For Our Very Own Planet

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

From Fortune City To Sleazy Boudoir

Alexander Wang showed what dressing the likes of Julia Fox is about

Alexander Wang (王大仁) has made tacky sexiness a selling point. As he gets better at it, he wants to offer more. And why not when you have a fan/willing adopter in Julia Fox (above). For his autumn/winter presentation, shown outside the NYFW calendar, he had Ms Fox walk down the runway—a space in New York City that was formerly a Chinese restaurant, but now turned into a oversized boudoir with pink curtains and zebra stripes for the carpet. There is, of course, good campy and not-so-good campy. And it does not take much effort to make out which side Mr Wang erred on. Ms Fox was in her element, strutting down the runway as if it was a hypermarket car park. She was togged in an oversized, glittery blazer under which was a sheer, also-glittery shift that could have been picked from her own wardrobe. She comfortably embraced “free the nipple”, as the popular practice has been described. A white, unadorned panty was the most modest item of clothing on her. You could tell Ms Fox was working it and enjoying it.

It is not known conclusively if Mr Wang’s past scandals were now forgotten, whether in the US or elsewhere. The show-up at the show was evidence that they were. Not only did he manage to get the camera-loving Ms Fox on the runway (which probably wasn’t too hard), he was able to entice New York fashion fraternity’s best and most-known to attend: There were the Council of Fashion Designers of America Inc’s CEO Steven Kolb, Harper’s Bazaar’s first Black EIC Samira Nasr and, clearly far from least, Vogue’s indefatigable Anna Wintour, whose presence must have surely and resoundingly said “welcome back”. This show was not a mere return to the community that adores him, it was a stunning shift from the celebrity-centric gathering of the spring/summer 2023 season’s Fortune City carnival extravaganza in Los Angeles to the industry big-wig conclave of his home city. Nothing could spell all was forgotten more than this.

It is hard to say that Mr Wang offered anything truly new. These clothes continued the hooker chic that he is partial to, which really meant scanty or see-through pieces. These days, the seasons are really quite mixed up. You get puffers for spring/summer and flimsy négligée dresses for autumn/winter. Mr Wang showed coats, but these were so unremarkable that you had to look beneath them. And like streetwalkers of cities with cold seasons, the models wore very sheer inners (or near nothing) under. There was even a cropped, hooded top paired with a see-through skirt. This isn’t observation by a bunch of prudes. Fashion-loving folks do want to be able to see clothes, not the lack of them. There is, of course, a market for the barely-there (or those triangular straps that frame the breasts. We were certain we had seen them somewhere else), whether for day or night. And Mr Wang catered to it by putting a luxury touch to the light and the thin, and the diaphanous.

When he did not do sexy, he contemplated the geeky and also returned to the old premise, sporty. Oversized jackets, by now omnipresent and hackneyed, went with shirts and ties, and narrow skirts, or as part of a lame three-piece suit. Without a jacket, an oversized shirt was worn on its own (and an untied tie) to unambiguous pant-less effect. It was as if Mr Wang had given the men’s pieces to the women, but not, interesting, in a form of a swap. The guys, for the most part, were not lavished with tailoring. Nor were they bestowed skirts. These were the relaxed, street-style clothes Kanye West would wear, now that his relationship with Balenciaga is strained (or irreparable?). Mr Wang would wear them too, especially for late-night socializing, since it is likely that no one would fear the designer’s appearance in a nightclub. Or, bemoan his presence. The return of Alexander Wang is real and unmistakable. Fashion is the great eraser of past indiscretions.

Screen shot and photos: Alexander Wang

Assured And Assertive At Alaïa

This is Pieter Mulier’s most confident and facile collection, yet

Is he presently the only designer working for a house not his own who respects the founder’s aesthetics and silhouettes this closely? Pieter Mulier’s curiously labelled “summer fall 2023 show” for Alaïa was his most confident and most creatively exact since taking over the house in 2021. His tentative moves then was now full strides. This was more than just a whiff of Alaïa; this was redolent. And that definitely was not an unwelcome thing, refreshing even, when many other houses allow their creative directors to slash and burn in order to propagate. The collection was recognisably Alaïa, but with Mr Mulier’s deft minimalist-yet-sexy touch: the elongation and the body-consciousness, and the sculpting. Curves were celebrated, so were technical finesse. It was a familiarity that bred pleasure. There was something sanguine about it too, as if Mr Mulier was saying that he is able to take the house further, to a better place.

This season, Mr Mulier showed his Alaïa collection not in Paris, but in Antwerp, and not in the Alaïa home in the Marais (now the Foundation Azzedine Alaïa), but in his own home in the Belgium port city. Mr Mulier lives in a 1968 brutalist flat designed by the Belgium architects Léon Stynen and Paul de Meyer, best known in their home country for the un-church-like building Saint Rita Church in the city of Harelbeke, completed two years before Mr Mulier’s block was erected. The top-level duplex is in the two-building, 20-storey Riverside Tower, a stone’s throw from the city centre that enjoys a striking view of Antwerp and the River Scheldt on one side and, further away, The North Sea on the other. According to attendees, the show meandered through much of the space—the living room, the dining, the kitchen, and yes, even the bedroom (some guests apparently sat on the bed!). The thing is, Mr Mulier does not live here alone. This wasn’t a space that showed only one person’s possessions and personal taste. It is likely that it also housed the personal affects and collections of Matthieu Blazy, the Bottega Veneta creative director who is Mr Mulier’s life partner (they met while both were working with the now-closed Raf Simons). In attendance were fellow Belgian designers Raf Simons (of course) and Dries van Noten. This was, literally, home ground.

And home is where one is most comfortable. Pieter Mulier’s designs reflected that. It is imaginable how totally absorbing it would be to sit that close to the clothes (unfortunately, like most, we saw them in front of our screen), to witness the fit and how it worked, and how the models might have felt as they moved in pieces that hugged the shoulders and hips, or enveloped the neck and the torso. Most of the outfits covered the body (with the odd crescent cut-out above the derrière in one dress); even the mini-skirts were worn over leggings. Yet, there was nothing prudish about the sum effect. Even the hooded dresses did not look as habit-like as those of the Sisters of Sion order, whose habits had inspired Mr Alaia’s own designs (did the Cathedral of Our Lady, which Mr Mulier could see from his Antwerp flat inspire him?). These would entice Grace Jones, long-time fan of the maison’s slinky, hooded gowns. There were frocks ready for any ball too, voluminous, bell-skirts, even nearly orbicular in one, that were more sumptuous when contrasted with the lean, knit, turtle-necked tops that accompanied them. Elizabeth Holmes, if she were not in jail or had been successful in her attempt to “flee” to Mexico, might find them covetable.

Shapes were key to the looks, too. The trousers with the curved out-seams were especially appealing (there was even a version in the form of denim jeans!). A floor-length coat wrapped like a spring bud. One short jacket had faux fur lapels that were oversized and nearly circular. There was minimal ornamentation on the clothes. Leather—the only fabric given extra treatment—were laser-cut to yield a trellis openwork, and that formed the closest thing to patterned cloth. They became leggings, skirts, even a trenchcoat. When actual embellishments were used, these came in rows of pins that seemed to hold hems together. In the brand’s communique, it said “a humble dressmaker’s pin can become sublime” and that meant using them in rows, like with a bandolier, and they looked especially so when fashioned diagonally on the torso of a bustier or on the side of sleeves. Pieter Mulier might be doing something closer to what he likes and what he is now totally comfortable with, and showing the result in a setting that reflected domestic calm, even bliss, but the whole exercise did not deviate drastically from Azzedine Alaïa at his long-time 19th-century home.

Screen shots (top) and photos: Alaïa