What's the point of fashion week?

The menswear shows in Milan and Paris came and went a few weeks ago. The shows themselves were fine but it did get me thinking, designers are kind of damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  Give us crazy, post-apocalyptic, fantasy shows and we cry – ‘where’s the reality?’  Give us 50 grey suits in a row and we demand theatrics.

For some of these businesses this is it, their whole advertising budget blown in a 15 minute extravaganza. For the next six months the photos, videos, tweets and blogs that result from it will be their everything.  That and the coverage in magazines and papers, remember them? 

It takes months to put one together. There's the guest list, the look book, the location, lighting and catwalk (or not), the models, the hair and makeup, then the clothes and the styling.  All this has to be distilled into a jaw dropping multimedia event of the highest order. Some get it very right and some miss the point entirely. 

What about someone like Thom Browne?  It is very easy to sit back and armchair critique someone like Browne -  for the uninitiated, think JFK raiding Pee Wee Herman’s closet.  The proportions are shrunken, short and small.  It is decidedly ‘fashion’.  Browne has a sophisticated atelier and store in New York where the prices are really only accessible to the extremely well heeled - his attention to detail and construction techniques make his clothes prohibitively expensive.

Take a look at the photo above. Hilarious, right? Well, yes, and probably well worth the scorn. But Browne is a clever man and also the recipient of the Council of Fashion Designers of America's (CDFA) best menswear award in 2006. This suggests more than a little business nous.  This photo was from his last show in Paris, his first show there, and probably not his last as he broadens his horizons.  The location was the French Communist Party headquarters, a building designed by modernist master Oscar Niemeyer. So location has been chosen with a casual nod to history, style and relative obscurity. 

Then he delivers a collection full of Bermuda shorts and jackets cut three inches up the arm revealing all of the shirt cuff if not more of the sleeve in the process.  To finish, tall, knee-high socks of stocking like weight and voila, Le Thom Browne a la Paris. 

If I’m honest, I'd rate this as a tame outing.  Wedding dresses in wool flannel with full tulle underskirts on men have been his raison d’etre in recent years.  This is his image and aesthetic, Browne otherwise makes conservative pieces in traditional suitings.  His work, up close, would verge on boring if it weren’t for the proportions, but many times guests, reporters and photographers have been left aghast and on the verge of all-out laughter only to have Browne make his appearance at the end with a wry grin and casual swagger to let everyone know that he knows too.  He’s well and truly in on the joke.

So what’s the point, why risk it?  Anyone can sell suits and most of them are sold like any other consumable.  Browne's approach is to give us the works.  He lays it on thick, he gives us a story, both the one he has told us and the one we’ll no doubt pass on.  He’s an artist and creator, and he’s authentic and credible. He has been altering his suits for years as he slowly honed his unique style.  He believes in the craft and has kept tailoring alive and in the spotlight ever since his emergence. 

His influence may have slowed in the last few seasons but his short jackets have ruled the zeitgeist and guided the direction of many designers.  For this reason he is important and will continue to exist.  His shows might polarise, but for those who get it and understand his wit and intelligence, shelling out some serious clams for his bespoke suits will be the only way to fly.

So what do you think?  Too far fetched or strangely intriguing and deserving of a closer look?

This article What's the point of fashion week? was originally published in The Age.