Much like McQueen and Galliano in the late 90s, Thom Browne has proven himself to be a contemporary master of the spectacle with his intricate runway extravaganzas often walking the line between fantasy and horror. The Spring 2019 show transformed the Tennis Club de Paris into a bizarre seaside fairytale that at first glance seemed almost childlike in its naïvety, but upon deeper inspection revealed jarring references to bondage, oppression and even violence. Audience members squirmed as Thom Browne’s dreamscape slowly dissolved into more of a Hieronymus Bosch-type nightmare: jam-packed with imaginative visual cues that invoke both fascination and terror. 

The set was a boardwalk-meets-checkerboard, decked in nautical hues of white, red and navy (also reflecting the brand’s colors). The models emerged from beach shacks, blindly observed by masked lifeguards perched on their high chairs, the irony of which will soon become clear. The procession of models was led by male models in garden gnome hats, carrying buckets of roses. Combined with the royalty-inspired classical music, it almost seemed like a nautical version of Alice and Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts’ garden, or The Wizard of Oz’ yellow brick road (albeit in red and blue). And yet, perhaps it is writer Roald Dahl’s more sinister humor that would be an appropriate parallel to draw to Browne’s perplexing presentation. 

The clothes themselves were sumptuously imaginative, with mesmerizing layered textures, patterns and color combinations. There was scaly silver sequins, scuba gear, picnic-style gingham, seersucker stripes, patchwork and even a feathered ensemble. Thom Browne’s signature collars and ties were present in even the most unexpected ensembles. The opening look was a preppy mermaid queen wearing a golden gown with a flared tulle train and floor- length sleeves, as though she were rising from the foam of the sea. Each look was densely rife for analysis. The show enters dangerous terrain when we consider some of the looks that had the models’ arms quite literally bound against their bodies. This was combined with impossibly high shoes that the models struggled to walk in, giving the show an almost painfully slow pace, with audiences holding their breath in anticipation of a constrained model falling from her teetering heights and having no hands free to catch herself, which luckily did not happen. 



As has become customary in recent fashion shows, problematic elements of racism, female oppression and appropriation were abound in this showcase. Besides being bound, many of the models were also masked. Some masks portrayed mouths that were sewn shut à la Hannibal Lecter. Others featured cigarettes, as though it had been put out on the woman’s face, and melted ice creams, again invoking bullying and even violence. Another iteration had a pinwheel where the mouth should be, as though the model’s voice was nothing more than a soft gust of wind. Were these masks an attempt to make the models into characters of Browne’s fantasia, or in an attempt at making women faceless, voiceless and abused? 

The models’ hair was styled in stiff, tusk-like low ponytails. Those that were not masked, wore harsh blush that emulated a sunburn, and overdrawn gold-foiled lips. An unfortunate, but perhaps deliberate styling choice that in combination with the fruit-themed accessories and African-American models evoked racist tropes and exoticism, perhaps one of the only instances where a more diverse cast can lead a designer astray. Some of the darker skinned models wore oversized fruit headpieces, the most problematic being the watermelon and the pineapple. Did no one in the chain of stylists and directors remark on the uncomfortable parallels? For otherwise we can only conclude that this was deliberate. 

The finale saw the cast led and reared by the cone-hatted, trench-coated male models. The uncomfortable walks, slow pace and bound models almost made this feel like a procession of prisoners being marched around a town square in shame. The music changed from fairytale to late 70s summer anthems from Barbara Streisand and the Beach Boys. One model carrying pom-poms waved them unenthusiastically, as though she was being forced to perform. Currently, there is such a heightened sensitivity surrounding race and gender issues, that it is more important than ever for brands to vocalize their intentions or risk seeming tactless and cruel. This bizarre bricolage certainly could have benefited from a rationale to give form to what almost could be a lovely flight of imagination, but its sweetness is buried by the sour taste the eerie images of oppression left. 



Yet, this carefully assembled set of symbols hardly seems unintentional. It is certainly plausible that Browne wanted to make audiences uncomfortable. Perhaps this was a statement on today’s society – of women marching on despite the challenges and hardships they face in many realms, from racism, to sexism, to ownership of their own bodies. Without a statement from Browne, we can only speculate, which perhaps was ultimately the goal of some marketing strategy on Browne’s part. 

In true Thom Browne form, the Spring 2019 runway show was a beautifully original visual feast, reflecting the scatterbrained creativity of the designer, stuffed with a horde of eccentric references that somehow managed to evoke a consumable aesthetic and story. However, the problematic allusions to racism, violence and female oppression tinged the whole spectacle with an eerie and uncomfortable aura. Whether it was social critique or collusion, Browne’s Spring 2019 show was more nightmare than it was dream. 

Words & Layout: Yolanda Senekal

Photographs via vogue.com