Exactly three weeks ago, the name Thom Browne was on the lips of every newscaster. It erupted across the Internet before first lady Michelle Obama even had the chance to joyously stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue hand in hand with her husband following his second inauguration. Aside from the event’s pomp and circumstance, all eyes were glued to her silk A-line coat and shift dress that Browne had created for the occasion. The designs earned him widespread and rave reviews.
Monday evening marked Browne’s first womenswear showing following Obama’s inaugural debut. And while his show’s audience may have doubled in size (even attracting celebrity news outlets—a first), his clothing did not waver from its core values. “He has a certain point of view and he follows it. He isn’t really swayed by trends,” Browne’s friend Sandra Bernhardt explained from the front row. “I was so excited, it was so wonderful,” she said of Obama’s endorsement. “But I don’t think he is suddenly going to get caught up in the tsunami of excitement. He seems like someone who is pretty solid.”
While Browne’s show changed formats this season from a presentation to a full-fledged runway show, his sense of showmanship was not lost. Before his first Fall 2013 look even emerged on the runway, guests were greeted by cot beds scattered across the venue floor. Male models were bound to the beds’ frames at the ankles and wrists with red ribbon; each wore a crown of thorns and Browne’s inimitable shrunken gray suit. “I mean the pope resigns and now this?” New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham exclaimed out loud, “A boy in a flannel suit with a crown of thorns? I think it’s a sign, kids.”
But the religious iconography did not detract from the excitement brewing in the room. “Until we see the show, you cannot even predict what’s going to happen,” explained Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT, of the audience’s anticipation. Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus’s fashion director, concurred. “I think that he is having a terrific moment right now, and certainly having our first lady in a very important coat on a very important day in front of the world has made his name even more important,” he said. “And she looked terrific, so why not?”
Soon the lights dimmed and the show’s first model emerged in a lace appliquéd gray dress, a Victorian puff-sleeved jacket, and eccentrically embroidered tights. She, and the remaining cast, sauntered down the runway at a sedated pace, with vacant stares, rouged-doll makeup, and twisted clouds of sugar-spun hair. The models walked with a fistful of red roses, tenderly tossing them onto the bed-bound boys as they turned a corner. Observing the slow-moving procession was akin to watching a tranquil dream float by. Editors remarked that the show was the closest thing New York had to Paris’s fantastical couture presentations. Browne’s experimental proportions and visionary East Coast Americana certainly fit the bill.
“A boy in a flannel suit with a crown of thorns? I think it’s a sign, kids.”
Beneath the opulence were the trappings of a proper New Englander’s closet: anoraks, knit vests, woolen trousers, Chesterfield jackets, even your grandmother’s floor-length fur coat. “He loves tailoring and from that he’s been able to spin a huge vocabulary,” Mears explained. “Like Yves Klein the painter—you take blue and you make a perfect study.”
In Browne’s case, that study isn’t exactly straightforward. His work has become so layered in references that even Browne himself shies away from sharing its meaning. “There is never a literal meaning, but taking beautiful images and putting them together,” he explained of his fall collection. “He is not out there trying to get attention—his work speaks for itself,” Bernhardt added.
And on January 21, for the inauguration, it did exactly that. “I think a lot of people know me as a men’s designer, and now they realize I do women’s too,” Browne said of his business in the inauguration’s wake. Many of the dark fabrics of his show’s earlier looks resembled those worn by Mrs. Obama. The overlap wasn’t a coincidence, but it wasn’t deliberate either. “There will always be crossover between my men’s and my women’s lines in terms of my fabric and it terms of my sensibility,” Browne explained.
According to Mears, Mrs. Obama’s effect on Browne’s career extends beyond giving his women’s line a boost in celebrity. “I think some people regard him as being so radical, that he doesn’t do good clothes or wearable clothes, but he can and a fashion presentation is very different,” she explained. “What I like is that Mrs. Obama showed that you can really make a statement with this type of clothing, by incorporating menswear but not in the standard cookie-cutter way.”
But rather than honing in on the present (Mrs. Obama included), the designer is focused on the bigger picture instead. Browne’s single wish for his legacy? “That I made people think.”