Thom Browne: America's Quintessential Designer
Thom Browne: America's Quintessential Designer
- Words Skylar Bergl
- Date February 22, 2017
For decades, American fashion has been defined by a handful of notable names. The Ralphs, Calvins, and Tommys remain monumental, reaching critical mass to the point that their wares can be found in malls around the country. But just as the diverse roots of this country came from a melting pot of influences from all around the world, American fashion is now just as wide-ranging, from Alexander Wang spreading the gospel of athleisure, to Rick Owens preaching to a choir of avant-garde goth ninjas.
But perhaps no American designer in recent memory has been as influential as Thom Browne. His high-water trousers and too-cropped blazers might not be your everyday uniform, but they have definitely influenced what you wear on a daily basis. Browne is the man who shrunk suits across America and turned four stripes into a status symbol on the level of four stars.
While the baggy silhouettes may be having a moment in the spotlight right now, the Thom Browne look won’t be leaving anytime soon.
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The story of Thom Browne’s rise didn’t happen the way you might expect it to. The Allentown, Pennsylvania native attended Notre Dame University and, though not the tallest man in most rooms, spent much of his time as a competitive swimmer. After graduating in 1988 with a degree in business, he hit Hollywood to become an actor and landed roles in a few commercials. Though lost to time (and likely a discarded VHS tape), he starred in an ad for Motrin.
He eventually wound up living with Johnson Hartig, a designer who would go on to found the clothing brand Libertine. After seeing Hartig experiment on old vintage clothing, Browne felt the urge try some tests of his own and put old suits in the dryer to shrink them, creating the first prototypes of his now-signature shrunken suit.
While most people drop everything they’re doing and move to L.A. for a shot at stardom, Browne seemingly did the opposite. In the late ‘90s, he sold his car and left Hollywood for New York, where he pursued clothing full-time and eventually wound up working at Armani, first as a clerk, then on the wholesale side of the business. Though not classically trained and pretty much fully self-taught, Browne clearly found his lane. He went on to design for Club Monaco around the time the brand had just joined the Ralph Lauren portfolio in 1999 and became close with Lauren, designing for Club before striking out on his own just before 9/11 with nothing but a handful of suits to his name.
Thom Browne, The Professional
Browne’s collections began as a made-to-measure business, crafting suits with cropped trousers and too-small blazers in the early aughts. At the time, the baggy bottoms and tops of the ‘90s hadn’t yet faded away and we were still waiting for “skinny” anything to enter our daily lives. In 2004, Browne debuted his first full collection of ready-to-wear menswear. His early shows were an exercise in advancing the Thom Browne aesthetic, reclaiming the suit in the burgeoning days of “business casual” dress codes and drawing on the mid-century suited styles we commonly associate with Ivy League students.
Browne broke through in 2006. For Fall/Winter 2006, he showcased his designs on two indie bands; Soft, and My Best Fiend, at a small concert at Bergdorf Goodman. The shorts with suits, a bounty of madras plaid and rumpled oxfords with gray ties were just the first phase of Browne’s fashion show fantasies. But to define Browne by his shows would be to misrepresent what his brand and business have become—more on that later.
Still, the industry had already started to feel his impact. 2006 saw Browne take home the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award—with two more to follow in 2013 and 2016—and transition his appointment-only shop in downtown New York City into the brand’s first retail store. Browne has since opened ten brick and mortar shops in Asia thanks to the popularity of Browne’s styles with Asian shoppers and a 20% investment from Japanese apparel company Stripe International made in 2009 that increased to 67% just last year when equity firm Sandbridge Hill Capital acquired a majority stake in Browne’s business from Stripe.
After about a decade of design, in February 2011, with his brand gaining serious traction, Browne launched womenswear at New York Fashion Week with a voluminous, billowing display that channeled his favorite grays and signature red, white and blue trim. The next year, he earned the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for fashion design, whose previous winners include Rick Owens, Tom Ford, and Ralph Rucci. Behind the numerous industry awards, though, is a strict, utilitarian philosophy that makes them possible.
The Uniform and The Philosophy
With so many fashion designers in the world today, it’s rare for any one individual to truly “create” their own look. While perhaps Browne didn’t necessarily invent the constantly cropped silhouette, he has become its most notable devotee. There are few designers that can truly say they own a look, but Thom Browne is one of them.
Inspired by his father, who wore a gray suit to work every day, the brand leans heavily on just two colors, gray and navy. The “everyday uniform” that Browne has created is typified by a slew of identifying details:
-Trousers with enormous cuffs hemmed above the ankle worn with bare skin showing or long socks.
-Black leather dress shoes with thick soles or black leather ankle-high lace-up boots with red-white-blue grosgrain pull tabs at the heel.
-Shirts, jackets, sweatshirts and outerwear with sleeves that barely reach the wrist and a grosgrain locker loop at the back collar.
-Blazers and sport coats with skinny lapels and a length that hardly cover the wearer’s backside.
-Knits that are often shrunken and cropped at the waist and have surgeon’s cuffs and buttons for side vents.
-Oxford shirts with long collar points (often not buttoned down) and red white and blue grosgrain ribbon running down the placket.
-Four (previously three until he was sued by Adidas) evenly spaced stripes on the left sleeve or leg.
-Animal embroidery, most typically whales or dogs.
What unifies almost every Thom Browne piece is one or more of these characteristics. The brand has no logo, but every piece features crafty branding that calls out to the people who will instantly recognize it as a Thom Browne item. Worn all together, the uniform can come off as trying too hard, especially in an increasingly business casual world. But the man himself buys into it, wearing pretty much the same thing everyday—a charcoal gray suit with a white oxford shirt, gray tie, and black shoes—and requires his staff to do the same. Once you’re in, you’re in deep.
Browne’s design philosophy plays with the sensible gray suit his father wore and tinkers with it to create a new uniform for a new man. He’s gone so far as to say that “the idea [of a uniform] has the connotation of being boring, or not very interesting. But I think the confidence of having a uniform is actually more interesting than having more choice.” While not everyone may agree with the sentiment, the regimented school of thought clearly drives his design process.
That process has not only become increasingly popular with Thom Browne devotees, but also a handful of brands who have enlisted Browne for collaborations or creative director positions.
In 2006, classic American clothier Brooks Brothers called on Browne to bring some excitement to their somewhat outdated ivy style offerings with Brooks Brothers Black Fleece. An effort to appeal to younger, more fashion-forward men and get them into the Brooks Brothers store they likely had never set foot in without the company of their fathers, Black Fleece harped on the Thom Browne aesthetic, tightening and shortening pretty much everything. Unfortunately, but somewhat to expectedly, Brooks Brothers purists never took to the line with the partnership eventually ending in 2015.
In 2008, Italian brand Moncler approached the designer to take on their top line, Gamme Bleu, which he still designs to this day. Moncler Gamme Blue's aesthetic falls in line with most of Browne’s other runway work with all-over prints, meticulous detailing and an obscene commitment to a specific theme taking center stage each season. For Fall/Winter 2009, models looked as though they’ve been plucked from the slopes of the Swiss Alps. The Tour de France informed Spring/Summer 2011 collection with spandex-tight shorts and zipped tops, fencing was the sport of choice for Spring/Summer 2012, Formula 1 for Fall/Winter 2012 and Ivy league rowing played the part for Spring/Summer 2016.
Barneys and Browne teamed up for a collaborative diffusion collection in 2012 dubbed Thom Grey that was meant to bring the Thom Browne look to a wider audience at a lower price point. It was a short-lived effort though and pretty much nonexistent by the end of 2013. Perhaps Browne’s biggest piece of publicity, at least to the general public, came in 2013 when First Lady Michelle Obama wore a coat of his for her husband President Barack Obama's second inauguration. Browne’s prowess also enabled him to design the costumes for the New York City Ballet in 2014, outfitting the production of “Clearing Dawn” as other renowned designers, Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen and Mary Katrantzou, created costumes of their own.
Looking at his track record, it’s clear Browne treats the runway more like an art installation or theater production than he does as a display of wearable wardrobes, which leads us to examine how exactly is his brand so successful?
The Runway and The Regular
Simply put, Browne’s bread and butter are his basics. The trousers, sweats, knits, shirts and shoes that all bear the Thom Browne name drive his business and don’t change much year over year. From season to season, you can always count on seeing a white oxford shirt or a pair of gray wool trousers. Small details may evolve, but every season brings a delivery of $500 navy crewneck sweatshirts with four white stripes on the sleeve that regularly sell out before hitting sale season. Many brands approach their collections similarly, tweaking and honing pieces in different colors or washes, but it’s hard to overstate the sheer exactness with which Browne replicates his items. Still, amongst his most loyal fans, this works. While you may see full looks from, say, a Dries van Noten runway collection on the racks at Bergdorf, it’s much rarer to see a Thom Browne runway piece anywhere. While Browne has said that they produce 85% of what we see on the runway, it’s far more likely to see shelves stocked with familiar basics every season.
This puts Browne in rare company. Few designers have both the booming business and luxury to make their runway shows feel like an art installation. Though an American designer, Browne now primarily shows in Paris. His presentations often feel more conceptual and avant-garde than a casual fan might expect. He didn’t dive in immediately though as his earlier shows stayed fairly cautious. As the guest designer at Pitti Uomo in 2009, Browne put on a spectacle that has come to define him. Lining up 40 desks, Browne outfitted 40 models in identical looks, sent them to their workstations in synchronized fashion and put them to work typing on vintage typewriters.
Fall/Winter 2012 saw him put a punk spin on tailoring without coming off as hokey, Spring/Summer 2015 went in the direction of human anatomy with pads of musculature protruding from garments and his most recent menswear collection, Fall/Winter 2017, featured thousands of buttons, extra long sleeves and cardboard cutout-like, two-dimensional looks.
While his signature designs are extremely commercial, Browne explains of his runway shows: "Sometimes the commercial side of fashion is not always so interesting to me. So this is my way of incorporating what I do into, you know, maybe the art world. Whether or not they’re gonna accept it is another thing."
Thom Browne will always be the guy that made men’s suiting smaller and cooler. At the very least, his fearlessness in wearing pants that expose his ankles and ability to convince grown men to do the same without shame will be remembered. Few designers have elicited the kind of experimental think pieces that Browne has. But those who take the time to really follow his work will know him as one of the crucial forces that left, and continues to leave, an indelible mark on American fashion.