Thom Browne, New York’s most theatrical and polarizing men’s wear designer, makes his European debut next week, showing his fall collection at the Pitti Immagine Uomo fair in Florence.
As Pitti’s featured guest designer — an honor bestowed on Walter Van Beirendonck, Adam Kimmel and Kris Van Assche in recent seasons — Browne has an opportunity to reach people in the market who perhaps haven’t seen his New York shows and don’t know what he stands for. So for this season he reconsidered the avant-garde antics and perverse, themed spectacles his New York audiences have come to expect.
Like countless women’s wear designers, Browne has a history of including outlandish showpieces that are meant to stir the imagination or set a mood for a runway show without regard for practicality or commercial viability. But this common practice in women’s wear doesn’t go over the same in men’s wear, and sets up Browne’s detractors to dismiss his work as “unwearable” or “a joke.” In defense, Browne’s fans say he delivers a much-needed goosing to American men’s wear, which certainly isn’t often celebrated for provocation or wild creativity.
For his part, the designer always says it is his goal to incite strong responses, favorable or not. Therefore, one might expect him to dial up the absurdity for European audiences, who are known to have a higher tolerance for it. But it wouldn’t be like Browne to do something widely acceptable. He always seeks to upend the status quo. Next Wednesday, the audience will determine whether he succeeded.
“A lot of Europeans don’t know me,” Browne said. “So I wanted to do something very signature. This presentation shows where it all started and what I’m all about.”
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Where it all started is with a gray suit.
Browne left a design job at Club Monaco to open a bespoke tailoring shop in New York’s Meatpacking District. His signature suit, with cropped and tapered pants, arrived on the downtown scene in 2001, and before anyone could sneer, “Where’s the flood?” the hems of the male fashion editors began inching upward, at least until the fabric lost the break at the ankle, and then, maybe higher. In combination with Browne’s extremely square, mid-century, businesslike aesthetic, the creepy new leg subverted not only saggy pants but also America’s wholesome, preppy self-image.
The shrunken, ankle-baring silhouette received an official stamp of approval of sorts when Browne won the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year Award in 2006 — not that the award settled the issue. The men’s industry remains divided over Browne’s merits. In one camp, people still ridicule “Pee Wee Herman pants,” as well as “the wedding dress” and “the chicken suit,” which were memorable showpieces. But in the other camp — the smaller one where people tend to be more fiercely devoted to fashion — Browne is a vanguard. In fact, a small number of men zealously wear the relatively conservative and distinctly tailored clothes from his commercial collections the same way he does — as a tidy uniform. Countless more men have adopted a leaner suit silhouette that was inspired by Browne, though they may not even know it.
What is no longer disputed is Browne’s influence, especially not since he caught the eye of Brooks Brothers. That bastion of American sartorial orthodoxy unexpectedly chose Browne to design its Black Fleece collection in 2007. The clothes are a snugly cut hybrid of Brooks and Browne — traditional fabrics, modern shape — which is not too much of a stretch for a designer who always evidently channeled classic Brooks in his namesake collection. Black Fleece reportedly got off to a rocky start, and the commercial success of the partnership remains unclear, but it created mountains of publicity for both parties, who extended their contract. By then, Browne had also collaborated briefly with jeweler Harry Winston.
Meanwhile, Browne longed to take his show to Europe. Pitti Immagine finally gave him the push he needed.
“The great thing about the Pitti organization is they really encouraged me to do something outside of just a runway show. My shows are pretty out-there anyway, but they encouraged me to do something very different,” he said.
He revealed the show would have no runway and would be strictly choreographed.
“It’s so singularly striking that every single piece has to be perfect for it to work. So we’ve been killing ourselves,” he said of his atelier. The show location will be the assembly hall of the Italian air force academy, the Istituto di Scienze Militari Aeronautiche.
“At first I thought it would be great to cast the cadets, but they declined,” Browne said.
Regardless, he saw the school’s “fascist” architecture as the ideal setting for an exploration of uniformity in men’s business attire. If invoking fascism in Italy seems risky, Browne insists he’s not trying to make a political statement.
“It’s the beauty in the uniformity that I find refreshing. Not having so much choice is what I find refreshing,” he said. Indeed, Browne is personally known for his regimented daily habits, which extend to the gray suits and white button-down oxford shirts he dons every morning. Having rewritten the rules of suiting up, he doesn’t deviate from them.
Later this month, another Browne collaboration, Moncler Gamme Bleu, will launch with a show at Milan Men’s Fashion Week. And Browne’s Pitti presentation will also feature a bit of co-branding: a one-off, Samsonite Black Label briefcase that every model will carry. One objective of all this additional effort is to steer traffic to Browne’s booth at Pitti Uomo, where the full range of his fall collection will be on view. If the space feels militaristic, like a recruitment center, in a way it is one.