Thom Browne creates an exotic world out of a school uniform

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — When most people look at a school uniform, they see something, well, uniform.

As in, boring. Isn't that the point?

Not in Thom Browne's hands, it isn't. At his runway show on Monday, the designer took the simple image of a Japanese schoolgirl's uniform and transformed it into a strange but enticing world — as pretty much only he can do.

Browne is known for both his craftsmanship and his showmanship, and thus no one was surprised when they entered a Chelsea gallery to see that the designer had constructed a one-room schoolhouse (recent collections have been set in a 19th-century English hospital, and a cathedral).There were rows of chairs, and a black composition notebook neatly placed at each one.

Then came the "students." Each model wore a pleated skirt and blazer. But the workmanship on those "uniforms" was intricate, with different patterns embroidered on both skirt and jacket, and each outfit was wholly unique. There were pinstripes, floral patterns, gingham, seersucker. Color schemes started with shades of gray but moved on to black-and-white, and pastels like mint green and lavender.

Then there was the hair, which doubtless would get a reprimand (or at least a hard look) from a strict headmistress: two starched braids, sticking straight up from the head into the air, and framed by fabulous (and topless) boater hats by master milliner Stephen Jones.

The students marched slowly, deliberately, around the schoolhouse and then entered it, one by one, and took seats. Finally, a "teacher" arrived, and she looked like a bride — or a Kabuki actor, fully veiled and dressed in a long, tiered white linen skirt and an overcoat in white fur. She took her place at the head of the classroom, rapped on the table, and then Browne came out to take his bow.

But the "students" stayed in place in their classroom, and observers rushed forward to photograph them up close as they stood, motionless.

Sticking out from under the schoolhouse, unnoticed at first, were a pair of men's feet, a la "Wizard of Oz." Who knows where that man figured into the story.

Backstage, Browne explained that the whole show was based on one thing: that generic school uniform. "That was the reason for all the pleated skirts," he said. "But also, I almost wanted to play with people not knowing what was right side up and what was upside down."

A concise explanation — but when your clothes are that intricately crafted, they speak for themselves.