothes came in “barnacle jacquard” and “seed-pearl barnacle lace”, along with mother-of-pearl and oyster-print chiffon.
And it washed around the whole season, at Mary Katrantzou, Versace, Holly Fulton, Issa and Givenchy, where designer Riccardo Tisci riffed on fish scales made from chiffon, sequins or leather cut-outs, and used materials such as shark, eel, seawolf, salmon and stingray accessorised with giant shark tooth pendants.
“It”, of course, is the ocean. It’s the single most powerful theme of the spring/summer season, whether invoking the lyricism of The Tempest, in which the ocean creates “a sea-change. Into something rich and strange”, the mythological ocean of Atlantis or the hypercoloured fantasia of Finding Nemo. “The shapes of sea life are ultra-modern, beautiful and timeless,” says Lagerfeld, as if they had evolved over thousands of years specifically to become the perfect template for luxury goods.
Donatella Versace, who created a wave of neoprene mini-dresses, crop tops and miniskirts printed with shells, seahorses and mermaids in pastels and pale acid shades, has another view. “I had in mind a modern-day Versace siren,” says the designer, “like the ones who lured sailors in Greek mythology with their enchanting songs. But my sirens would seduce with their appearance.” Elsewhere, Holly Fulton’s reference was “an art deco casino in the US which is decorated with underwater friezes”, while Mary Katrantzou took her tropical fish scenes from images of aquariums.
All of which raises the question: how did so many designers with so many different starting points end up, sartorially speaking, in much the same place? Ruth Runberg, buying director at Browns boutique in London, thinks “water and sea images are desirable during spring’s return to warmer weather and all that it entails – holidays, sunshine, relaxation, exoticism. The pre-collections from spring were laden with tropical references, kind of a sister trend to runway’s oceanic vibe.” Katrantzou says: “It’s spring/summer and you cannot completely dismiss the fact that the colours are really beautiful but there is something deeper.”
Indeed, there’s a precoccupation with water at the moment, whether it be the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, director James Cameron’s deep-sea submarine dive or the anxiety of rising sea levels due to global warming – see next month’s exhibition Drowning World at Somerset House, London, which will feature photographs of recent major floods. Fashion industry watchers speculated on influences that ranged from The Little Mermaid to JG Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, which is set in a flooded future and uses water as a metaphor for the collective unconscious.
“The sea is an obvious metaphor for the unconscious and the unbounded,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Also, it is associated with happiness – coral is so beautiful and colourful – but brings with it a hint of danger. That there’s something lurking underneath: a shark or watersnake.” Indeed, lurking in the background of these collections was the memory of Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2010 show – the last before his death – entitled Plato’s Atlantis, which invoked a post-apocalyptic, underwater dystopia with dresses in blurry blue digital prints, a backdrop of writhing snakes and shoes that resembled a bizarre creature you might find living on the ocean bed.
Some of this season’s accessories also look as if they could have been picked off the ocean floor. In addition to conch shell clutches at Chanel and starfish key chains at Yves Saint Laurent, there are clutches made from shells with hammered brass frames from Celestina, which Runberg calls “the perfect on-trend item – the shell colours match anything you wear”. Browns also has jewellery by Sara Beltran that uses sharks’ teeth, while Lanvin has a shell pendant necklace.
The sea nymph look is hardly one for the office but then this isn’t exactly a build-your-wardrobe, go-to-pieces kind of trend: it’s designers diving into fashion fantasy without coming up for air. “The water is the ultimate liberator,” says Donatella Versace. “It is elemental, eternal and magical. It takes you into another world away from the everyday bustle of modern life.” Who wouldn’t want to jump in at the deep end?