There is currently a class about the designer Thom Browne being taught not, as one might expect, at Parsons or the Fashion Institute of Technology or even Central Saint Martins, but at the University of Notre Dame. And not by a business professor, or an art professor, but by a philosophy professor.
A philosophy professor?
Mr. Browne, who became famous as a proponent of a new kind of tailoring — shrunken gray suits and shorts suits that subverted midcentury clichés and turned them into something almost illicit — may be America’s great fashion ideologue, as well as one of its success stories. He is an apostle for the importance of imagination, the kind that goes beyond just aesthetics to identity-building, and taps into emotion as well as silhouette.
That, in fact, holds that the two are inextricable: What you put on your outside should, and does, change how you feel on your inside.
That sort of theorizing is rarely associated with New York designers, who have often been stereotyped as too commercial and market-oriented, focused to their detriment on predictability and functionality, not invention. It’s a generalization that is increasingly passé, however. And if Mr. Browne has his way, it may finally be overwritten.
This month, he became the chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a post he assumed with the goal of redefining the image of American fashion, and on Tuesday night, in a black box theater on the second floor of the Shed in Hudson Yards, he showed everyone exactly what that meant.
Eight tons of sand had been trucked in and scattered across the floor to make a giant clock-shaped desert, with a life-size biplane crashed in the middle. Overhead dangled a universe’s worth of planets and stars. As the soundtrack ticked off the minutes, guests and celebrities filed in: Queen Latifah, Lil Nas X, Christine Baranski. By the time Erykah Badu arrived, swaddled in a giant plaid coat, 40 minutes late, Mr. Browne’s version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” could finally begin: a fashion opera in five acts, built on the base of a mid-calf sheath dress and dedicated to the value of seeing with the heart, not simply the head.
First came the pilot, a quilted flight suit peeling off her shoulders, ballooning at the thighs. Next, the little prince himself (herself, actually; in Mr. Browne’s world “gender” is a meaningless word), in a midi-dress embroidered with gold bullion baobabs, under a gray jacket. Then came dresses inlaid with symbols representing more of the story line — kings and cards and peacock feathers — and a procession of clock-punchers under boxy jackets and coats with jutting shoulders in increasingly elaborate tweeds, everyone carrying a handbag with a timepiece embedded in the middle, counting down the hour. Clocks also formed the heels of their shoes.
That’s one way of seeing the world. After it, Mr. Browne offered another: a crazy collage of suiting (pinstripes and chalk stripes and banker-striped shirts) sliced apart, turned every which way, then stuck back together in a riot of something beautifully new.
Guess which group Mr. Browne identifies with?
At the end, after an angel in a cumulous cloud of white rescued the little prince from loneliness, the two groups paraded out again, this time the collaged suiting shed to reveal simple tweed dresses: round-necked, long-sleeved, calf-length, with a column of tiny gold buttons down the back. They had a no-nonsense, governess-like austerity, except each was made from elaborately worked and embroidered French tweed, sprinkled with a gold-bullion Milky Way, or woven with chiffon. And each was unique.
As a finishing touch, the designer himself appeared, a big chocolate heart box in hand, and ran over to give it to his partner, Andrew Bolton, the chief curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That’s Mr. Browne’s real brilliance. Not the grand panto theater, though that is entertaining (if often self-indulgent). Not the elaborate costumery, though that is always dazzling. But the ability to reconcile the seemingly antithetical poles of minimal lines and maximal fabrication; of feeling and functionality. He’s not in it just for attention’s sake. There’s substance beneath the showpieces.
Mr. Browne may be the most visible grand proponent of that kind of fashion — he’s simply working on a different level than almost anyone else in New York (and with a different budget; in 2018 he sold a majority stake in his company to the Zegna Group) — but he’s not alone.
Fashion week began with Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte throwing a glittering, silver-dusted dinner party in the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank, in Brooklyn, amid which a host of otherworldly, black-clad women swirled in Morticia Addams gowns in silk jersey, velvet and lace. It was like an Anne Rice fantasy come to life (sleeves to the floor! lacing at the breast! peaked collars and trailing hems!) until the black gave way to sparkling, feather-trimmed butterfly looks, some festooned with green-faced elves. And then the Queen of the Night appeared in silver sequins, surrounded by a whole court in capes of metallic fringe.
The result was immersive, high kitsch theater in the guise of fashion, and some cobwebby mixed-media knits that were just plain magic.
As was Joseph Altuzarra’s meditation on nature and abstraction via the parka: in jewel-toned nylon and satin; as an evening gown and outerwear; protective and luscious at the same time.
Unlike Mr. Browne or the Mulleavys, Mr. Altuzarra doesn’t go in for fancy sets or elaborate narratives, but like them this season, he let his mind soar when it came to his collection. Brushed wool jackets and long skirts came in blurry, late-day shades, fading one into the other; draped jersey columns had a Grecian line; and vines climbed Guinevere dresses.
Many of the prints were, he said backstage, based on a Rorschach blot. It’s an ingenious way to acknowledge that the best clothes burrow into your mind, to the psychological connective tissue no data point can reveal, and allow everyone to discover in them what they will: goddesses, medieval queens, safety, surety.
The shape of their next selves.