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Thom Browne Thrives With the Conceptual and Commercial

There’s a paradox to the brand in that it's rooted in conservative gray flannel suits, but the runway shows are as fantastical as they come.

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Men'sWeek issue 03/28/2013

There’s a paradox to Thom Browne in that the brand is rooted in conservative gray flannel suits, but the runway shows are as fantastical as they come. The designer’s runway lineups over the years have included such theatrical men’s wear proposals as sequined caftans, fringed skirts, spiked balaclavas and mink merkins, with a Minotaur or astronaut character thrown in for good measure.

This story first appeared in the March 28, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In Browne’s view, there is a carefully plotted method to the madness and everything that goes down the runway is fashioned with the same attention to quality and detail as a classic Thom Browne blazer with grosgrain trim.

“As provocative and as far out as they go, it always does start with a very strong tailored point of view,” he explained of his shows, during an on-stage interview with Men’s Week fashion director Alex Badia. “They are not frivolously thought out or done,” Browne said. “There is a reason for all it.”

One of those reasons is to garner a reaction, whether positive or negative. The shows are “fifteen minutes to make people think and to entertain,” said Browne. “I approach design from a purely conceptual point of view and then I have a commercial part that backs it all up. But I don’t feel like I need to show the commercial side. There are a lot of commercial designers out there … And something that is beautifully made is always fashionable to me.”

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That assured mind-set is earning Browne a groundswell of critical praise of late, for both his men’s and women’s fall shows. Browne started showing women’s on the runway for spring 2012 and landed a headline-making seal of approval from the nation’s fashion-plate-in-chief, Michelle Obama, when she donned his navy silk jacquard dress and coat for her husband’s Presidential inauguration in January.

“It was humbling,” said Browne of his moment in the capital spotlight. “I approach women’s from a tailored point of view, as well. There is a lot of crossover between men’s and women’s in the fabrics. This fabric [for Michelle Obama’s dress] was actually developed alongside my most recent men’s collection.”

While his recent triumphs have turned Browne into one of today’s most compelling names in American fashion, Browne’s early years hardly suggested a path to designer prominence. He was born in 1965 in Allentown, Pa. “I grew up in a family of seven kids and the last thing any of us thought about was fashion. The only thing we ever though about was sports and school,” recalled Browne, whose parents were both attorneys. “We are a very classic American family that grew up in Brooks Brothers and J. Crew and Ralph Lauren.”

Considering careers as a teenager, Browne “didn’t even know there was such a thing as fashion,” and studied business at Notre Dame, graduating in 1988. He moved to New York to work for a consulting firm but was a fish out of water and he quit after nine months, following one particularly bewildering client assignment in Menomonee Falls, Wisc.

Browne moved to Los Angeles in 1993 to try his hand at acting. While that foray didn’t lead to much on-screen or on-stage success, Browne did plant the seeds of his growing interest in fashion there.

“That’s when I unofficially started to design. I used to buy a lot of vintage clothing when I was there because I had a lot of free time,” said Browne. “I would tailor everything down to my size. Because everyone who moves to L.A. gets rid of all their suits, so you go into vintage stores and there are amazing oxford suits and old Brooks Brothers suits.”

Four years later, he sold his car for the cash to move back to New York, where he found his first fashion gig as an account executive at Giorgio Armani in 1997. “I was sitting at my desk with three other account execs who were really good and very computer savvy and I literally didn’t know how to send an e-mail,” is how Browne remembered his unspectacular time there.

In 2000, he joined Club Monaco, which had recently been acquired by Ralph Lauren Corp., working there for two years as creative fashion director. “It was my first foray into really designing and creating product at a totally different level and scale of what I do now,” said Browne. He tried introducing an early version of his slimmed-down suit and cardigans into the Club Monaco assortments but they were a flop at retail.

“It was the dress-down era of men’s fashion, which wasn’t really my thing,” he noted. “I loved wearing jackets and trousers myself and I knew if I liked it, then someone else would like it. Maybe it was before its time, but it just didn’t work.”

In 2002, Browne struck out on his own, launching an appointment-only suit business out of his apartment. “I knew that I wanted to make a suit for the guy who was running away from the suit. I wanted to create a suit that felt as cool as the guy in jeans and a T-shirt. I wanted to take the classic gray suit and change the proportions.”

To the casual observer, the Thom Browne look may be most readily identifiable by the signature high-water trousers, but the designer noted that many of his customers don’t wear their pants in that exaggerated manner. “Everyone gets hung up on the length of the trouser but that was almost to hit the guy in the face. This is something that is classic, but I wanted to have the guy ask why this is happening,” explained Browne.

That “why” is because Browne is partial to the aesthetic proportions of shorter pants with his shorter jacket length. More ideologically, however, it’s a simple way to provoke a reaction from viewers. “The gray suit is so classically inspired, I needed to show it in a way where you almost don’t understand it,” reasoned Browne.

For all its idiosyncrasies, Browne’s clothes at retail attract a divergent range of customers. “I have the young guy that likes fashion and that’s what the collections are for. I have so many customers that want the classic parts of my collection — they want to be the cool guy in the office and wear the suit in a really beautiful, classic way. And that, for me, is just as much fashion as [the runway] is.”

Short pants and shrunken silhouette notwithstanding, the classic gray suit has always been a linchpin of Browne’s repertoire and philosophy. “I wanted to create something that was timeless. That was really important. I had no interest in trends or creating something that was going to be there for a couple years and then re-think, ‘What do I want to do now?’” said Browne. “Because every collection, even as crazy as they are now, they always start from this gray suit.”

Fabrics from the runway collection are sometimes translated into more retail-friendly designs, said Browne. He starts each collection by designing the fabrics himself. “I don’t go to fabric shows because I think it’s so important that we develop our own,” he noted.

A pivotal turning point in Browne’s ascent came in 2004 when Bergdorf Goodman installed a Thom Browne shop in its men’s store. Browne persuaded the retailer to place it on the third floor with its designer labels, rather than on the tailored-clothing floor. “I wanted to be on the fashion floor because that was the floor in my mind that were the people who have shows and provoked people every six months…and moved the ideas forward. I wanted to be with the customer who was understanding that.”

In 2009, Japan-based Cross Co. acquired a majority stake in Thom Browne. The partnership works because each party supports the other’s mission, said the designer. “I’m responsible in that I know that it’s a business. [They] understand the reason for these shows,” he noted.

The Thom Browne label is now sold in 123 stores for men’s and 40 for women’s, with key retail partners including Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, Hankyu, Dover Street Market and Colette. Earlier this month, Browne opened a Tokyo flagship in the fashionable Aoyama district, the company’s second retail unit following its New York store in Tribeca.

Browne currently designs two collaboration labels, Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers that launched in 2007, and Moncler Gamme Bleu that launched in 2009. “I’m so proud of Black Fleece. It’s something that’s become exactly what I wanted it to be. It stands on its own but it also works within the world of Brooks Brothers,” said Browne. “For collaborations to really work, you really have to love what it is and understand it.”

At Moncler, the first garment he designed was a down-filled sport coat. “It was so important to bring that tailored point of view to the world of Moncler. In order for the Moncler brand to grow in the future, [I wanted to] bring more of a collection [idea] as opposed to just being an outerwear company.”

One area of his business that he leaves to others is online strategies — although his e-mail skills have improved from his Giorgio Armani days. “I don’t fight it, but I’m of the generation that didn’t grow up with it,” he noted of his company’s digital commerce and marketing initiatives. “I have people that are so much better at it. I don’t think as much about it as other people do.”