A Tale of Two T(h)oms
A Tale of Two T(h)oms
- Words Eamon Levesque
- Date August 6, 2018
Last month, British GQ made an alarmingly astute observation: we’re in the midst of a fashion era that more than ever resembles professional sports. Blame the new spectacle on the furious trading of creative directors like they’re top tier premier league players. For fans, Virgil Abloh’s appointment to LV creates the same sort of buzz as that of Lukaku’s trade to Manchester United—or when Randy Moss was traded to the Patriots, if you’re into the other football. But it’s not just the creative director round robin—social media now gives playoff-level buzz to events like Paris Men’s Week, Pitti, and the CFDA awards. Anna Wintour has done everything in her power to make the Met Ball feel like the Super Bowl. It is a bit of a stretch to say that any individual brand can cultivate the same following as a given football team, but if Supreme offers any indication, that’s where we are heading.
The only thing missing from this near-perfect analogy? Rivalries. Fashion, in short, lacks them, which is a shame considering that they are a massive part of what makes sports fandom so enthralling. Growing up in New England, this writer was taught to yell “Yankees Suck” before learning to walk. Competitive energy within the industry is hard to find and, when discovered, is often strictly behind the scenes. Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld allegedly had it out a few times back in the ‘60s—and Raf Simons said some not-so-nice things about Abloh once—but who really cares.
As it stands today, there’s exactly one rivalry in fashion worth writing about, where two designers are fighting it out on the same turf, bringing completely different approaches to the same product. And they’re both named Tom—sort of.
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The two men in question, Thom Browne and Tom Ford, have effectively defined the modern man’s suit. Over the last decade, no other designer has had as much an impact on the wardrobe staple. While each offers their own polarizing take—from shockingly school-boy to brazenly masculine—in tandem, the two have pushed a garment mostly forsaken by the industry as the tentpole of their respective businesses.
Beyond the business model and the first name, the two have an eerie amount in common. Both American, the are only three years apart in age (Ford 56, Browne 53). Neither had a formal background in fashion before their start in the industry—Browne studied Economics at Notre Dame, Ford famously lied about what he studied at Parsons (architecture, not fashion) to lock in a job with designer Cathy Hardwick. Both mounted failed careers as actors prior to settling on fashion and both are one-half of all-time great power couples: Ford’s husband, Richard Buckley, is the former editor of Vogue Homme, while Browne’s husband Andrew Bolton is head curator of the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute. The two even sport a similar haircut.
Trivia aside, both designers careers took a similar trajectory. After working at Club Monaco, Browne launched his eponymous line in 2001, with nothing more than a rack of suits he had made for himself. Following Ford’s celebrated reign at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent (a time where he was most famous for his womenswear), the one-time Vice Chairman of Gucci Group began the Tom Ford label initially with accessories and beauty goods in 2005, before branching out to men’s and ultimately womenswear. It was a time when casual friday was seeping well into Monday and a suit seldom worn. The two T(h)oms, however, took a garment that was by most accounts dead and resuscitated it back to life. Although their methods are different, both achieved massive success.
Ford and Browne are committed to suits on a level that borders obsessive. Ford likes to say that “a suit is armor,”, and rarely wears anything else. Browne is even more stringent—there isn’t a photo of him on the internet wearing anything but his trademark grey suit. To Browne, the grey suit is a testament to the power of uniformity, believing that “someone who is willing to adopt a uniform for themselves [is what] makes them a real true individual.”
But for all of the similarities, the two designers have virtually nothing in common product-wise. Thom Browne suits do not resemble Tom Ford suits in the slightest, and vice-versa. Even the most fashion-inept layperson could tell the difference. How then can two designers with so many similarities, with an obsession with the same garment, make their careers producing suits that look nothing alike? The answer quite literally is time.
The designers have admitted to a fascination with different, but adjacent decades: Browne with the ‘60s, Ford with the ‘70s. Given that Browne’s aesthetic is grounded in classically American tropes, it makes total sense that this decade would stand out in his mind and on his mood board. It was a time when style was “timeless, truly masculine and nothing fussy about it,” he explained on M2M’s Art of Style. The lack of fuss largely defines a Thom Browne suit. It is the underlying mentality behind mid-century dress, a simple throw-it-on and head-to-work blue collar mentality. Browne’s rigorous standards for jacket length, tie width and trouser hem are a way for him to remove some personalization from the clothing equation —which in turns expands his creative playpen. In fact, there’s an actual PDF you can download which outlines exactly how each garment is supposed to be worn, in detail.
For Browne, this regimented approach to dress is defined by strong, leading men: JFK, Steve McQueen and—most importantly—Cary Grant. Grant’s grey suit in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is the closest approximation of a Thom Browne suit you can find on screen. Structurally, it’s right on, with the slim, notch lapels that Browne favors front and center. Browne similarly employs the same button placement, with two functional buttons and a third one “rolled” into the lapel, a configuration made popular by Brooks Brothers, imitating the charmingly-worn-out look of a three-button suit that has lost its structure. Grant’s suit is the exact right color for the models Brown now sends down the runway—sort of. The suit is actually blue-plaid in real life, but Technicolor turns it into a dead match for the solid grey Browne built his career on.
Of course, there’s substantial differences in play—namely, jacket length and trouser width. Browne’s jackets famously tossed aside the adage “a good jacket should cover your ass.” Browne’s trousers are cut to match, fitting just a bit wider than a wetsuit, with substantial cuffs cut well above the ankle. This suit has been and, according to Browne, will be in every collection he’s ever going to make.
The dramatic cultural shift that occurred in America between the ‘60s and ‘70s is readily apparent when comparing a Tom Ford suit to a Thom Browne. With a drastically different worldview, Ford treasures all that is flamboyant, loud, and abrasive—unlike the reticent, patient, and by-the-book Browne. “You can take a direct line from me to Halston,” said Ford to WWD, illuminating his connection to arguably the most disco designer in history. A decade many shy away from (unless you’re Alessandro Michele), Tom Ford has the uncanny ability to filter out the bad (polyester, lumberjack plaid pants) from the good (color, bold cuts, shearling), and produce clothing simultaneously groovy yet alarmingly modern and edgy.
Pulling from this era, a Tom Ford suit becomes everything a Thom Browne isn’t. First, the shape is decidedly not American. In the ‘70s, due to lower tariffs imported suits from Europe became more common, and Italian-made suits began flooding department stores. Ford directly references this shift in his cuts, that chokehold-tight through the waist but are designed to emphasize bold shoulders and highlight a Herculean-like physique (even if you fail to have one). Lapels are peaked (never notch) and so large that you can almost see them from the other side of the jacket, a nod to ‘70s glamour. Sure, it’s bold, but if you’re paying Tom Ford prices bold is part of the package.
As far as color goes, Ford produces classic grey, as well as blacks, blues, reds, pinks and every pattern you can think of. The material is considerably more luxe, in sharkskin metallics or velvet as opposed to the durable Thom Browne twill. There’s also, reliably, two or three dinner jackets each season that look like they’re made of holographic Pokemon cards run through the washing machine, albeit tastefully. Through all this, Ford is always careful to not let things get too carried away. While Browne keeps his use of color and pattern on a tight leash (outside of his runway performances where he goes buckwild), Ford lets it roam more freely but sticks an electric fence at the outer limits of the property. Nothing Ford does wavers into the ridiculous, or (unlike the seventies) anything that may lead you to second guess yourself a few years down the line.
As for Thom Browne’s love of ankles, see Ford’s 2014 interview with Esquire: “There's nothing wrong with ankles. But only if you're playing football in the park.” Ford’s trousers are cut full break.
But by far the biggest deviation between the two designers is on how to wear their clothes. Browne’s clothing is at its best when one wears as much of it together at the same time as possible. Ford, however, finds the opposite, and is on record stating that he actually finds it “quite sad” when a customer takes a look of his from straight off the runway—an unusual suggestion coming from a man that designs every product category under the sun.
Yet the ability to create so many different objects and then suggest a customer only use one or two at a time is an acknowledgement on Ford’s part that he isn’t designing entire looks, he’s attempting to create items that fit into a lifestyle. Tom Ford’s lifestyle, that is.
The differences between Tom and Thom come down to more than lapel size or jacket cut. They are philosophical. Browne proves that when you aggressively stick to a specific set of rules, you often find more creative freedom. A conservative lapel, plus a conservative color, plus a conservative amount of fabric totals up to a suit that’s anything but. Ford though is aggressive, but only within the context of broad parameters. Season after season, Ford pushes the limits of how much ornamentation and color a wardrobe can handle while remaining classically masculine.
As easy as it would be to boil both approaches down to maximal vs. minimal, less vs. more, or conservative vs. revolutionary, it’s not that simple. Both men view themselves as crusaders trying to interject decorum or class back into male self-presentation. In that sense, they’re soldiers on the same side of the battle. But we don’t often get designers so beautifully opposed very often; it’s hard to resist the impulse to imagine both men dueling it out.