PARIS, France — Proportion has always been Thom Browne’s ace in the hole. But playing that ace at a time when a floodtide of zealotry is sweeping the world to hell in a handbasket, when logic and proportion have, as Grace Slick so memorably intoned, “fallen sloppy dead,” felt like a particularly loaded move. And, boy oh boy, did Browne play it! Where his shows have often seemed like endurance tests for his models, this one also tested his audience’s patience, with a funereally paced performance in three “acts” (plus finale) set to a soundtrack of jittery John Cage avant-garderie, which eventually edged into untuned-radio dissonance.
This was not one of those Thom Browne presentations where the designer set out to charm or seduce or amuse his audience. It felt very much like he had a point he wanted to make as irrefutably as possible. The three acts unspooled like a sartorial dialectic. First, the thesis: the patterns of 15 Browne classics — single-breasted jacket, double-breasted overcoat and so on — ingeniously distilled into multi-buttoned bodysuits. Next, the antithesis: the pieces of the patterns laid flat, accessories (black leather gloves, for instance) flattened on top. More buttons. Finally, the synthesis: the patterns made up as finished garments. Apotheosis of buttons! If that sounds rather academic, it's because it was: Thom Browne's schooldays reconfigured as a post-graduate dissertation on Harris tweed.
Quite how this production introduced the world to his latest collection of clothing was veiled in mystery. It would have made a lot more sense as a conceptual presentation at Pitti Uomo. With his usual aw-shucks reluctance to acknowledge Deeper Meanings, Browne said only this: "Playing with proportion, making clothes really well." That much, for sure. But how could you resist the rest?
The boys in the opening act, with their tweed body stockings, alien helmets and clumpy hoof-ish platforms reminded me of the spooky Strangers from 1998's Dark City (Is it ever time to watch that again?). Their white shirt sleeves dangling to the floor, and their little wheelie bags big enough for nothing ("A bottle of champagne," corrected Browne) emphasised the notion of utility thwarted, which in turn was a reminder of how often the designer delights in such alien wilfulness. Same thing with Act ll, which echoed Galliano's paper dolls from 2000, and Commes des Garcons' "The future is 2D" collection from 2012. But the finale, a Three Stages of Tweed spectacle which brought together all the acts in a literalisation of Browne's creative process, supplied a reassuringly human message: out of chaos comes order. Such is the tailor's art.
I learned a new word by the way: Koumpounophobia. Fear of buttons.