Peter Jensen recently dedicated a book to his "improbable sisterhood" of muses, but it unfortunately went to press before the most improbable of them all could be included. His inspiratrice for Spring 2012 is the legendarily badass jazz-soul singer Nina Simone. Legend she may have been, but Jensen didn't hear of her till he moved to London and read about a woman who fired an air rifle at a neighbor when he complained about her piano playing. My kinda gal, thought the young Dane. To a soundtrack of classical piano (the music Nina would have studied at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute had she not been refused admittance due to the color of her skin), Jensen offered an abstracted vision in fabric of the singer's life, from the pure white church-worthy outfits of her youth in North Carolina to the showy Lurex and satin pieces she might have worn to perform in jazz clubs around the world.
As crazily arcane as the concept sounds, it gave Jensen an opportunity to exercise his impressive growth as a designer. Strip away the story and there was still a collection's worth of alluring outfits. The broderie anglaise trench draped over a white crepe dress? Maybe church for Nina, but a shortcut to heaven for anyone else. A Lurex cabled sweater over leopard-print calico pants made a subtle, sophisticated addition to the season's tribal trend, as did the black broderie anglaise mini trench over the navy leopard spot. Jensen's mastery of charmingly idiosyncratic prints was demonstrated here in the safari-animal print used in a pantsuit and coat (Nina settled in Africa after her social activism made her persona non grata in the U.S.). And the multi-figured jacquard of a jazz-club audience, cut into a pair of short shorts and paired with a white tuxedo with a black-trimmed bib, was sharp and chic.
There is no doubt that Jensen's work is an acquired taste. Though he has polished his proportions, there are still eccentric excrescences (one peplum too far) and outbreaks of odd girlishness, like the chambray dress with the ruffled shoulders. But with Nina, he found a muse who could fully embody the sophistication of his craft, and the free-ranging extent of his imagination.