NEW YORK (AP) — Twice a year, New York's Fashion Week crowds have crammed into the lobby of a Chelsea gallery, waiting patiently to descend a staircase and see what bizarre, fantastical, endlessly inventive universe Thom Browne has created for his womenswear show — an otherworldly experience akin to getting lost on the set of a Tim Burton film.
Browne has led his guests into a dark and eerie cathedral, with real pews and crosses, candles and incense. He's brought them to a wood-paneled operating room in an 18th-century hospital. He's created a dreamy winterscape in an urban park in shades of gray, and an eye-popping, multi-hued swimming pool with bathing beauties from another dimension.
New York fashion lovers will have to do without these experiences, now that Browne is moving his womenswear show to Paris. But first, they'll be turning out on Wednesday to see him honored with the prestigious Couture Council award from the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, an annual event that kicks off Fashion Week.
"In my view, his womenswear shows have always been the best in New York — so amazing, incredible and creative," says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at the FIT museum. What's striking, she says, is that given the fantastical nature of Browne's shows — where models are transformed head to toe, with whimsical headdresses and pasty white makeup — his clothes are very wearable.
"Most clothes out there, you kind of think, 'the world doesn't need this,'" Steele quips. "Or, 'I already have this in my closet.' But with him, you're just on tenterhooks, waiting to see what he's going to do."
Given the popularity of Browne's womenswear shows, it might seem surprising that he's still largely known for menswear (he already shows his men's collections in Paris.) Perhaps that's because, with his famous "shrunken" suit — his own personal uniform — he revolutionized menswear, in the eyes of Steele and many others.
But even though his womenswear has been worn by the likes of Michelle Obama — at her husband's second inauguration — Browne should be better known for it, his fans say. And so does he, though he's quick to point out that it's just fine to call him a menswear designer.
"I'm really proud of what I do for menswear, and what I have done for menswear," Browne said in an interview. "But I do want people to see that I am just as focused as on creating something for women. And that is something that I definitely want to change a little bit in the future."
As for the move to Paris — on the heels of similar recent moves by labels like Proenza Schouler, Rodarte and Altuzarra — Browne says it's purely a business decision, aimed at enhancing exposure to his craft, particularly for Asian and European markets.
"It has nothing to do with leaving New York, because I've loved showing in New York and I do see myself as an American designer," he says. "I think in a way, I am putting the pressure on myself to strongly represent American fashion in Paris." Asked if he might reverse the decision one day and bring the shows back to New York, he indicates it's not too likely: "Never say never ... but I'm committing to it."
Steele says she's not surprised by the Paris move. "Paris still has the reputation of first among equals as a fashion capital," she says. "And his clothes are so extraordinary, so out of the ordinary, that everyone thought they deserved the best possible placement in the world."
Browne, a multiple winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America award — for menswear — says he doesn't design with an eye to winning awards. But he says the Couture Council award, to be bestowed at a Lincoln Center luncheon by Whoopi Goldberg, is nonetheless "just a huge honor." Previous winners have included Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnik, Carolina Herrera and Michael Kors, among others.
"Just to see who they've given the award to in the past, it's humbling," he says. Besides, he adds, "Anybody that sustains a business in fashion deserves an award. So I think there are a lot of people that deserve them."