When Michelle Obama wore a Thom Browne coat and dress to her husband's inauguration, she sent the world a clear message: Thom Browne makes womenswear! Yes sirree, the designer who has famously built a career on re-proportioning gray flannel suits for men garbs the lady of the White House as well. But anyone who came to Browne's latest presentation expecting more Michelle-ready pieces would have been flummoxed. His shows have always offered Browne an opportunity to indulge the most twisted fissures of his creative self. He just can't help himself. So his audience today was greeted by a scenario studded with Gray Flannel Guys stretched out on army cots, wearing crowns of thorns, wrists bound in red ribbon. That's the way opera represents blood. And it was an operatic kind of day. The Pope quit. It was the third anniversary of Alexander McQueen's suicide. If Browne has always been determinedly, even defiantly, sui generis in his work, the outside world was tapping at his window today.
That can't be a bad thing. If you could choose just one critique to hurl Browne's way, it would be that his tiny patch of fashion is as hermetically sealed as Tim Burton's mini-verse of gothic grotesque. In fact, the hair and makeup of the models today vaguely echoed Burton's Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. And, once again, Browne took us down his very own rabbit hole. It was a place of intense discipline, silhouettes strictly defined, fabrics classically sober as a judge, with the hardly minor caveat that both were exaggerated to surreal degrees. There was an obvious fashion precedent in Christian Dior's New Look, but consummately controlling Hollywood ball-breakers like Joan Crawford and Babs Stanwyck felt like a more appropriate correlative. Browne pulled off a Hitchcockian masterstroke by unhinging their control with the implied chaos of random tatters of lace and splatters of white paint across shoes and bags. (If there was a pornographic subtext in that last flourish, it only amplified Browne's peculiar ability to evoke uncomfortable associations.)
Postshow (and post-Obama), Browne was insistent that the image he was offering on his catwalk was one of female power. And he wasn't wrong. The men's show he presented in Paris a few weeks ago was all about building something. His woman today was powerful—and unhinged—enough to tear that building down. Given Browne's longtime predilection for perversity, his real-time message this time might actually be quite simple: Girls, it's time to man up.