Sunday, 8 October 2017

Burberry's Here We Are exhibition

Autumn is always a good time to be in London: it’s London Fashion Week, London Design Festival, Open House, not to mention the opening of a new round of exhibitions. As part of this cultural madness, this year Burberry hosted Here We Are, an installation in the 18th-century Old Sessions House with claims to document the “many and varied tribes and clans and classes that make up this island of ours”. In other words, like the Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition, it’s a PR exercise on a grand and spectacular scale. If the Louis Vuitton event was seemingly about establishing a design pedigree for the label, Burberry has done all out on promoting its Britishness.

On one level, it’s very hard to object to exercises like this. You get to wander around a stunning, otherwise closed-up building that’s been styled to its full Instagramable potential. You get to get closer to the new Burberry collection than you likely would in real life. And the real draw on this occasion was the hundreds of examples of British documentary photography on display, dating mainly from post-Second World War until the 1970s, with some more recent examples shot by Alasdair McLellan, who also gets co-curation credits on the exhibition (along with Christopher Bailey, President of Burberry, and Lucy Kumara Moore, of the art books store Claire de Rouen).

The photographs have been grouped by theme, rather than time period, with titles such as “Romance”, “Pomp” and “Picnics” and, if you consider it like a straightforward exhibition, there are some wonderful moments. “Lovely Day for It” is a brollies-blowing inside out, macs on, laugh out loud celebration of the British weather, while the snogging couples of Romance transcend time and their haircuts to chime with lovers everywhere.

It included some of my favourite photographic works, such as Ken Russell’s portrait of teddy girl Jean Rayner (as mentioned here), Roger Mayne’s Girl Jiving on Southam Street and Chris Steele-Perkins portraits of the Teds – all to view for free.

But, of course, it’s not really an impartial exhibition. It’s been put on by a brand wanting this event to enhance their brand. When that’s a brand that sells very expensive clothes, I find it uneasy to look at images of Gypsy communities, as shot by Jo Spence, or portraits of post-industrial communities. When you start feeling like the patterns of knitwear in the new collection echo some of those that you are seeing in the photographs, I think something has gone very awry. And because it’s put on by a fashion brand, rather than a gallery, the whole exercise escapes any real critical scrutiny – it's simply fodder for an endless sea of Instagram Likes.

It’s not all working class subject matter, defenders might say. Indeed, more upper class pursuits do come into it, mainly through the work of Dafydd Jones. But I don’t think it’s fair to say every subject that is featured in the photographs of the exhibition had the same opportunities to “live, work, dream, celebrate and challenge” (to borrow a phrase from the accompany leaflet). However, that doesn’t stop Burberry using their photographs – some featuring people wearing very stylish clothes, others that show people simply trying to go about their lives – to promote clothes that start at around £85 for socks and go into thousands.

The new Burberry collection – on display at Here We Are and featuring said socks – includes a perhaps surprising revival of the Burberry check. Within Britain the check pattern is still closely associated with the working class ‘chav’ culture of the 2000s, in mostly a derogatory manner. Although Christopher Bailey says he has “never been snotty about it, because I feel that’s a very important part of our history,” the received wisdom is that Burberry only survived that period because the ‘chav’ culture was such a uniquely British phenomenon and didn’t effect international sales. It’s noticeable the documentary photos in Here We Are skip over that era – apparently Burberry are willing to celebrate the working class except in the era when they were the most popular with the working class. I was even surprised they wanted to promote themselves in a way that could, in any way, be linked back to that time.

It gets even more complicated when you consider recent Burberry’s collaboration with Gosha Rubchinskiy. He was responsible for collection of clothes with Burberry this June, as well as a series of photographs on display in Here We Are – both are check-tastic. His own reference is to football culture, albeit seen through a Russian lens, the whole terrace culture that led to the whole ‘chav’ panic. Using Rubchinskiy makes it easier for Burberry to acknowledge their past without having to fully confront it. They can simply give it a knowing nod and pick up some extra cool points for those in the fashion know. But it’s confusing messaging, right? Even Burberry seems to agree with that in the Here We Are leaflet – it states “this is not an advertising campaign”, next to the section about Rubchinskiy images. But, of course, that’s exactly what the whole “Here We Are" exercise is…

I left Old Sessions House a bit uneasy and confused about what to make of it all. And then I read something about Burberry’s strategy in the early 2000s that really seems to click. Burberry pitched itself in an aspirational but attainable way – the way they picked nice, recognisable Kate Moss to front their campaign (and subsequently the likes of Romeo Beckham). They’re not actually aiming high at all – in fact, it becomes obvious with the all-inclusive “Here We Are” of the exhibition’s title. Instead they give us accessible art, which touches on meatier issues to flatter our egos, Instagram-worthy interiors to make us feel part of something and a namecheck (ha!) from the likes of Gorsha to make us feel credible. Really, it’s flattering enough to make you want to go and treat yourself to a nice trench coat….

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