Friday night at the Javits Center, countless demi-celebrities in Thom Browne confections clutched small teddy bears in their arms and gazed across a field of five hundred more teddy bears seated with alarming uniformity. Teddy bears can’t move, so I guess I shouldn’t have been alarmed—but en masse, the stillness of these playful little prepsters had an almost hysterical, horror film effect. (You could say the same about seeing groups of people in Browne’s clothes.)
Models with two- and three-model-long bags sauntered out, and a model in big furry platform boots and paws and a stovepipe hat with little bear ears lumbered in as a voiceover announced, “Welcome to my Teddy Talk!” (This was technically Thom Browne’s Fall 2022 show, happening all these months after New York Fashion Week presumably to scoop up some of the celebrities in town for Monday’s gala.)
And then 25 killer preppy looks streamed by—great herringbone and houndstooth and pinstripe and windowpane fabrics edged with rep tie stripes and white and gray piping. The silhouette was almost unchanged—little jackets underneath a longer leaner jacket with bracelet-length sleeves, knife-pleat and A-line skirts over trousers, big platform shoes. It’s amazing what you can do with just that palette of fabrics–the clothes never looked redundant–and I thought it was one of the most assured and elegant statements I’ve ever seen from Browne, loaded with skill, perfectly made. As he said backstage, it looks expensive because it is! Come to think of it, a lot of designers can’t really say that right now.
Then came the toys. (Let’s hear it for the tooooys!!!) Enormous concoctions of gray flannel and plaid and stripes, wobbling on platform shoes made of stacks of classic alphabet blocks. There was a tennis sweater that was a tennis ball. There were lobsters. Slinkies! Tubes! A jacket dressed as a jacket! Big sloppy cableknits and crazy jumbo quilted coats!
Why? Because why not! You know, in America, the airhead and the sphinx are often one and the same. It’s Warhol, it’s the bimbo, it’s hot dogs and milkshakes and hot fudge sundaes as cuisine. It’s what I love about this country—and one of the only things left to love, at that!
A voiceover explained the two parts—25 straight preppy looks, and 25 crazy playful conceptual preppy looks—as New Yorkers meeting their true selves. Browne put it more pointedly backstage: “New York is the island of misfit toys, and everybody comes here to find themselves or create themselves,” he said. It was a portrait of New Yorkers “finding themselves in their toy version.” It is true—and one of the best things about New York, actually—that living in the city is a process of autobiography. You move to New York to find like-minded weirdos and create an edgier, more bizarre version of yourself. You reveal your inner freak, in other words.
Browne has become the foremost American expert on the inner freak. He started out as a guy with a quirky idea about suiting—short in the leg and arm—that, unlike many other tailoring trends (say, the skinny suit) doesn’t look dated. In fact, it still weirds people out. Deviation from the norm is still a no-no in America, especially when it comes to clothes; it’s always funny to me that with all the horrors we’ve settled for (and created) in this country, people are still out here complaining about Ugg boots, Crocs, leggings, and suits that don’t fit right.
But somehow, maybe since he started showing on and off in Paris, in 2017, Browne’s ability to freak has evolved into a movement, or at least something with a bit more urgency. In part, it’s a thing of timing. His menswear often reads as a statement about queerness—a camp knowingness about deviation from norms—and that happened to align with the passion for identity politics that has overtaken celebrity style. Still, his most radical statements happen with his most straightforward clothes—a man in a pleated Thom Browne skirt just sets people off. It’s pretty glorious.
I’ve wondered lately whether Browne could do the same for the ladies. To be sure, Browne has his womenswear devotees. International Best-Dressed List keeper Amy Fine Collins, film director Janicza Bravo, and model Ella Emhoff, who were all in attendance on Friday, all look great in his clothes. But his men’s clothing has an incantational quality that strokes the male ego into experimentation—what if I just tried on a skirt? Women’s clothing, generally speaking, has been too serious for too long—or even worse, a bunch of silly gimmicks that feel too thin to really mean something to a woman who wants to make a strong statement with her style. Although some of the best brands in New York right now are extremely playful—like Collina Strada and Christopher John Rogers, and even Rachel Comey and The Row are getting goofier—we really lack a playground. We could use something with the “oh heck let’s just try it” feeling that men have with that Thom Browne skirt.
Some people have no patience for crazy concept clothes, but, combined with the semi-political undercurrent of the Browne movement, these felt special. First, they just had so much technical finesse—they were so much fun to examine individually–but taken together, they made a demented and fabulous statement, to me, about the escapist potential of preppy clothes. Browne has tried these sorts of conceptual clothes before—his show almost always has a little framing narrative like this one, and since he started showing in Paris, almost all of his collections have had these “consider the lobster” masses of garment, and fabric sculpture gowns on which the armholes set your limbs frozen across your chest like a mummified Irving Penn model, and trompe l’oeil deluxe. But these were just executed at another level. (You could tell Browne was marveling at it himself backstage.)
Womenswear just doesn’t have the political playground that menswear does (maybe the closest thing we have to the Thom Browne men’s skirt is a pussy hat, and no thank you to that). So instead, as I watched all these big ridiculous clothes, I began to think: what if we started to think about escapism in a new way? Not as beauty to distract us from the crises of the world, because that feels pretty much impossible, but from the tedium of everyday? And we saw clothing not simply as a solution to make life easier or just slightly prettier, which is what womenswear has mostly been about lately—but also as a possibility to slip, even just for a few hours, into the exquisite and ridiculous? What if you could climb into one of these Thom Browne machines for inner freakdom and feel released from the widening gyre of athleisure, from TikTok trend forecasting, from tasteful minimalist separates? And feel ensconced in a realm of pure freak fashion? And what if wearing one of those nobly quirky suits—or even just the shrunken jacket or the pleated skirt in crazy mismatched fabrics, almost the feminist answer to what Tom Wolfe deemed “go to hell” pants—could give you a bit of that feeling? It all felt like an invitation to experiment.
A lot of American designers have gone into existential explorations about what American fashion is in the midst of the Costume Institute’s two-parter on the subject. The second half, with its attendant gala, opens on Monday, and of course Browne’s partner, Andrew Bolton, is the curator in charge. Almost all the designers who have done so have talked about the language of American sportswear, about something almost vernacular. Browne brushed that off backstage—it’s tailoring that really brings him joy. Preppy clothes are America’s bimbo-sphinx fashion. They are freighted with messages about power and elitism and yet they are so simple, so wearable, and often so silly and even dumb. They invite the wearer to mix colors and patterns outrageously. They are, in other words, clothes that inspire style, which in America is really self-invention. Through Browne, I saw their freaky underbelly anew.
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