American Double Vision: Thom Browne & Ralph Lauren

I completely missed the memo on Thom Browne venturing into womenswear with Black Fleece but Cintra Wilson visited his shop for a review. Her conclusion is muted optimism but what really interests me is the contrast she draws between New York designers Ralph Lauren and Mr. Browne, their aesthetic and their ideal suited male.

It’s a slightly gothic twist on the Old Money Athletic Club look, originally reified into postmodern absurdity when Ralph Lauren stuck crusty leather bridles and yellowing crew-team photos on mahogany paneling and pronounced it a lifestyle.

But Black Fleece appears too sensitive for sports. Mr. Browne, like Mr. Lauren, nurtures a fetish for the trappings of Old School Preppy, but the Thom Browne alumnus seems to be a bit more pale, less muscular and more (ahem) eccentric. Picture a cross between Pee-wee Herman and Nurse Ratched, only more obsessive-compulsive

Its a fair observation, though I do not share Wilson's apparent antipathy for Ralph Lauren's perspective, it does serve to highlight the radically different take on American sportswear that Browne has carved out. His niche doesn't glamorize Americana as Lauren is prone to do through amber tinted lenses, instead Browne fetishizes Ivy League exaggerating quirky features into stylish neurosis and turns 60s white collar garb into ritual costume.

Two looks from Ralph and Thom's SS09 collections

Ralph Lauren built an empire on wide ties, elitist country club imagery, and snapshots of sporting memories. He built the power look of the 80s, and his suits remain popular with corporate customers. He carved out an entire narrative for his brand. Personally I find it rather admirable that the Ralph Lauren man can go from the ranch, to the bar, and to the office at the drop of the hat. I sadly hear a lot of young people find Ralph Lauren boring but for me there's nothing boring about buttoning into a Purple Label suit. Call me crazy.

Conversely, it's not surprising that many traditional tailors oppose Browne the designer. Browne says uniformity, not individuality, is the definition of beauty. However, his consistent preoccupation with the quirky accidental and his mechanized view of beauty is very different from the system of a men's clothier. But furthermore, Browne is deeply attatched to off-beat superficial artifacts of preppiness. This was more than apparent in his SS09 "tennis" collection. On the otherhand what is strangely alluring about Browne is just that, the odd subversion of conventional American sportswear circa 1960 into a sometimes uncomfortable mix of pageantry, kitsch, compulsive habit, and asphyxia.

two looks from Thom Browne's Moncler Gamme Bleu collection

While Browne and Lauren couldn't be more different, I feel completely at home with both creators, and I've been inspired by both. There is no reason why gender-bending arty design and more subtle elegant design can't exist in the same world. American fashion, particularly in New York, needs to be able to press forward and express itself more liberally, but there's no reason why certain standards and hallmarks can't be enjoyed simultaneously.


Giancinephile said...

Lauren and Browne are some of the few names that spark up an interest in me in the world of American fashion.

I do think NY has to have more designers who take it out there rather than just banking in on the celebs and commercialism at its worst...

Ian Brown said...

I feel the same way. I would love for NY fashion to grow out of its teenage fixations and fears of acceptability.

Mr. Kim said...

Brilliant post man. Really enjoyed your words!

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