Thom Browne has a new backer. Sandbridge Capital, the private equity firm affiliated with Tommy Hilfiger, has acquired a majority stake in Thom Browne New York from Japan’s Stripe International, formerly the Cross Company, which became involved with Browne’s business in 2009. Cross initially took a 20 percent stake in the company and upped it to a 67 percent controlling interest later that year.
Speculation that Cross was looking to sell its stake in Thom Browne surfaced last year with Sandbridge as a potential suitor. The New York-based consumer and retail-focused firm was formed in 2012 with the involvement of a group of fashion industry heavyweights, including Hilfiger and former Gucci Group chief executive officer Domenico De Sole, who are both senior advisers to the firm. Sandbridge’s stable already includes stakes in Derek Lam, Tamara Mellon, Farfetch, Rossignol, Topshop and Karl Lagerfeld.
“Thom is a singular talent in the fashion industry,” Ken Suslow, managing partner at Sandbridge, told WWD. “He’s been on our radar for quite some time now. We really believe in him and trust him in a way that’s really important when you’re taking a majority stake in his business. He’s one of the few designers with a deep vision that we believe in.”
Both de Sole and Hilfiger will be involved with Thom Browne as senior advisers to Sandbridge.
“Thom is a force in the fashion world. He is one of the most talented designers in the industry. He changed the way men wear tailored clothing,” said Hilfiger. His investment is a personal one and is not connected to PVH Corp., which owns the Tommy Hilfiger brand.
The exact terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Suslow, who will be non-executive chairman of Thom Browne, said Sandbridge acquired the majority of Stripe’s stake. The Japanese apparel firm will retain a minority holding in the company, which is said to do more than $60 million in annual sales. Browne did not sell any shares in the transaction, which will close at the end of the month.
“There is so much that I want to do, and what is exciting about Ken and Sandbridge is their long-term vision for the business,” said Browne. “As a team, we will be able to truly build the business and still keep the true vision of Thom Browne.”
The designer is eager to grow and capitalize on the momentum he’s built with a recent string of critically successful women’s wear collections, and the distinctive men’s tailoring on which the label was founded and which still drives the business. The split is 65 to 35, men’s to women’s, with 172 men’s distribution points and 78 women’s. There are 14 shops-in-shop in stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Dover Street Market, Isetan, Hankyu, Selfridges and Le Bon Marché, as well as three stand-alone stores — in New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Overall, the business has grown by 400 percent in the last three years.
Since founding his men’s wear collection in 2001, Browne has become one of the most directional showmen in American fashion. It’s a reputation he’s earned via an unwavering brand vision of fine-tuned classic tailoring with an obsessive, nearly fetishistic streak. His unusual suit proportions — cropped pants and shorts with shrunken jackets — put Browne on the map, and he lives and breathes the aesthetic, rarely appearing in public in anything but his signature suits. He asks that all of his employees do the same, at least while they’re on the clock. Uniforms are one of Browne’s fixations: His 35th Street studio in New York could be mistaken for a stylishly strange Catholic school.
“I got started because I wore this and I loved it,” Browne told WWD last year. “And the idea of people seeing it on the streets — it’s free advertising.”
It’s a look that demands attention, as do the theater-grade runway productions Browne has been mounting for his men’s collections since 2006, when he put his guys on ice skates to show off their short suits in motion. Browne won the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award in 2006 and 2013. In 2007, Brooks Brothers hired him to launch its Black Fleece collection, but that line was discontinued as of fall 2015. He also designs for Moncler Gamme Bleu, bringing the same theatricality to that outerwear brand’s shows in Milan with collections inspired by sports ranging from cricket and rowing to fencing and boxing.
When Browne launched his women’s collection in 2011, the market greeted him with skepticism, wary of the men’s tailor muscling onto the crowded women’s schedule with grandiose productions featuring nuns disrobed by altar boys and models wearing feathers in birdcages. But his imaginative conviction made everyone look, and soon they realized they liked what they saw. He’s gone from minor curiosity to can’t-miss show, including his most recent fall runway, a spectacular poetic story of Depression-era women making due stylistically. Browne and Suslow see major growth potential in the women’s market. Despite his outré runways, Browne’s women’s line is based on traditional men’s tailoring.
The designer introduced his first women’s pre-collections two years ago, which have had a big sales impact. His small but growing accessories, shoes and handbag collections are being developed. “I have the perfect bag that I’m dying for girls to wear,” Browne has said of the Mrs. Thom doctor’s bag. He’s also interested in fragrances for men and women.
Suslow didn’t elaborate on strategy, but mentioned expanding Browne’s wholesale and retail network in the U.S., Europe and Asia, as well as opportunities in e-commerce and licensing. “We’ll have all the pieces fit together in terms of growing the business in a smart way that always remains true to Thom’s vision of craftsmanship,” said Suslow.
Indeed, fabric development and production are two things Browne takes very seriously. So much so that in 2014, he purchased the hand-tailoring facility run by his longtime tailor Rocco Ciccarelli, who was looking to sell the company but retain his legacy. Browne was the ideal buyer once he was financially capable. Last summer, to christen New York Fashion Week: Men’s, he introduced a collection of made-to-measure suits produced in Ciccarelli’s facility, where he can ensure the highest level of production as well as keep things made in New York, a concept in which Browne is deeply invested.