The grayscale world conjured up each season by Thom Browne is bizarre, twisted, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, and sometimes entirely intentionally so. The last is far more entrancing that the first—when you realize Browne is laughing with you, rather than you at him (or, perhaps, vice versa).
And so it was for Spring, when Browne decided life was a beach and unleashed one of the wittiest, most memorable, and certainly most bizarre runway stagings of his entire career. Considering they’ve previously involved gilded fauns, menageries of animals and hyperinflated Elmer Fudd lookalikes, and male flappers in Maxim’s, that’s a tall order.
Here was the scene: a post-apocalyptic beach of black sand, gray palm tree, and a lounging sunbather in a tight zippered wet suit, like a black-and-white movie still. John Williams’s ominous Jaws theme began to play, and a model in a black suit—drop-crotch pants, jacket with a dorsal fin attached, head hidden under a leather shark mask—perambulated out and circled the set. No word of a lie. Then a bunch of shark-attack-ready models waddled out in Fatty Arbuckle onesies, plodding to take their place about the tree. A quick zip and, like a cheap infomercial before and after, the corpulence literally peeled right off, to reveal spangled short suits, tailcoats, and overcoats in brilliant, poolside cocktail shades of orange sorbet, cassata, and piña colada, in fur or tweed or hibiscus flower laces with embroideries of surfboards, and islands, and sharks.
Speaking of which, the aforementioned great white was still circling ominously (read: hilariously). At some point, a few seagulls joined him—men in feather-crusted shorts suits and beaked Stephen Jones headpieces, flapping their wings like angels in a preschool nativity play. You couldn’t help but grin, the models then stripping off for a second time, revealing each ensemble to be a fused trompe l’oeil, like a snug wet suit, a reveal worthy of a winning RuPaul’s Drag Race main-stage lip sync, and just as camp. Underneath each wore a retro-style bathing suit in an eye-popping Lilly Pulitzer–style print. Oh, at some point a couple of macaws joined in. Who knows when, or why. The damn shark was still circling.
The models marched off, grabbed a surfboard matching their print, and pitched their stake in the sand. Behind them, the pile of discarded gray fat-suits looked like a mountain of bird guano. The Beach Boys crooned.
As that extensive synopsis suggests, it made for delirious theater. It meant nothing, bar reappropriating picture-postcard scenes of Americana-at-sea, California Dreamin’ images of tanned mid-century surfer dudes dressed in aloha shirts and vacation shorts suits, and mutating them into something utterly surreal.
Yet each element of Browne’s big-top show was perfectly gauged, ridiculously well-realized. It could have gone horribly wrong, but, somehow, it entertained without ever dragging. Kudos to Sharky and the flock of seagulls for sterling fancy footwork with restricted views. And kudos to Browne, because when all the layers were peeled off these were wonderfully inventive, technically stunning clothes that can easily be chopped apart and infiltrated into garments that will make retail sense. Then again, if you’re a fan of the one-stop shop and zero outfit deliberations offered by a wardrobe fused into a onesie, you’ve found your go-to collection.
The end of the Paris menswear shows is a time for bleary eyes and stony faces. But here the audience smiled. They laughed. And they even put down their smartphones and applauded, with all the glee of little kids. They also held their breath in a moment’s silence for the esteemed New York Times style photographer Bill Cunningham, whose death was announced yesterday. Browne himself requested the moment of silence. Watching the subsequent runway show unfold, a celebration of fashion’s power to transform, of unabashed exuberance in dress, and of superlative showmanship, you couldn’t help but feel Cunningham would have adored Browne’s audacity and absolute commitment to his crafts. That’s plural, please note: the craft of making clothes, and the craft of spectacle. Browne is an American master of both.