Maybe it's because of their dismal weather, but the British have always had an affinity to the Sahara. The sandblasted heroes run from Lawrence of Arabia to the 7th Armoured Division, better known as the Desert Rats, a legendary fighting force from World War II and, somewhat incongruously, the inspiration for Richard James' Spring '15 collection.
Direct military associations allied with fashion can often make for uncomfortable results, yet this collection, with its accents of cyclamen pink, Harissa red, and azure, seemed destined for an army of lovers rather than fighters. Of course, James is a colorist of some renown, as his brightly clad audience testified, but it was the precision of the cutting that really demonstrated his technical prowess, particularly in knife-sharp gusseted military pockets on shirts and ruthlessly straight back pleats on boxy Harrington jackets.
In a collection that was largely executed in linen—perfectly pressed, no less—it seemed these were soldiers getting ready for some time away from the battlefield rather than active service, and it was intriguing to think about how the pristine silhouettes might crumple after a few bouts of combat. James further softened the tone by using embroidery for the first time: It meandered over sleeves and lapels in a riot of cactus flowers (for more conservative types, it will be an optional extra when the collection hits the showroom).
The experiment in mixing military with mufti worked best when the practical elements of the BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) were united with more of a safari jacket silhouette. A map print of the Mediterranean told us where we were located, and a charming intarsia of a perky-looking rodent on a cotton cashmere crewneck was an actual rendition of the Desert Rat mascot sketched by the divisional commander's wife after a visit to the Cairo Zoo in 1940. Less successful was the overly literal use of accessories, particularly a fuchsia pith helmet—surely a fashion sniper's target if ever there was one. However, for the confirmed pacifist there was also plenty of easy summer suiting in pale madras checks, soft blues, and bone whites, proving that you don't have to arrive on a troop carrier to experience the colors of North Africa.