For Thom Browne, provocation is a source of delight. His shrunken suit remains essential for insiders, and perplexing to the unaware. And then there are his wildly expressive runway shows, the most recent of which pitched men into football-shaped platform shoes and panniers affixed with codpieces, which continue to cause outsize reactions among shocked and angry men outside of the glass of fashion. Browne doesn’t much care. “If they knew how not serious I was about it, I think they would be so surprised,” he said, bemused, in an interview in his Paris showroom earlier this week. “I think they’re thinking, like, I’m trying to like change how masculine men are. One, I don’t care that much. And two, [the Thom Browne men] actually look more masculine than you probably do.”
The latest entry into his farcical canon is a series of images, inspired by the candlelit splendor of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. (They'll hang in the brand's Paris showroom, where buyers come to see and purchase from the collection.) Browne imagined the scene in a sort of fever dream: a dinner party in a mansion, where a group of well-dressed animals (models in hats designed by the legendary milliner Stephen Jones) arrive to find the spécialité de la maison is a human. Specifically, the very “sweet”—in Browne’s words—model Rocky Harwood, who poses on the dinner table with impressively appetizing stillness. His body is in fact a fondant cake created by a London baker to resemble Browne’s classic suit jacket, cardigan, and shirting combo; during our interview, the sliced cake—layers of red, white, and blue sponge; Mary Berry would be very impressed—sat in the middle of the table, and I tried a piece (best human I’ve had in years!). The images show the narrative from arrival to glee club portrait to cocktails to the main feast, with all the men dressed in Browne’s “Harris tweeds—all our classic fabrics and details. A Bermuda short suit, a pleated skirt suit, a sack skirt suit. All the classic ideas that I have in all my collections.”
Browne’s preppy theatrics have been a staple of Paris Men’s Fashion Week since he started showing his menswear here during the Spring 2011 season, but he opted to combine his men’s and women’s for the women’s shows in March. “I’ve been talking about my men’s and women's actually being connected for so long that I needed to actually show it,” he said. But he still wanted to do something in his men’s week slot, hence the photos: “I just thought like, it’d be nice to fill this moment with something that wasn’t traditionally a show.”
In fact, the idea came so quickly that Browne and his team, working with photographer Casper Sejersen (and production company Back of the House on set design), had taken the images just the day before. “I wanted to do this, and it was something that I couldn’t wait on, and it needed to be done now,” he said. (Again: it’s just so delightful to think of a man whose most pressing desire is to realize a dinner party for animals.)
Browne seems to be in a very experimental place right now, having recently shown a palm tree sculpture at Art Basel Miami in December. The impulse that led him to make a tiny suit for guys is now extending in new and different directions. “These are things that people need to see, you know: just crazy ideas,” he said. He doesn’t need to be doing this; Zegna acquired a majority stake in his brand in 2018, valuing the gray-suit empire at $500 million. This? This is just fun:“I just liked the idea of creation for the sake of creation. There’s no commercial reason for this other than, this is here because of the business. Business is so good right now, so everything is just working really well.” He’s selling a ton of his more commercial suiting pieces—including men’s skirts, he said, which are now a staple, after Odell Beckham Jr. wore one to the Met Gala, and playwright Jeremy O. Harris has made them a part of his wardrobe.
So perhaps the business success has given Browne a sense that he should reinforce the oddness, the conceptual side of the brand’s personality. “This is what I do,” he said, gesturing to the photographs. This project in particular, he says, “was exciting because it was creating something so weird, and I think really important because we live in such a commercial world. It’s so nice to do something that’s not so commercial.”
Like many designers who are experimenting with the logistics of showing their men’s collections, Browne wanted 2020 “to be this recalibrating year. I personally needed it, because after fifteen years of so many shows, I was getting a little bored of it as well. And I wanted to do things differently.”
Many of the conversations around fashion’s business and scheduling transitions titter that it’s all “broken,” with a very management consultant-esque search for “a solution.” But Browne reminds us that it’s also possible to take an attitude of experimentation—the brand may go back to showing men’s and women’s separately a year from now, he said. It’s often surprising how organized designers are, especially if you grew up reading magazine profiles about wild fashion geniuses who do everything 48 hours before the show. But the contemporary sense of efficiency, which is necessary for a functional commercial business, can make it challenging to take on bizarro creative digressions. But the bizarro, Browne said, is crucial: “If it's worth doing, you just make it work. And that's not just logistically—that’s also financially too, because this was a huge investment. And in the end, it’s really worth it, because these images are just important. They’ll live for a long time.” Bon appetit!
Originally Appeared on GQ