Thom Browne went planetary in his latest show, but it much something grounded on earth
Back in New York, after showing in Paris for the past few years, Thom Browne affirmed that he is still the master of the conceptual. No designer in New York, not even Marc Jacobs, can carry a theme through and through, and so convincingly as Mr Browne. He is a veritable one-man, American Viktor and Rolf, with the latter’s couture sensibility, and wit to boot. His autumn/winter 2023 show was testament to not only his skills, but his imagination. He presented an amalgam of not only disparate elements, but also of design and creativity. Awe-inspiring work and clothes that truly engaged the mind. Mr Browne can make clothes and he can construct, and go beyond the mundane. No elemental hyped as radical. It is a wonder—and a shameful pity—that no European brand has knocked on his studio door. Instead, those seeking names to augment their brands went looking for hip hop entertainers.
The latest season was inspired by the 1943 French novella Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who told the tale of a boy criss-crossing the universe to seek wisdom of adults, but found them to be of the unpredictable kind. The epic set, not seen since Marc Jacobs decided to leave his beloved Park Avenue Armory essentially blank, was a rink of sand, on which a clock is shown, and above which a crashed paper biplane (some of us here might not consider that auspicious as it looked like an aircraft that Taoists burn for the dead, even if it’s less colourful) landed to depict the air crash in the Sahara, as told in the book. On the runway, two women met, one presumably the pilot-narrator (in a balloon-sleeved aviator suit) and the other, Le Petit Prince (with the golden hair). Other characters in the story were less obviously delineated, perhaps the businessman, now in the deconstructed suits. The show was as surreal as the account of The Little Prince’s planetary travels, and just as somberly narrated by an Alexa-like voice , but there was palpable joy in the clothes.
Thom Browne has moved light years away from his early days designing for Brooks Brothers (2007—2015). His particular penchant for tailoring has been recast into skills that can transmute the fantastical into the sartorial, and nicely touched by the subversive. The 2023 pre-fall collection inspired by another literary work, Moby Dick, was not only marked by the designer’s unorthodox proportional sense, but also his interpretive ingenuity in taking motifs, physical and not, and turning them into something with narrative heft and visual humour. With Le Petit Prince, he did not go off course (even when the plane crashed!). Even in times when loungewear still sadly prevails, there was something deeply appealing about Mr Browne’s suited formality that shares no similarity with American sportswear ease. We like that he did not look at the ’70s, as his compatriots Tom Ford and Michael Kors do. And that he did not succumb to the lure of near-nudity, now the dominant aesthetical mood among New York designers, especially the newish—mostly vacuous—labels.
Mr Browne not only fascinated us with designs build around formal menswear (remaining comfortably grey), but also with the far-out mash-ups that increasingly characterise his work. It is always tempting to guess that he has been trying to communicate the frailty and the increasingly patched-up nature of urban life. But that might be too easy. Perhaps, more importantly, his work, and certainly the latest, made us wonder: How was it that a suit could be so mercilessly split and spliced? How was it that, in some, they showed no start nor end. How was it that a blazer could fall off the shoulder and pool around the waist, under which a massive bow could prevail and not appear foolish? How was another, turned inside out, fastened to the waist as part of a skirt, able to remain a three-dimensional garment? How would it feel wearing that much going on (if not fabric) around the body? How would a Thom Browne anything lavish us with vestiary advantage over others? Or, impart in us, a sense of dress that has nothing to do with undress? Fashion should have this much to see, and boggle at.
Screen shot: Thom Browne/YouTube. Photos: Thom Browne