This being a catwalk season for unprecedented times, the headline show of London fashion week took place deep in the British countryside.
Burberry began with an elegant young woman dressed in an expensive-looking deconstructed trenchcoat over sharp black leggings striding through a forest, flanked by a trio of unsmiling men in black suits and matching sunglasses. (Picture Kendall Jenner being escorted by security to the Shangri-La stage at Glastonbury.)
The camera followed her to a clearing, where a sparse audience of beautiful young people in pristine white Burberry polo shirts waited in silence, socially distanced from each other on individual treehouse-plinths. (Think Kanye West’s guest-list-only Sunday Service, with its all-white dress code.)
From a bird’s-eye view, high-stepping figures in crystal-studded fishnet dresses were seen converging on the clearing from all angles, interspersed with more tough-guy suits – part Stranger Things, part Reservoir Dogs – as the musician, artist and sometime Balenciaga catwalk model Eliza Douglas began to play an electric guitar.
There was plenty to see, but no one there to see it. The Burberry show was filmed live and streamed without any physical audience. But while the logistics of social distancing have led most brands to pare their presentations back to the bare bones – many designers will present their new collections to press and buyers at one-on-one appointments over the next few days – Burberry laid down a confident placeholder for the future of the fashion show by staging an elaborate art-meets-fashion experience to an audience watching on Instagram and on the gaming platform Twitch.
The show was bold and compelling, but you wouldn’t call it fun. Designer Riccardo Tisci collaborated with the award-winning German artist Anne Imhof, whose performance-meets-endurance oeuvre tends toward barking dobermans and high chain-link fences, half-naked bodies choreographed in frenzy or frozen into intense, snarling eye contact. One critic described her breakthrough performance at the Venice Biennale in 2017 as “like a catwalk show in hell”, and that distinctive mood pervaded here.
At one point Douglas, who is Imhof’s partner and collaborator, stopped playing her guitar and let out a primal howl. So it was a tougher watch than Burberry shows of past seasons, with their glitter showers and glossy front rows. But after all, fashion is supposed to reflect the zeitgeist.
Burberry, which relies on Chinese shoppers for 40% of sales, was hit early and hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Shares fell 7% in July, and 500 job losses were announced worldwide. With demand cut off during lockdown, the brand pivoted to supporting frontline workers put at risk by coronavirus, repurposing its Yorkshire factory from producing trenchcoats to making 160,000 non-surgical gowns and masks to be donated to the NHS. Earlier this month, the brand was awarded a £573,000 contract for ongoing production of PPE; meanwhile, resurgent demand in Asia has restored financial confidence in the brand.