A shorts story: meet Thom Browne
Financial Times – The radical designer’s smart, lean tailoring has transformed the way men — and women — dress
Thom Browne, the 52-year-old American designer, is sitting in his office in midtown Manhattan. He is wearing a cropped tailored jacket, an unironed Oxford shirt, a slate grey tie held by a silver tie bar, tiny cable knit cardigan and a pair of tight, high-waisted tailored shorts with a fit best described as snug.
The look — slim, shrunken, smart — is a jolt. “Isn’t it amazing? It’s been 15 years and I still feel it looks new,” he says of the silhouette he first introduced to menswear in 2001.
Browne’s decision to dramatically change the proportions of the suit marked one of the most influential shifts in menswear in recent years. Has your jacket and trouser length shortened of late? Is your tailoring tighter? Do you bare your ankles, or spend the day cursing men who do? You have Browne to thank for this.
For many metropolitan gentlemen of standing, the Thom Browne look has become a uniform. “I can’t think of anyone who has revolutionised the way men dress in the past 15 years more than he has,” says John Demsey, executive group president of The Estée Lauder Companies, who has been wearing made-to-measure suits by Browne since the beginning.
Browne’s name is relatively unknown. Yet quietly and determinedly he has built an extraordinary brand. His menswear is stocked in almost 250 stores worldwide, his womenswear stockists near 120. An industry source suggests “Thom Browne is a $100m business”, with sales split fairly evenly between US, European and Asian markets. By following his instincts, and sticking to his own aesthetic, he has become one of the industry’s most successful players, a success that will be acknowledged in New York in September when he will be awarded the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Couture Council award for Artistry in Fashion.
“This is how tunnel vision I am,” he says. “The whole ‘designers doing streetwear’ thing, I was oblivious to it all going on.” He is talking about the myriad luxury brands that have maintained profit margins by selling oversized T-shirts, trackpants and sneakers. “I don’t really follow the shows and the collections,” he continues. “My sales team come in saying stores say tailored clothing isn’t doing well (yet they’re surprised we’re selling it so well). It’s like, god, I didn’t even think: I’m out of fashion.”
Browne’s idiosyncratic and fabulously perverse thinking informs his whole business. The guy is a hoot to be around. His high-concept shows have variously featured models dressed as tailored parrots, or attached to poles as kimono-wearing scarecrows. His offices appear like a Busby Berkeley musical set in a frantic design studio: floor-to-ceiling glass windows for interior walls, metallic-slat blinds set half-shut, the entire staff in variations of the Thom Browne look. I am greeted by an assistant in shorts that are even tighter and shorter than Browne’s. Hector, Browne’s two-year-old wire-haired dachshund, pads between desks, his nails clicking on the floor as he walks. Fancy a silver leather bag in the shape of Hector? He can be yours for £1,960.
“Everybody thinks it was such an overnight thing,” says Browne of his career. He started making his suits in 2001, selling them from his apartment, and then opening a small store in the Meatpacking district, which was then still a place where meat was packed. “People always wondered why my shop was never open,” he says. “It’s because I was going to the factory, all by myself, carting the stuff back from Long Island City.” Browne used to hand-write the labels sewn on to every single garment. It was only in 2011 that the size of the business prevented him from doing so any more and he had to buy a printer.
His style then was the same as now. “It’s what I liked and it’s what I wanted to wear myself,” he says. When he first started, “everyone was running away from tailoring. I wanted to reintroduce it in a way that a young guy felt it was for him, just changing the proportion of the jacket and trouser.”
Many credit the TV show Mad Men as the source of the now globally popular sharp 1960s tailored look. They’re wrong. Browne cut his shrunken suit six years before the show’s appearance. “I didn’t really understand it was going to be such a thing,” he says of its influence. “I think it has filtered down into a lot of things,” he adds. “When you see it in its pure form, it still looks really cool. It still looks interesting, not always in a good way. But it still makes people look.”
The Thom Browne aesthetic may be strict in its essence, but like Comme des Garçons, Browne has created a successful brand through the clever commercialisation of his most outlandish looks. The “pure version” he describes is only worn by a dedicated few: Browne, his staff, Browne’s partner Andrew Bolton, who is curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute, and ardent fans. But he also offers far less dramatic versions of his catwalk designs in the commercial collections. Wearing Browne doesn’t require you to wear your pants hoiked up in the crotch. “It’s not always like this,” he says, of his own short suit. “It’s important for people to see us so they have that really strong image in their minds. But we do made-to-measure that’s just a beautifully made suit.” A perfectly cut grey flannel suit costs £2,050; a white Oxford shirt is £320.
Neither do you have to posses Browne’s compact proportions to wear it. “I like wearing his clothes because there’s an incredible fit,” says John Demsey. “I’m 6ft 2. I’m here to say big guys can wear Thom Browne too.”
Browne’s collections have gradually incorporated more casual-wear items as well: cashmere hoodies, loopback sweatshirts, a four-stripe trackpant and everyday staples that were introduced in a post-credit crunch reality check. “When everyone was going out of business in 2009, I was very conscious of wanting to keep this going,” he says. “You have to have a commercial machine that funds the concept.”
In order to keep the brand going, Browne sold a majority stake in his company to Japanese apparel group Cross Company, later Stripe, that same year. At the time his annual revenues were said to be about $6.5m. Browne showed in Paris for the first time in 2010, and debuted womenswear.
In 2016, Stripe sold its 67 per cent stake to Sandbridge Capital, a private equity firm with Tommy Hilfiger and Domenico de Sole as advisers. Browne also appointed a new chief executive, Rodrigo Bazan, from Alexander Wang, to lead further expansion, especially into womenswear, which now forms a third of the business. “Women’s is fun but it’s more of a challenge because there’s so much that has already been done,” he says. “Men’s is easier because if you push it a bit, it’s a lot.”
The pair are also overseeing the opening of a number of standalone stores that stock both men’s and women’s. One such store has already opened in Milan on Via Gesù. The first London store will open at the end of the month.
Each store is furnished with the same, strict decor of Browne’s office and his home — clean, minimal and specific. “Someone said that you could hose down my apartment,” says Browne. The designer lives near Columbus Circle with Bolton, his partner since 2012.
“The London store will have a very special room downstairs if anybody wants to know how I want to live — and Andrew does not want to live,” says Browne. “I like really strict, hard surface rooms. Andrew’s like, can we just have one comfortable thing? Or Chinese wallpaper somewhere?” The shop will sell furniture alongside the clothes. “All the furniture is for sale,” he points to what we are sat on. “This is for sale. You want a small table and chairs?”
The world Browne has created is totally defined by him. He loves it. He finds it hilarious. About it, he is deeply ambitious. “I think there are endless possibilities,” he says. “There are houses that have huge businesses and I think anybody who sits back and thinks, I could never do that, I think, well why not? You just have to figure it out.”