Gray flannel. It’s the fabric of the everyday, office life, nine-to-five mundanity. In Thom Browne’s hands, it’s what fashion dreams are made of. His are big and he has the ambition, tenacity and world-class patternmaker to bring them to life. For fall, he had the imagination to fill the grand hall of the Hotel de Ville with 18 models dressed as painters inspired by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, the 18th-century artist famed for her portraits of Marie Antoinette. They were dressed in Browne’s 18th-century meets 21st-century vision of his signature toony uniform — gray flannel pannier cropped pants and khaki jackets, their gray hair slicked into padded cone-shaped bouffants. They stood, paint brush in hand, in front of gold leaf frames of Browne’s highly conceptual sketches — arrangements of circles and squares that look like clothes to his eyes — of his glorious ideas, made almost entirely of gray flannel mixed with silk moire and tulle.
On a material level, Browne chose the flannel as the practical counterpoint to the tulle that fueled his fantasy ode to haute couture show last spring. Despite the fabric’s sensible reputation, the fall show was couture-level as well. The work and investment was remarkable. He framed the show around Vigée Le Brun, “what she would think she would be wearing in the 21st century,” he said during a preview at his new Paris office on Avenue Montaigne.
The narrative set up for incredible grandeur reckoned with Browne’s absurdist sense of humor. He obviously takes his work very seriously and enjoys obsessing. Thus, the four models with furry dachshund heads modeled after his dog Hector. But the show was no joke. The other girls strutted out to Madonna’s “Vogue” in creations that honored and emphasized construction, both God-given and man-made. Sculpted jackets and statuesque gowns were cut to highlight the bust and hips, some with amusing anatomical tromp l’oeil — dots on the nipples, a flower over her garden and retro lingerie motifs — all in shades of gray. There were skirts cut to look like naked stone busts, a gown that resembled a marble sculpture and a fantastic dress devised out of the components of sharp men’s tailoring — a jacket, a vest, a shirtdress and a coat. The treatments and embroideries are too many and intense to fully list, but they were spectacular. One giant hand-embroidered silk satin bow several yards long required 18 men and 20 hours of work. “It’s the most expensive bow in the world,” he said. He wasn’t kidding.