A dozen seven-foot tall canvases lean against the walls of the designer Thom Browne’s Garment District office. They’re pocked with pointillist dots, and at first read like geometric arrays of outsize Braille, a schematic to be completed later, but soon enough they resolve into figures, hyper-minimalist portraits that hover at attention over the surface: a barrel-chested swimmer; a cubic stack of a person; another pinched at the waist so their torso dissolves into pyramidal shapes—they’re like abstractions of fashion sketches boiled down to their basest essence.
From his earliest collections, Browne has made conceptual paintings of his ideas before translating them into workable sketches. This series was inspired by John Singer Sargent, the master of genteel impressionistic portraiture, whose grandeur Browne became enchanted by after first encountering his work on an early age trip to New York.
That inheritance is not exactly immediate, given their spareness, but Browne is a studious apprentice, so much so that he had his canvases measured to Sargent’s preferred size.
“I thought of doing a series that was based on the scale of his portraits,” he said earlier this month in his office, joined by his wire-haired dachshund Hector, who was happily whipping himself into circles. “How I approach both art and fashion has a lot to do with proportion, so I thought it was interesting to play with that in this world. Up until now it's been something I've selfishly just done for myself.”
You wouldn’t expect Browne, who for nearly two decades has been known for his eponymous line of clipped suiting and elaborate runway shows, to have the free time to moonlight, but that’s exactly what he’s been doing for the last seven or so years, painting in his office and stacking finished works unceremoniously against the walls, unbeknownst to his peers and mostly everyone else (Ermenegildo Zegna’s purchase last year of 85 per cent of Thom Browne the company, based on a valuation of $500 million, no doubt opened up some studio time).
Still, Browne has mostly kept it quiet. He’s exhibited exactly one painting exactly once, in 2014, as part of a group show at the Metropolitan Opera, alongside work from Elizabeth Peyton, Francesco Clemente, and Peter Doig, that accompanied a staging of Prince Igor, Borodin’s 1890 epic. Browne’s contribution was an imagined portrait of the Russian folk hero warlord, a pointillist stick figure comprised of crescents floating around a Revolutionary hammer and sickle.
His dance card is about to fill up this December, when Browne makes his Art Basel Miami Beach debut with Palm Tree I, his first public art work, an imposing 21-foot-tall sculpture, which ascends up through the four-story atrium of the Moore Building in the city’s design district. Spliced together from lengths of seersucker, gingham oxford, and pincord in sunny, sherbet colors, Browne’s sculpture braids together his preferred design language with an indelible signifier of American paradise.
Like all of Browne’s displays, there’s a barbed touch. It’s a surreal sight, a palm tree plunged into a black sandpit and with an obsidian mirror hovering overhead, almost as disorienting as seeing New York’s art scene migrated south en masse and clad in open-toed shoes.
Fashion and art have long been familiar bedfellows, and Browne certainly isn’t the first established fashion designer to dabble in visual art—Helmut Lang and Kenzo Takada shifted to sculpture and painting, respectively, after leaving their namesake companies, and Hedi Slimane and Karl Lagerfeld made evocative environmental and portrait photography. (Sterling Ruby is the inverse of this transference, a visual artist who has waded into fashion).
Browne’s clothing hews to a more conceptual thesis than is usually required of ready-to-wear lines. He has presented an accumulative study in uniformity, using a rigorous expression of the by-ways of white collar and preppy dress to prod at the drudgery of American workplace conformity and its blunting effect on the human psyche. His runway shows carry the tint of performance art, fantastical set pieces that conjure a fairy tale gone wrong, a fanciful Bergdorf’s window display hijacked by a night terror. “I do like the idea of something not so pleasant being put in front of people,” he said.
In this way, Palm Tree I fits neatly into Browne’s worldview—a soured American dream turned permanent vacation, the sculpture’s cheerful palette and warm-weather suiting fabrics a marker of our hopeless inability to loosen our lives from our work. Like going to Tulum to prune your Outlook inbox poolside, Browne’s palm tree blinks like a flashing push notification, an unread message from corporate hell. As the art world makes clear every December, even in a tropical paradise, there’s no escape from business.
The palm tree is something of a Proustian madeleine for Browne, who was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania but lived in Miami for a year in the early 70s when he was very young, before the city’s regeneration into a Deco playground for the wealthy. “My mother used to take us down to the beach for lunch,” he said. “I never even realized it until I saw photographs. I think there is something very American in going someplace exotic for vacation, and the palm tree for me represented that.”
Browne insists his sculpture isn’t a commentary on the art fair ecosystem per se, or how feelings around them have soured in recent years, but it’s also not not about that. “I don't know much about art fairs, but I have to say the world in all aspects of how we live has become very commercialized,” he said. “This for me is a pure exercise. In a lot of what I do in my shows, I do want people to see that the 15 minutes that they see there comes from a pure design view. Of course then I do have the commercial world that funds it all.”
Warhol said fashion is more art than art is, but Browne has so far demurred. “I think art is the act of creation, so I think there is an art in creating fashion, but sometimes I don't even label myself as a fashion designer, I just make clothing. That's the same thing in regard to putting things in an art context. I leave that up to other people.”