First published by Vogue on 30 September 2018
Even without the colourful, highly inventive spring/summer 2019 collection displayed against white walls, Vogue’s visit to Thom Browne’s studio two days before his women’s ready-to-wear show feels a little like walking into a version of Wonderland – one that’s populated with characters in variations on Browne’s trademark grey tailoring. Their “uniform” might include a compact shorts suit worn with the finest black brogues, or a long white shirt-dress paired with sheer knee socks and a cardigan. “The higher people go in the company, the more creative they get in the way they wear it,” notes one employee. “I think Thom enjoys seeing how everyone makes it their own.”
While much of Browne’s business comes from his impeccable yet distinctive tailoring, his shows are a deep dive into his creativity, and spring/summer 2019 collection is no different. Shown on a beach-inspired set complete with boardwalk, sand and gnomes (all built within the Tennis Club de Paris), the collection revisits some long-term preoccupations.
“I never really reference other things in fashion, but I do like to reference myself and past ideas,” he explains. “I did a Punks and Jocks show in men’s a couple of seasons ago” – in fact it was autumn/winter 2012 – “so there’s a take on that in regards to the play with proportion, taking my classic ‘bodies’ and really blowing them out. Then the second half is taking the idea of a punk sensibility, in regard to things being very fitted, and the use of lacing.” Many pieces throughout the collection are held together by buttons or laces, so that theoretically they could be disassembled into their constituent parts: “It’s about the importance of pattern making.”
What is always fascinating to Browne’s show guests is that his collections feel more like couture. This season’s fabrics are highly textured, and every piece invites a close-up examination. A tweed jacket is woven with tiny scraps of classic American materials – “preppy fabrics like seersucker, pin cord and check.” An intricately embroidered tunic uses trompe l’oeil to appear like a jacket, vest and trousers, yet it’s laced together at the seams. More fantastically still, the collection includes pieces inspired by a feathered seagull, a mermaid and a shark – the last is a heavy, beaded jacket which, at this point, is waiting for the addition of its fin.
Some garments are embellished with what appear from a distance to be sequins, but up close are tiny paillettes of fabric. Others are embroidered with gold bullion, Browne points out with low-key pride. “It’s fabricated at a heightened level that you don’t really see in ready to wear.”
The show comes a month after it emerged that the Italian menswear company Ermenegildo Zegna Group has acquired an 85 per cent stake in Browne’s business, with the designer holding the remaining 15 per cent. Some observers might be nervous that Browne’s unique vision could be compromised by the new arrangement; he himself is not.
“You know, it was so important in my initial conversations with Gildo [Zegna, the investor’s CEO] to maintain that [vision], and it was so important for him too, so we were talking the same story,” he says. “For me it’s comforting to know that now we can have a true long-term vision for the collection. This [part of the business] will always be as special as it is, and this will always be where the story starts.” The offbeat uniforms at the heart of Browne’s business, he seems to feel, work best in counterpoint to his most spectacular and artistic creations. “Nothing else would exist if this didn’t exist.”