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THE LIFE AQUATIC

This season designers are taking fashionistas under the sea, producing pieces awash with ocean waves, covered in chunky coral or swimming with schools of tropical fish.

The love for all things underwater never succumbed to the undertow of trite references or over-the-top embellishments. Designers captured the magical nature of the world below the waves and the spring/summer 2012 season was a celebration of its unique beauty.

Labels like Peter Pilotto, Gabriele Colangelo and Moschino Cheap and Chic used rippling waves to add energy to their ensembles. In Pilotto’s sporty collection, prints combined images of crashing waves with graphic lines that hinted at gills. The girly look at Moshino Cheap and Chic incorporated an almost childlike watercolor print with waves of blue that bled into each other on a papery white dress. Hot young Italian designer Gabriele Colangelo, inspired by the artist Gerhard Richter, created an iridescent print of the sun-dappled sea, beautifully diluted across the torso of a dress or dripped down a pair of trousers.

Diving below the calm ocean surface, designers became much more experimental. Karl Lagerfeld transformed the cavernous Grand Palais in Paris into a dazzling seabed covered in oversized clamshells, seaweed and translucent bubbles for his Chanel show. The tour de force collection held its own against the striking backdrop: Fluttering pleated tops referenced fish scales, as did the iridescent embellishments on rounded jackets or ankle-length skirts in liquid lamé. Tufts of chiffon sprouted out of the hips of dresses like sea sponges, while handbags took on the form of seawater pearls.

Mary Katrantzou, a master of reimagining mundane prints, was also bold in her deep sea designs. She wrapped her bell-skirted dresses in shimmering fish and colorful reefs, but twisted the fabric so that its underlying theme was cleverly obscured within the construction. More straightforward was the style at Givenchy, where designer Riccardo Tisci circumvented prints, opting instead for sharp tailoring in a restricted color palette of white, khaki, grey and black, with just a touch of seashell pink. The strongshouldered jackets and dresses, inspired by surfers and mermaids, were softened by undulating lapels and peplums that featured stingray, shark and eel skin inserts. Donatella Versace delivered a quintessential mix of old and new Versace for the house’s spring showing. The pastel starfish and seahorse prints were both in keeping with the iconic Medusa emblem of the house’s past, but also spoke to Ms. Versace’s trademark bombshell style. If the collection was the most forthright in its “mermaid as muse” concept, it didn’t rock the boat when it came to design DNA—the looks were pure Versace.

And then there was the magical world of Alexander McQueen. In just three seasons, creative director Sarah Burton has shown that she can keep the brand’s flame alive without becoming just a derivative of the late designer—her spring show was as theatrical as anything that McQueen himself had done in his heyday. The concept behind the collection—filled with coral-encrusted dresses, rippling skirts crafted from hand appliquéd shell-shaped fabric and textured oyster-print silk chiffon—was extreme femininity. Burton explored the erotic and evocative side of the aquatic world: As models walked the runway in gowns that resembled floating jellyfish or the rolling waves of a stormy sea, they became one with the designs, bonded together in the pursuit of beauty.

The grace of these ocean-inspired collections will surely lure women into the deep end of design this spring. Start getting your sea legs early before these pieces are swept away and sold out.