Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell.
That line from E.Y. Harburg’s Great Depression anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” refers to World War I military uniforms rather than civilian finery. Still, it draws historical parallel to the sartorial sentiment behind the collection Thom Browne showed on Monday night. Lyricist and designer made a similar point: Across a range of life’s circumstances, style matters.
For fall, Browne looked at the shift from wealth to want, and the creativity that can ensue from necessity. “The Depression,” he said backstage. “It’s about re-appropriating the clothing you loved when you bought them when you were rich in the Twenties.”
There’s always poignancy in juxtaposing haves against have-nots, and, in the context of luxury fashion, potential controversy as well, played out most notoriously with John Galliano’s homeless couture collection for Dior Couture. Sixteen years later, one felt an unmistakable kinship with Galliano here, in the de- and re-construction and in the idiosyncratic romance. That’s not to imply creative pickpocketing. The broad strokes of storytelling, as well as deconstruction and hyper attention to tailoring craft, are innate to Browne’s work. The result here was an exquisite collection.
Guests arrived to a set of a city square, outlined in skrim drawings of what appeared to be 19th-century residences. These bordered a dirt walkway around the perimeter of a small park, its trees winter-barren but for the occasional evergreen. To open the show, two men slowly walked the garden paths before settling onto benches, their clothes reflecting the Edwardian style that extended into the Twenties. Then came the women, diverse of personality yet all stalwart, refusing to cave to their recent impoverishment. They believed in dressing well no matter what, even if it meant turning sacks into overcoats and old trousers into capes, or fashioning a coat from two old outerwear pieces, one long, one short, or covering holes here and there with denim patches.
Browne’s powerful fashion fiction plays on our emotion. His corresponding pragmatic story: the craft. Browne is an expert tailor, an obsessive, risk-taking perfectionist who revels as much in the construction of a garment as in the story he wants to tell through it. Here, he offered rich counterpoint: clothes steeped in the exacting rules of the men’s wear tailoring he loves against languid knitwear and inventive pannier dresses that fell from the body with structured grace.
It all made for a beautiful narrative and great fashion. At a time when others seek to shock with spectacle, Browne, one of fashion’s great, most devoted showmen, sent an important reminder that the schtick is only as good as the chic.