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Fashion’s Obsession with the Ocean is More Than Just a Trend — It’s a Call to Action

Courtesy of Versace

Starfish have no brains, no blood, and eyes at the end of each arm. Although there are more than 2,000 species, they’re largely solitary creatures, spending their lives crawling alone along the seabed and eating what they find en route by extending their flexible stomachs out beyond their bodies to dissolve and digest clams, mussels, oysters, and more. Some look pearled, spiked or polka-dotted, while others come decked out in maximalist colors: bright blue, bubblegum pink, orange and purple. They are striking creatures. No wonder the fashion world loves them.

These showy echinoderms took center stage at Versace’s SS21 show alongside a number of other marine motifs. They crawled across printed silk and came bejeweled on mini dresses and blazers worn by wet-haired models. This isn’t the first time Versace has dabbled in marine life. The show was a direct homage to Gianni Versace’s SS92 Trésor de la Mer collection, which featured a similar array of eye-poppingly bright sea creatures.

The ocean’s treasures have always offered great riches to designers. Shells, nets, sharks, waves, reefs, seaweed, coral, creatures of the deep: the aesthetic and symbolic potential found in the sea is vast. Sometimes the plundering is relatively straightforward. The fanned lines of a scallop shell or gauzy movement of a jellyfish translate perfectly into the patterns and silhouettes of fabric in motion. Imaginative possibilities abound, too. The sea—vast, unknowable, volatile, both life-giving and life-taking — provides a seductive setting for myths, tales and speculation about what lies beneath the surface.

Romantic visuals and stories mingle with more existential concerns

Alexander McQueen’s SS10 runway collection, before his untimely death in February 2010, was titled Plato’s Atlantis, after the Greek philosopher’s fictitious sunken island. Presenting an apocalyptic vision of climate change in which melting ice caps forced sea levels to rise, McQueen’s models embodied an evolutionary process of adaptation: dressed as eerie human-animal hybrids slowly morphing back into creatures that could survive a liquid future requiring gills and shimmering scales.

More than a decade later, McQueen’s concerns remain prescient. The return of marine influences to the catwalk epitomizes a now-familiar split between the imaginative spectacle of the sea and deeper, more dystopian worries. In the former camp, we might place Simone Rocha, with her signature, often surreal, use of pearls and frequent references to watery tales (her AW20 Aran Islands-focused collection was inspired by the loss and baptism of the sea).

More recently, Rixo and 16Arlington’s SS21 collections were mermaid-heavy, the former turning to prints of fish-tailed women, while the latter offered seashell clutches fit for any sartorially conscious sea dweller.

Courtesy of Burberry

Mermaids are another great aquatic form of fashion fodder, whether cartoonish or representing deadly seduction. They turned up at Burberry’s SS21 show, creative director Riccardo Tisci conjuring a “love affair between a mermaid and a shark, set against the ocean, then brought to land.” A palette of oceanic blues pervaded loose shirts, spliced trench coats, shiny rubber and thigh-high boots, while more literal details were found in the presence of netting. “Water is a symbol of […] newness, freshness, cleansing,” Tisci explained. But the video presentation of the clothes also had more ominous connotations, the models’ passage through a forest accompanied by groups of men in suits and dark glasses, their silent presence suggestive, perhaps, of sharks closing in.

Darker conceptions of the sea usually stem from fear. Some of these fears are immediate—panic at what cannot be seen, potential dangers lurking beneath the waves — while others pull us back towards questions of the sea’s future and, consequently, our own.

Courtesy of Marine Serre

One designer well-placed to interrogate those fears is Marine Serre. Keenly attuned to the possibilities of environmental devastation, the French designer’s approach is both practical and visionary. Her aesthetic suggests a futuristic world in which clothes might function more like armour, while her process foregrounds upcycled fabrics, traceable materials and unexpected objects. These have often included ocean spoils, Serre’s accessories featuring shells, driftwood, imitation pearls and pieces of aluminium drinks cans like detritus washed up along the shoreline.

Can fashion’s affinity with the ocean inspire the industry to clean up its act?

Serre is among the growing number of designers using textiles made from plastic bottles recovered from the ocean. No one knows precisely how polluted our seas are, but one estimate from 2015 suggested that the ocean had already accumulated more than 150m tonnes of plastic — a figure forecast to triple by 2040 unless drastic action is taken.

Since its inception in 2017, menswear label Botter has made this environmental plight one of its core concerns. The Dutch duo’s AW21 show came with a manifesto warning “without the sea, no human, no us.” The collection’s long, loose tailored lines were complemented by fishing tackle embellishments, scuba suit-style necks and windbreakers made from ocean plastic. It wasn’t just a question of fashionable solutions either. Botter also announced that it has set up an underwater coral nursery in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean.

Even couture is getting in on the act and inevitably it has fallen to the ever-innovative Iris van Herpen to lead the charge. Following on from a collection last year titled Sensory Seas, which explored the lines between sea-life organisms and the human nervous system, Van Herpen’s recent SS21 couture show borrowed from the ocean in a different way: the Dutch couturier collaborating with the anti-pollution campaign Parley for the Oceans on a tessellated dress made from recycled plastic. As Herpen told Vogue, “There’s not a lot of reason not to use sustainable materials anymore, other than changing your mindset.”

Courtesy of Iris van Herpen

Right now, the sea presents several opposed options to designers. It yields myths and thrills, buried treasures and biological splendours. It can be a place of freedom and fantasy, which is perhaps welcome right now. But it also captures the human capacity for destruction, as well as our chance for innovation. This darker, more future-focused strain seems set to expand, especially if Matty Bovan’s AW21 collection is anything to go by. The avant-garde designer characterised the sea as “terrifying and incredible” during a presentation imagining the chaotic aftermath of a shipwreck—invoking troubling images of natural disasters.

Much like the sea itself, inconstant and metamorphic, the ocean’s current presence in fashion continues to offer many things at once: refuge, escapism, potential resources, potent dystopias and a way of grappling with an uncertain future.

Read Next: 8 Ways Fashion Started Taking The Climate Crisis Seriously

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