In the last six years, Thom Browne has revolutionised menswear. Not for a long while has a new menswear designer inspired such debate, ridicule, passion, outrage, respect and love. By shortening the trouser leg a few ankle-skimming inches, Browne has redefined the wardrobe of the modern man, caused fervor in the more reserved menswear fashion industry and made wearing a suit everyday cool again. The 2006 winner of the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers America (CFDA) award for best Menswear Designer, his collections demonstrate a level of sophistication, wit and luxury previously missing from menswear. His shrink-wrapped, and much-coveted silhouette has since been referenced by his peers and the highstreet and with his much lauded latest collection and his concession line with American clothier Brooks Brothers now in its second season, i-D met up with the New York based designer to discuss the motivations behind his work.
SAT NEXT TO US at a table in the impossibly perfect setting of Claridges hotel central London, handsome designer Thom Browne is decked out in his trademark, ankle-skimming suit and narrow matching tweed tie. Smaller than you may have imagined, with slight frame and square jaw, he speaks softly and is not wearing any socks. A one-time actor with no formal fashion training, Browne worked the floor of Giorgio Armani’s showroom, before moving to the Ralph Lauren owned Club Monaco where Ralph noticed his creative flair and put him to work in their design and merchandising departments, then in 2001 Thom left to start work on his self-named fashion house.
In a world where the average man’s wardrobe consists of T-shirt and jeans, his aesthetic – ‘50s, ‘60s Americana, in particular Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, and JF Kennedy – suddenly feels entirely fresh. “My designs are never a direct reference to the past,” Browne begins, “they’re an essence of how people used to live, maybe drinking and smoking a little too much and really enjoying themselves.” Paying homage to the good life was paramount at Browne’s spring/summer 08 catwalk presentation. Palm trees, sand, lifeguards and crashing waves signified the leisure theme as Browne premiered a swimwear line alongside his perfectly tailored three-piece suits. Models donned swimming caps, sun-goggles and surfboards as trunks were paired with matching jackets, cheek-skimming shorts and unitard bathing suits, whilst varsity stripes decorated everything from Olympic swimming towels to cropped cricket jumpers and polo shirts.
Browne’s clothes simultaneously deal with proportions and politrickery; none more so than his signature grey suit with a shredded American flag sewn into the infrastructure. Although this sparked internet debates on the downfall of America as a super-power and the disintegration of time-honoured American values, Browne is quick to dismiss them all with a roar, insisting he is not the politically motivated designer people take him for. “I want my shows to be entertaining and for people to have a good time,” he affirms, “but sometimes people look at certain things and read too much into it. That’s not the point. If you want to laugh, laugh.” And with giant codpieces, sported amongst A-line capes and knee-high socks, a little giggle was compulsory.
Keen to introduce a couture spirit to menswear, the most spectacular piece in his spring/summer 08 collection was the suit made entirely of fabric roses; six exquisitely embroidered visions of perfection in black, white and grey. “Couture has always been about womenswear,” he laments. “I want to change that.” Substituting leaves and war paint for festoons of flowers, he created the 21st century version of camouflage. Each suit took over two weeks to make, and effortlessly stole the show. “When you see them in person it has this beautiful quality,” Browne informs. “It was very, very, expensive to make. But was worth it just to see the reaction of people at the shows.”
“I’ve shown shorts with jackets from the first season, and everyone thinks ‘Wow that’s so crazy!’ and I still don’t understand why.” Thom Browne
Thom mastered the art of exquisite tailoring through a crash course with his tailor (who he refuses to name for fear of poaching), whom he met through an old job he needed samples for. Blown away by said tailor’s skill, Browne decided if he was ever to branch out on his own, recruiting him was a necessity. “There are only a couple of really good tailors left in the US,” Browne informs, “but he really understood my need to shake things up a bit. He’s open to doing different things rather than just your standard tailoring.” Today Thom’s tailor always expects to be surprised but he will never say never to Thom, however outlandish the idea, however slim the silhouette and however shortened the proportions. The precise and intimate work that takes place between them is what makes Browne’s designs so expensive (the average Thom Browne suit costs upwards of $3000). “They’re made in a way that we can’t cut costs,” Thom explains somewhat sheepishly. “I’m very conscious of it. But I’m also very conscious that I don’t want to do something that I’m not really proud of. It’s all about quality. I don’t make disposable clothing.” Stocked in the most exclusive stores in the world – Barneys New York, Colette Paris, Dover Street Market London and Loveless Tokyo – Thom Browne out prices many designers two to one, and even if you could afford one, there’s still no guaranteeing you’d be able to get one tailored to your size, such is the extremity of Browne’s silhouette. It is this supreme exclusivity that makes owning a piece of Browne so covetable. His suits are so bespoke, so lavishly exorbitant, so utterly and totally to-die-for that you’d be forgiven for selling your own soul to buy one.
Revolutionising menswear has its pitfalls, and for all those who have applauded, they have been those who have chastised Browne’s approach. His designs have been accused of being faddish, over-rated and perhaps most poignantly, insulting. “Honestly I don’t know why people go so crazy. You see it when I walk down the street.” Do people stop you? “No, they laugh or point. It’s great; I wanted to do something interesting. The last thing we need is just another suit.” Not that Browne could ever be accused of making ‘just another suit’. His work challenges the traditional constructs of modern menswear and re-evaluates the whole consensus of male dress. From kids pointing in the streets, to concealed guffaws by pedestrians, to blatant wolf whistles from brazen builders, wearing a Thom Browne suit is a fast track to attention. “At the airport it’s especially funny,” he continues, “there are so many everyday people in and around an airport, you just want to ask them ‘didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s rude to stare?’”
A creature of habit, Thom’s aesthetic is disciplinary, down to everything from his design, to his daily routine, to the way he dresses. “I wear the same grey suit, and eat the same breakfast everyday,” he asserts, “and that will always be part of what I do.” Thom designs to classical music and insists he owns no casual clothes, not even a pair of jeans, before cheekily divulging, “The only time you see me out of my clothes is if I’m not wearing any.” Apart from when he’s in his running gear, which he dons at precisely the same time every morning for his daily jog.
Thom’s precise approach made him the perfect contender for Brooks Brothers’ Black Fleece concept. Launched in the UK last November, Black Fleece is the first capsule collection for the 190-year-old brand, by a guest designer. “I’m really proud of the collection,” Browne informs, “it reminds me of the clothing I remember Brooks Brothers for, and remember my father wearing when I was a child.” As the oldest American clothier, accredited for introducing America to the ready-to-wear suit and personifying classic American style, Brooks Brothers is close to Browne’s heart. Before launching his own label the designer would buy old Brooks Brother’s suits from thrift stores and cut them down to resemble the aesthetic he’s known for today. Consisting of 50 looks for men and women including a full range of accessories, key pieces in Browne’s Black Fleece collection include slim suits and jackets with fur-trims, Cordovan leather wingtip shoes and cropped riding trousers in navy, black and you guessed it… grey. The collection is also Thom’s first foray into womenswear – “I really wanted to bring a serious man’s hand-tailoring to the girls.” Something he achieved with boxy suits, tweed capes and glamorous A-line evening gowns. “For me it’s real Brooks Brothers. Real in the sense it will hopefully elevate the whole brand too.”
Often when designers experiment with menswear it swerves towards camp or theatricality, but with Browne, whether it’s a beach towel or codpiece, his vision is consistent and purposefully male. “I am very conscious to ensure everything I do is masculine,” he informs, “I think there’s nothing worse when it does cross the line.” Keen to champion men with a true sense of individual style, it comes as little surprise that Japan has bought most heavily into his aesthetic. An aesthetic, he insists, suits all. “It fits a lot more guys than people think,” he informs. With a store in New York’s Meatpacking District, catering for both private appointments and ready-to-wear essentials – “the store is the world my clothing inhabits, a very mid century, ‘50s, ’60s, institutional mid-western bank” – Browne’s certain there’s a piece of Thom Browne out there for everyone.
“In the future I hope men have more confidence in trying new things as opposed to being selfconscious and wanting to blend in,” Browne asserts. With phrases ‘that’s very Thom Browne’ and ‘that’s not very Thom Browne’ already in the fashion vocabulary, and an ever-growing clan of fans who buy into the House Of Browne like a secret handshake and bare their ankles with pride, Browne has the future of menswear firmly tucked inside his inch and a half regimented turn up. Busy putting the finishing touches to his autumn/winter 08 collection, he states, “if I’m making myself a little nervous by what I’m doing, that’s when I know I’m doing something right. I don’t have any interest in doing what’s going to go away tomorrow. I’m going to do something people will remember.”
THOM BROWNE’S TOP TO TOE WARDROBE GUIDE SHOES: “Heavy black-leather wingtip shoes with no socks.” SOCKS: “If you’re going to wear socks you have to wear knee-highs.” TROUSERS: “Make sure they sit right at the top of the ankle. I tell my customers if they want to be more comfortable their trouser leg can hit the top of the shoe, but it must not break on to the shoe. My trouser length is 2-3 inches shorter than normal, with a turn-up as well.” SHIRT: “Everyone should own a white round-collared shirt. Unironed. If everything’s made so seriously you do have to give a feeling of ‘I don’t really care that much’. There’s nothing more boring then some guy who looks like he spends too much time getting ready.” TIE: “Your tie should be worn long, with the tip of the tie tucked in to the top of the trousers. A tie bar looks good too.” WATCH: “I do love watches. Every man should have a watch. I always find vintage watches the most interesting. Everything today is so big; I like watches that are a lot smaller and tighter and closer to the arm.” GREY SUIT JACKET: “I always wear a grey jacket. There’s something so beautiful about grey. There are so many beautiful shades. It’s so timeless and rich.”