The instructions for Thom Browne’s debut couture show were to wear your best gray, and the leitmotif was ‘Fade to Gray’, Visage’s bittersweet song about a broken heart sitting on a lonely railroad platform.
The result was a prodigious production and a great show, where the American designer pulled of the considerable feat of staging a bona fide couture shows inside France’s most famous opera house.
Where guests sat on the famed slanting stage, and the curtain slowly rose to unveil thousands of mannequins in Browne’s little boy gray flannel suit sitting in every seat in the house. Thom was never known as a low ego designer.
Two handsome youths in kilted suits carried gray suitcases onto the stage, and veteran model Alek Wek replaced Visage singer Steve Strange as the lonely spirit. Occasionally daubing her face to wipe away tears.
Just like in the epic synth pop video where Strange sported purple and pink rouge and graphic eyeliner designs all over his face, so did the cast – in some epic makeup magic by Eugene Suleiman; who is actually a makeup marvel, even if this is hard to know for non-professionals. Since when you Google his name, you often get a statement from Google’s privacy department explaining the importance of being forgotten.
Wek’s redingote and kilt setting the scene in terms of tailoring. Before a birdman appeared in a deconstructed version of the garment, his head topped by a half of a bird’s head made of wires and fabric, in a brilliant millenary moment by the master hatter of London, Stephen Jones. The birdman making pecking gestures as he circled the staged, while Jones’ white Mohican headgear suggesting a train about to arrive in the station was the single best hat we have seen in couture this decade.
Then Thom went into couture over-dive in terms of silhouette and embellishment. He cut church bell-shaped coats with matching hats, and dreamed up giant butterfly sleeves. And, though this was Paris couture, Browne will always be a New Englander. So, he covered most looks in regional references – sailing boats, seagulls, anchors and whales, while golden lobsters sailing ropes and pulleys covered several backs.
His finale femme fatales and bride ere all eerily beautiful and couture as one always dreams it should be.
Browne hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania, the site of some of the earliest resistance to British colonialism during the Revolutionary War. And he remains a curious mixture of iconoclastic gender-bending fashion and classical wasp style.
Which is what made this an important show and collection – his very unique vision of couture. Though one could tell from the lack of continental critics backstage that many Europeans, while respecting his chutzpah and deep understanding of fashion history, don’t quite buy into Thom Browne.
French is spoken in the famed Visage video, when an unseen singer laments about being “in the rain like an English summer.” And in a very real sense, this show was just the latest example of how hard it is to impress French culture. The locals here can happily accept offbeat British geniuses like Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, but find it harder to accept that an American can ever really create haute couture. Cruel, we know, but that’s the way it is in Paris.
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