If Carine Roitfeld is tired of fashion shows that feel like "a medical conference," she should go to one of Thom Browne's. She'd have to stand as she watched, and front row is first come, first serve, but she'd get a show. This afternoon, when guests to Browne's spring 2012 womenswear show walked into his show space, a beautiful airy room in the third floor of the New York Public Library, the first thing they saw was a mermaid in a white bustier and a sequined silver tail holding court in the center of the set. Behind her was a lifeguard perched on a stand. To the right of her was a model in a long white feathered dress wearing a white hat adorned with two white dove figures. She stood in an oversize birdcage.
The set was a fully furnished living room, complete with a liquor cabinet and old-fashioned record player. After guests took positions behind velvet ropes, the show began with a model who strode out wearing a gray blazer, the shoulders stuffed up to her ears, and a midi-length mermaid skirt adorned with sailboats. She walked in and patted the mermaid's cheek. She went on to pet the bird, "light a cigarette" in a long holder, and greet the "servants" modeling near the liquor cabinet. She mimed pouring a glass of Champagne, and then turning on the record player. Just as she did, twenties jazz music started playing, the mermaid started dancing in her seat, the bird started bobbing in her cage, and "guests" started arriving.
Out came the models in all variety of Thom Browne–ery, many looks some variation on his signature gray suiting. But there were also dresses made with shimmering green fringe and bouquets of fake yellow flowers — which the models, never breaking character, fondled occasionally. The girls air-kissed, danced, pretended to drink, playfully slapped each other on the tush, and even carried on fake conversations. "Did you try the Champagne?" one said to the other. "It's good even though it was so cheap." The scene of them, all done up in their new Thom Browne, was as delightful as the clothes. One pair of sleeves dangled almost to the floor and ended in lobster claws. One necklace worn in a single loop hung past a model's knees and was made entirely of rubber duckies.
The silver mermaid, who sat in the middle of the room the whole time and didn't move save for her seated dancing, wasn't entirely out of context given that so many skirts in the show were a mermaid silhouette. But Browne decides not to assign too much meaning to it all after the show, which he tells me was inspired by twenties silent film noir but with added "whimsy" — rubber duckies, caged bird, etc. Casting models who can act, he admitted, is "not so easy" (the mermaid is a personal friend of his who agreed to do the show). But in a season where the lack of showmanship in fashion is so lamented, he gives a good simple reason for delivering just that each season. "I like to put a story behind it," he says. "I think it makes it more memorable."