Style-wise, Thom Browne is known to be exacting and a bit buttoned-up. But discussing his transformation from an economics major to an internationally recognized designer, he was open and wry during Wednesday night’s Q&A at 92Y.
Seated on the stage in one of his suits with shorts, Browne fielded 90 minutes of questions from Fern Mallis. The bucket of Veuve Clicquot Champagne between them helped to set a more relaxed mood. Intrigued by people who are perfectly themselves, Browne advised young designers, “The most important thing is staying true to yourselves and don’t get into it if you want to make money. It sounds so simplistic. But if you’re getting into it to make money, you’re going to fall into the commercial trap of not creating interesting things.”
As for how important being famous is, Browne said, “Not important at all. You can’t go into anything really thinking you’re going to make money or be famous. I guess you can, but good luck. The most important thing is that you do something that is true to yourself and that means something.”
His own aspirations include a beauty and fragrance deal, projects outside of fashion and a more vigorous e-commerce business, as his company continues to marry the conceptual with the commercial. But this month’s show in Paris comes first.
Raised in what he described as a “quintessentially classic American Catholic upbringing” in Allentown, Penn., Browne and his six siblings used to get dressed up for church on Sunday. But in general they “didn’t really care about clothes,” counting on a J. Crew or Lands’ End catalogue if they needed a sweater or anything, Brown said. His two sisters wear Thom Browne but his attorney brothers haven’t crossed the line. “They still don’t realize that they can, but they can. I don’t push that onto them, no,” he said.
In their tight-knit family, sports have been more of a constant with Thanksgiving football games often ending with broken limbs. His daily routine now includes an eight-mile run, but his athleticism is more amphibious. Not your average public school kid, Browne and his sister attended an out-of-district public high school so they could continue to swim competitively. (Their parents paid tuition.) From the age of eight through his senior year at Notre Dame University, Browne swam — training four to six hours a day in college. “The one thing with my parents was they were always so open and so good with all of us. All they ever really wanted us to do was to be good at something,” he said.
An economics major, Browne said he had no clue what he wanted to do in the working world. “My life started after school and my education started after school.” Browne said his first post-grad job at a New York consulting firm lasted nine months. “Hated it…I was in Elkhart, Ind. at the Selmer company. They make Gibson guitars and I was literally costing out the pieces that go into a guitar.”
After leaving that job, Browne spent a few years in Los Angeles working as a production assistant and acting in commercials. “That’s why my name is ‘Thom.’ I had to change it for my SAG card. There was a Tom Brown so I had to change my name to Thom John Browne. Fascinating, isn’t it?” On the West Coast, he first connected with Libertine’s Johnson Hartig because he was “the only other person in L.A. who I ever saw who was wearing a sport coat.” The two became fast friends, reworking their vintage store finds. “That proportion I was doing with those vintage suits was basically the proportion that started my collection 10 years later,” Browne said.
Asked about the scene at that time, the designer said, “It was L.A. Everyone’s in T-shirts and jeans, and no style at all. Unless they are getting it for free.”
Back in New York after a few years on the West Coast, Browne joined Giorgio Armani first as a receptionist before moving into the wholesale department. Aside from being the only employee buying 36-short suits, Browne had to learn how to e-mail. “They looked at me like, ‘Who is this guy? He is an account executive and he doesn’t even know how to…”
Ready to move on, Browne through Charles Fagan met Ralph Lauren who hired him to design for Club Monaco. “I designed everything that we couldn’t give away. I wanted to bring tailored clothing into the world of Club Monaco, which was really the precursor to my first collection. And it was not successful,” Browne said.
In 2001, Browne self-funded his own company and ran it from his apartment, “Initially, I made five suits for myself, I wore them around and people laughed at me, wondering, ‘Why don’t his clothes fit him?’ But I wanted to do something that made people see something differently…If you don’t push tailored clothing really far, it just becomes another piece of clothing. And that doesn’t mean anything. Why do it?”
The designer said he learned everything about making clothing from “the best tailor in the world” Rocco Ciccarelli, who did his conceptual clothes up until a few years ago. While buying Ciccarelli’s facility to try to bring back high-level tailoring to New York didn’t pan out, the designer still makes a lot of his women’s items in New York, and some men’s options.
Recalling how Browne handwrote the labels for his collections for years, he said. “It got to the point that I had thousands of white oxford shirts in my living room and I would set aside weekends to write the labels on the shirts. At that point, I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore. Of course every store thinks, ‘Oh, you can’t give this up.’ I was like, ‘I have to give it up.’”
Reminded of such well-known clients as the Four Seasons’ Julian Niccolini and Jon Dempsey, Brown described his clients “as someone who appreciates clothing.” Still thankful to Colette and Bergdorf Goodman for being the first stores to buy his label, Brown said Anna Wintour connected him with Brooks Brothers, which led to a nine-year collaboration. Robert Rabensteiner linked him to Moncler for his Gamme Bleu line. As much as he loved working with Harry Winston on a one-off line for men’s, Browne said “Jewelry is really tough. I wanted to do watches that were so not commercial. The world of watches are so huge and I can’t stand big watches. I primarily wear women’s watches because I like the size of them [laughs.] That’s very telling.”
Ninety percent of his runway shows go into production and previous collections are archived in Long Island City. “I approach the shows and the collections in a way that I would love for them to have a second life and be somewhere else like a museum or in an exhibition,” Browne said.
Reminded of how Michelle Obama wore Thom Browne to her husband’s inaurguration in 2013 and other key occasions, Browne said, “What was amazing about her was she knew what she liked and she knew how she wanted to look. When people know their style and have a true sense of themselves, that’s what is so appealing to me.”
Business-wise, the coverage didn’t make that much difference, but “I think people knew that I did women’s,” he said. As for dressing First Lady Melania Trump, Browne said, “Look, I respect her as the First Lady and it is something that I would respect.”
Naming Rei Kawakubo and Rick Owens as designers he admires (not to mention John Bartlett for his shows), Browne said, “The people that I respond to a very true to themselves. That doesn’t mean just on a conceptual level. If you are a commercial designer and that’s who you are and how you approach design, then great.”
Regarding how he watches “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” Browne gently corrected Mallis with “we watch.” Asked about the appeal, the designer said, “They’ve created a business in themselves.”
In recent years, Browne opened a store in Tokyo and secured an investment from Sandbridge Hill Capital. His 130-person staff “is very focused on embracing the world we live in” including expanding e-commerce. “The most important thing is to do it in your own way…I think it is really pretentious if you don’t embrace what is going on right now. I mean I buy everything online like Champagne and first dibs.” Asked what else he buys online, Browne said, “That’s it.”
Asked whether his partner Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has influenced any of his collections, Browne said, “Andrew’s knowledge of fashion influences me every day. I think Andrew is the most important person in fashion because of his knowledge and how at the museum he elevates fashion to a level that justifies the work that goes into it.”