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Art Basel Miami Beach 2019: Thom Browne Makes His Artist Debut

Kristen Tauer

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While many fashion designers were in town for Art Basel Miami Beach to celebrate their brand’s collaboration with an artist, Thom Browne was both the designer and the artist. Browne made his fine art debut during the fair, exhibiting his first art sculpture, “Palm Tree I,” in the Moore Building Atrium in the Design District just around the corner from his boutique. The full-scale palm tree was tailored in preppy pastel fabrics, situated in a square plot of black sand underneath a black mirror within the otherwise industrial building. (Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch’s group exhibition “The Extreme Present” was concurrently shown in an adjacent space.)

“I strongly feel like it does deserve to live in a world of its own, and in the art world,” said Browne of the sculpture. “That’s how I want people to see it, because I love what I do in fashion, I love the shows, I love that business. But I do things that I think can fit within the art world as well, so it’s nice to separate it and have the fashion take a back seat for once.”

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In addition to his sculpture, Browne has been painting for many years, although he has never shown his work publicly. Here, the designer discusses his approach to fine art and how it relates to his fashion design practice.

WWD: How did you come to make “Palm Tree I”?
Thom Browne: It’s almost symbolic of the last 15 years, of how I actually have been doing installations and I’ve been painting in my office as well. I got to the point that it was important that I actually had these installations, that were in my specific fashion shows, and reinterpret them in a way that they could fit in the art world. And getting this opportunity to use this space here in Miami, I had the idea of this story of the American dream and being represented by the palm tree tailored in all of these American preppy fabrics.

WWD: Did you connect with Craig Robbins to bring [“Palm Tree I”] here?
T.B.: I’ve known Craig just because of the store, and he offered us the space [in the Moore Building]. I was familiar with [the group exhibition] space, because I’ve been to the group shows before. But I’d never seen this space, and it just screams for something really tall. I have had this idea of the tree, but you need the space in order to be able to show it. But I did know that I wanted to contain it in a way that made people actually want to look up into the mirror, because I think there’s something really nice about that.

WWD: Are you exploring different ideas through sculpture and painting than you are through fashion?
T.B.: I think they relate really closely, because I’ve been painting in my sketches for my collections for the last 10 years, and I approach them purely as from a painting point of view. It’s not like I’m thinking about how it will relate to fashion, but they indirectly relate very strongly.

WWD: In terms of your painting practice, what’s your process like? How often are you painting?
T.B.: It all depends on how much time I have. I think everything in general needs to happen through how much time I have. But also to the approach being from a very noncommercial point of view, this whole thing for me is really special because I don’t want anybody to see any type of commerciality behind it. It’s a pure design, artistically approached piece of art. And the same thing with my paintings, too. Almost selfishly I was initially just doing them for myself. And then I just really loved doing it. So it’s a lot of work in my office, just because of the joy that I get out of doing it.

WWD: You free yourself from expectation.
T.B.: I have to adhere to the schedule and be responsible to the [Thom Browne] business, because that’s so important to me as well. This is an outlet that’s totally devoid of any type of commercial expectations, which is so refreshing. And also I think it enhances my fashion work in a way, because sometimes when people just see fashion it becomes very one-dimensional, and I think this adds a really good dimension to just everything I do. And I think that is important for people to see.

WWD: What subjects have you been painting? Are they similar to the Thom Browne world?
T.B.: It’s very connected because it’s me doing it. They relate to conceptual sketches I do from my collections, so there is a connection there. They’re very conceptual sketches, so you don’t really see how workable they are within the fashion world, because they do then ultimately get translated into fashion sketches that are workable. There is connection but it’s not direct. But they are very minimal. I love Cubism so there is a little bit of reference and I think inspiration from that world, but a very nonliteral reference.

WWD: Are you looking to do an exhibition of your paintings down the road?
T.B.: The paintings are very special for me because I do them start to finish. When you do an installation like this, you do actually have people who fabricate it, and so the concept is there, and the idea and the story comes from me, but I need people that can fabricate it. So the one thing that makes painting really special is that it is 100 percent me.

WWD: Do you plan to exhibit at any point?
T.B.: Who knows? I feel like this is just a start with the idea of exploring this world. And so we’ll see.

WWD: What have you been seeing during Art Basel?
T.B.: I just did a talk at the Rubell Musuem, and just meeting Mera, it’s overwhelming in how inspiring they both are [Mera and Don Rubell] in regards to their approach to collecting art and their appreciation to just creation. And they say this themselves, you don’t need to have money to start collecting; just use your instincts, and it really just comes from the appreciation.

WWD: Are you looking for any art for your new house?
T.B.: Yeah, we just bought a house [in Manhattan]. That we did. We have about a year and a half to finish the house, so we have some pieces.

WWD: Does “Palm Tree I” have a home after Miami?
T.B.: I don’t know where it’s going, but it is very site specific, so it is something that I hope somebody will embrace, and I’d love to see it housed by somebody that appreciates it.

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