Discover the surrealist theatrics of Thom Browne’s Haute Couture FW23 show

The designer immerses us into the world of underwater opera for his debut Haute Couture collection in Paris.

Thom Browne is a master of theatrics, and his debut Haute Couture Parisian FW23 collection was his best performance yet. Set on the stage of the Opéra Garnier, voluptuous silhouettes took to the runway like a wave of characters from the imagination of Browne had spilled out in one swift movement.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Thom Browne if there wasn’t an element of the athletic Americana, but with the added operatic theme, a new aesthetic lay across the garments. Behind the stage were 2000 cutout figures, all wearing the signature Browne uniform. Attendees entered into a space as though a scene from the creative’s mind was projected across the auditorium. Seats were placed on the stage, positioned across to meet the gaze of these two-dimensional onlookers in a Browne-army style stare-off.

Usually, when designers present in Paris, there is an element of French culture that is swept up in the design process. But for Browne, he is always bending the rules to fit into his world, and even in the realms of a signature European opera setting, American fashion took hold. Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’ track filled the room – aptly detailing the muted tones that were about to head onto the stage. The first look held the brand’s classic jacket and kilt pairing, walking around a pile of dark grey luxury luggage carriers discarded in the middle of the stage. Grey suits got an haute couture upgrade, with swirling surrealist-inspired patterns printed on, and bulging curves on the arms and hips welcoming a new era for the straight-lace tailored silhouette seen many a time previously.

It’s a risk that paid off, however, with one of the standout looks playing with the illusion of a knee-length tailored piece that sat in front of a larger patterned skirt and wide arms. A bell-shaped hat was pulled over the eyes like a futurism-inspired helmet, as though there were an element of space-age undertones that ran beneath parts of this collection. Patchwork checks, embroidered stripes, and short suits were laden with strong tweed, clusters of sequins, and even winding lengths of rope. Nautical iconographies lay across the garments, and what could have been an overwhelming amalgamation of patterns was broken up by embellished sea creatures, fish scales, anchors, and lighthouses. 

With exaggerated shapes and dramatic lines came the off-centre hair pieces and pop of neon eyeshadows and metallic lip shades in the model’s make-up. The most striking part of the collection was its resemblance to AI, as though someone had run the idea through a digital space to create this meeting of operatic underwater worlds. But the touches of realism and functioning illusions showed this was only possible for an actual creative to conduct – a rather grounding realisation that may not have been the initial intent.

Even in this surrealist world, Browne’s work was almost instantly recognisable as his own – a feat achieved through a mainstay of designs throughout his two-decade-long career. Times change and reality is warped, yet the designer is steadfast. With each of his collections, there is an evident progression for the brand that can sometimes feel somewhat predictable. Yet for FW23, this was a leap into a new era that built on signature styles and catered to an evolving audience. It was Browne as we know it in a new world altogether.

WriterElla Chadwick
PhotographersEdward Wendt and Patricia Castellanos