Menswear maverick THOM BROWNE knows a thing or two about designing – and wearing – the perfect modern suit, says VINCENZO LA TORRE
ASK ANY MENSWEAR expert – from Savile Row haberdashers to Neapolitan sarti – and a common gripe they voice about the way most men wear their suits is the lack of proper fit. Although it’s a given that a suit, whether it be off the rack or custom-made, should fit like a glove, it’s still not uncommon to see lads in baggy jackets, saggy trousers and ill-fitting shirts that make them look like hapless klutzes.
Thom Browne, the New York-based designer, showed up on the fashion scene about a decade ago and set out to revolutionise that most basic of menswear staples by turning fit into his calling card and taking it to an extreme.
Browne, who hails from Pennsylvania and is a walking advertisement for his signature and now-ubiquitous shrunken suits, is the man you have to thank for the exposed ankles, snug jackets and sharp tailoring that men have come to embrace in the last few years. His preppy-schoolboy-meets-grandpa aesthetic, coupled with sporty elements and the use of luxurious and well-cut materials, jolted the staid world of men’s fashion when it first broke onto the scene in New York.
As the designer says while reminiscing about the first reactions to his work, “Even good friends of mine would say, ‘Why would I wear that when it doesn’t even fit?’ But it was something that I liked myself and I knew that if I liked it, someone else would eventually.”
And like it they did. Although the public at large took some time before getting used to the strict silhouettes and the Ivy League references, you just have to go for a stroll in the coolest neighbourhoods from Tokyo to Brooklyn and beyond to witness Browne’s influence on young men who don’t shy away from wearing once-stodgy pieces such as argyle cardigans, Fair Isle sweaters or “shorts suits” worn with high-knee socks and Oxford lace-ups. All are items that Browne has introduced and championed throughout his career, both on his always spectacular catwalks and on his extremely fit body (the designer is an avid runner and starts each day with a jog in Central Park).
True to form, when I meet Browne at Joyce in Hong Kong to talk about the status of men’s fashion, his fast-rising career and his recent foray into womenswear, he’s clad in one of his signature grey shrunken ensembles, the “shorts” version, worn with his trademark brogues. He’s aware that not everyone can pull off this look with such nonchalance but he’s also quick to add, “Everybody gets stuck on seeing it on me and so they always think that they could never wear it because the trousers are too short, but actually the trousers aren’t too short; they’re unfinished so you can go to the store and have them made as long as you want. So my look is ageless, for a lot of people. It’s classic tailoring that’s interpreted for a different type of guy.”
Right now is a great time to be a designer catering to the “different type of guy” Browne is talking about. The renaissance of the suit, which in a little over a decade went from a boring garment worn by bankers and older gents to a symbol of urban coolness, was a boon for creators such as Browne, who contributed in no small part to the return to formality and polish in male wardrobes.
In spite of his penchant for theatrics – his shows in New York for his women’s line, and in Paris for his men’s garb are often mini-performances involving over-the-top make-up, artful props and unusual locations – Browne actually delivers eminently wearable clothes, both in his ready-to-wear and his made-to-measure offerings, the latter of which he still provides to key customers in his New York boutique.
The designer admits that, when compared with his fellow creators in the US, he somehow stands out because he doesn’t necessarily adhere to the stereotypical tenets of American fashion, rooted in sportswear and casual separates. “I approach design from a purely design point of view, not a commercial point of view, and I think a lot of American design is approached commercially. I like to work with clothing and put interesting ideas in front of people and present them provocatively. I wouldn’t be in fashion if I couldn’t design that way,” he says.
“The fashion show is an outlet for me to express what I’m thinking and what I want to put in front of people. It’s what you see in Europe and the way couture is approached. It’s just fantastic, amazing ideas and that’s how I do my shows, because you go into the showrooms and you see more basic things that are just well made clothes, but I don’t ever feel the need to show that. A show for me is to put an idea in somebody’s head.”
It’s a strategy that seems to be working: his highfalutin and conceptual spectacles generate buzz in the media, but when buyers place orders they discover beautifully made tailored pieces that stand the test of time and are yet uncannily Thom Browne. Take one of his most talked-about creations, the coatdress that First Lady Michelle Obama wore during the second inauguration of her husband one year ago. Tailored and ladylike, the garment was a far cry from the looks that parade down Browne’s runways, showing that behind the showmanship and the avant-garde tricks is a pragmatic and commercially savvy mind.
Reflecting on the day he found out that the First Lady was clad in one of his looks – at the time, he was in Paris for the men’s shows – Browne says that “long-term it will definitely help business; short-term it was just an honour to do it, an amazing experience. She looked amazing, most importantly, and she looked good with her husband.”
The personal style of the First Lady of the United States is scrutinised almost as closely as her husband’s Oval Office speeches. So when she chose Thom Browne for such an important day, it became clear that the designer, who had up until then been a cult name in menswear circles with a niche womenswear business on the side, was now a name to be reckoned with. It put him on a par with the biggest shots in American fashion, if not in terms of company size, at least in influence and cachet among the style set.
But amid all the praise and accolades, Browne is not one to rest on his laurels: “We live in a world of celebrity and wanting to be a celebrity and unfortunately a lot of kids in school think that they’re automatically going to become celebrities. If you want to be in the business for that reason you should give up because it’s most likely not going to happen,” he says matter-of-factly.
Browne waited quite a long time before founding his own label after honing his skills at powerhouses such as Ralph Lauren and Club Monaco, steering clear of the cliché of the “young New York designer” who becomes an overnight sensation and then slowly ebbs away after a few seasons. “The most important thing for anyone is to try and make clothing really well because there will always be a place for that. If you make beautiful clothing that is actually true to yourself there will be somebody who will see it and appreciate it.”
Wise words from a man who, by taking the long-term view and maintaining his individuality intact, has shown – one shrunken suit and exposed ankle at a time – that you can still do your own thing and make it big.