When the blown-up blooms and giant petals in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings go on show at London’s Tate Modern museum next month (6 July – 30 October), it will be yet another reminder that flowers are not always innocent by nature.
As so often happens in fashion, designers have foreshadowed cultural events so that the sexualisation and exoticism of flowers are already on the runways.
The Resort collections, which will be in stores in late autumn, are full of larger-than-life flowers, digitally printed to enable the patterns to follow the curve and stretch of the female torso or to wrap around the body.
For Christopher Kane, whose collections often have an unsettling angle on womanhood, the pansy was his starting point. Pots of the velvet-petalled plants, sitting on the shelves of his London store as if in a greenhouse, looked innocent in their natural form. But once the designer had played with the petals, spreading them over the curves of the body, perhaps one on each bosom and another giant across the torso, the collection was striking.
Although tiny, decorative flowers landed like butterflies on the lapels of a leather jacket, there was also a suggestion of Georgia O’Keeffe’s big blooms. With the violet and yellow petals in a black sweater, the designer underscored the volatility of this particular flower.
“The pansy seems so simple, so everyday — it just came into my head to use it as the basis for a collection,” said Kane. “There is a purity of shape, following the outline of the flower in the over-sized photo prints. And when I researched the pansy more, it took on a deeper meaning. It stands for thoughtfulness and is ultimately a symbol of freethinking. I wanted the collection to be simple, skillful and meaningful.” The result was a collection that was designed by Kane and his sister Tammy to make the ordinary extraordinary.
For Erdem, the influence of flowers came from a visit to Japan. But instead of the familiar inspirations of concubines and kimonos as a Japanese cliché, the designer looked at boyish Far Eastern looks from the 1930s. That was when Hollywood played with love stories, using young stars like Mary Pickford to play Japanese girls.
The flowers that stood out on the surface of a masculine coat were Erdem’s expression of American soldiers courting young Japanese women, as in Madame Butterfly. The result was a decorative trench coat or florals undulating on a dress shaped to womanly curves. Most dramatic of all was a pink jacket embroidered with exotic blooms to create a sensual surface.
I asked Erdem how he literally wove his story in Japanese cotton and lace. He replied, “It is always a narrative - a story in the back of my head.” He went on to explain how he saw delicately patterned Japanese paper in the window of a closed shop in Kyoto, found its owners by asking around in a local café and ultimately translated some of the paper designs into printed cloth for the collection.
He told me that he saw the boyish modan garu or “modern girl” as a counterpart to the French garçonne. Both, of course, suggest a sexual freedom to go along with the flowers.
With my mind on blooms, I am finding evocative flowers in all the latest collections – not least at Gucci, where nestling among the patterns of snakes were pansies this time in lush fur. The colours and textures of fashion's favourite flower were translated into a third, tactile, dimension. Significantly, this seductive angle on flowers is not limited to male designers. Just as O’Keeffe herself deliberately focused on sexuality from a female point of view, for her first outing as the new designer for Lanvin Bouchra Jarrar introduced a surprisingly soft touch of flower-patterned dress to counterbalance her geometric tailoring.
It seems that fashion can always find a new way to bloom.