Thom Browne and Bernhard Willhelm: Performance Style

At least half the fun of fashion is the package it’s wrapped up in, right? Maybe it’s more than half. This was elaborately celebrated yesterday by shock-and-awe menswear shows from Bernhard Willhelm and Thom Browne.

German Bernhard Willhelm, who is based in Paris, devised an apish bacchanal featuring Josh Johnson and members of the Forsythe Company Frankfurt dressed in his artfully folded and richly printed sweaters, cartoon tunics emblazoned with slogans like “New, New, New,” leggings and marble-pattern blousons. The dancers writhed around a pile of theatrical boulders with a giant, open, red lipstick tube sculpture stabbed through the top. The show ended with the entire troupe running their mouths and bodies ecstatically over the sculpture, which turned out to be real red lipstick. By then, of course, most of the audience had completely forgotten about fashion.

American designer Thom Browne, who held his presentation later the same day, brought out his own mysterious scenario. Browne built a small house frame in the center of a tennis club on the edge of Paris. When the audience walked in, they were greeted by models in bonnets and Browne’s dramatically cropped jackets and “too short” pants. Each of them was attached by the ankle to the house-in-progress as they robotically tapped in unison on the walls with little hammers. And that was before the show started!

The collection, which appeared to be a stylized take on Amish menswear (a friend sitting next to me thought the inspiration was Hasidic), featured a new Cubist version of Browne’s oddly proportioned tailoring—boxy, cropped, or super-long jackets and stiff, stand-away pants with extra-wide cuffs. This was in a rainbow of grays (Browne’s signature color) that were padded, patchworked, and trimmed in fur worn by models who strode ominously in and out of shiny black doors throughout the transparent house during the entire show.

You have to wonder whether Browne, who won the 2012 National Design Award and currently designs the Moncler Gamme Bleu and Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers collections, is a high-style practical joker, or American fashion’s nuttiest professor. He’s probably a bit of both.

In any case, proof that in style matters, wearable and zany are often one in the same, WWD just announced that First Lady Michelle Obama wore a Thom Browne ensemble in men’s silk necktie jacquard (developed for this show) to the church services and swearing in ceremony at the Capitol yesterday morning. She looked beautiful. So, after that, the only thing one can say is hail to the chief!