To wear one of Thom Browne’s grey flannel suits is to demand attention. You can’t avoid it when encased in one of the designer’s trademark designs; with their shrunken jackets, high waistbands and cropped trousers, they can make the wearer appear to have received a full-body wedgie. Yet while his cuts may be unforgiving his influence is undeniable. Gaze down at the ankles of your nearest neighbourhood hipster – that you can see them at all owes much to the trickle-down influence of Browne’s hoiked-up look. His love of the traditional suit – albeit given a severe twist – has put him on the front line of the battle against ubiquitous casual dressing. So it is something of a surprise that his show at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York has not one stitch of fabric on display.
Cooper Hewitt is the only museum in the United States devoted to both historical and contemporary design. For its “Selects” series it invites a guest to browse through its collection of 210,000 objects and pick their favourites. Past curators have included the architect David Adjaye and the illustrator Maira Kalman, but no one has approached the task with such conceptual rigour as Browne, whose fifty or so chosen items are all picture frames and mirrors.
Mirrors and frames are not things we usually look at directly. We look at what they hold – reflections or paintings – but never the thing itself. In this respect they are somewhat like a businessman’s suit: a uniform of commerce that signifies but rarely sings. But just as Browne has turned suits into a main event, so in this exhibition these ancillary objects have been promoted to centre stage. There are French rococo mirrors from the 18th century, slathered in gilt and wrapped in a filigree of vines. There are finely bowed art nouveau frames by Hector Guimard – the designer of the entrances to the Paris metro – carved from fruitwood. There are masterworks, such as an art deco hand mirror by the Wiener Werkstätte community of artists, whose design is composed of a simple circle and rectangle. There are also oddities, like the mirror made by the pop artist Jim Dine, whose frame holds scissors, an axe, and a collection of unverifiable bric-a-brac all drowned in gold. Giving these often-ignored items an added frisson is the room they appear in.
The “Selects” exhibitions usually take place in a heavily ornate neo-Georgian exhibition chamber. But Browne has built a room inside this room, raising the floor and lining the walls with holographic foil made by the British wallpaper manufacturer, Osborne & Little. At one end of the room sit a desk and chair, a briefcase, desk lamp, pencil and typewriter that would be inconsequential had they not all been covered in nickel-plated steel. Even an apple has been given the metallic treatment. And lining the floor, the one nod to Browne’s sartorial preoccupations, are sixty pairs of wingtip brogues, also completely metallicised. The effect is a weirdly chilling space of dazzling reflection and shine. It’s like stepping into the office of some incorporeal corporate raider, or undergoing a peculiarly buttoned-down hallucinogenic experience.
To those who have followed Browne’s fashion career this may not seem entirely surprising. His seasonal collections have often taken the form of art installations. Models have posed standing behind desks, clad in space suits, lying in hammocks or dressed as fauns holding silver umbrellas. Browne is hardly unaware of the humour. How could he not be considering he has single-handedly dragged the short suit – a suit jacket paired with matching shorts – from the twitching nightmares of Savile Row tailors and into reality? But by walking this fine pinstripe line between painstaking craftsmanship and Zoolander-esque absurdity Browne has successfully pushed what is the most conservative branch of men’s fashion into startling new territory.
This is not the first time Browne has used a mirrored room. In his show at the inaugural men’s fashion week in New York last summer, models who seemed to be wearing the same suit lined a similar room. Multiplied to infinity by the mirrors it seemed to the audience as if they were facing an army of Thom Browne clones. It was only by looking closely that you could see the many tiny differences each suit contained. As part of his push against the casual dress code, Browne has embraced the former bugbear of the fashion-forward: the uniform. Individuality through uniformity has become his rallying cry. In this room at Cooper Hewitt the mirrors and frames stand where the suit-clad models once stood. Like those suits, these mirrors and frames carry a uniformity of purpose – to reflect and present – but with myriad variations in how they do it. By inviting us to look into these mirrors Browne seems to be striking a democratic tone, giving us the chance to join him in his Thom Browne world. It’s a nice thought, although it’s as much a challenge as an invitation. Catching my reflection in a tarnished baroque mirror and comparing it to the shimmering room that surrounds it was a disheartening experience. I couldn’t help but wish I had dressed a little snappier, done up my belt a notch tighter, combed my hair a little more assertively. The world of Thom Browne is undoubtedly eye-catching but, like his clothes, it’s distinctly uncomfortable.
Thom Browne Selects Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, until October 23rd, 2016