MEN’S FASHION Spring 2013 cover: Thom Browne, the most important man in menswear now

Mens FASHION Spring 2013 Cover Thom Browne
Photography by Peter Stigter

Mens FASHION Spring 2013 Cover Thom Browne
Photography by Peter Stigter

Thom Browne designs clothes that have been thought to be comical and ill-fitting. They are also redefining modern menswear.

Menswear designer Thom Browne has used the runway to float some strange ideas. His provocative and characteristically wacky proposals have included a Big Bird suit of feathers in banker’s grey; punky makeup paired with papal-like capes; matronly skirts topped by jackets with the Hulk’s shoulders; see-through pants; square pants; and pants with three legs.

You might wonder, “Who but a clown is going to wear this stuff?” But all the theatrical pieces serve to put into relief the Thom Browne suit. Consisting of a short, snug jacket and trousers cropped to shin-revealing heights, it has been the basis of everything Browne has done since he launched his business a dozen years ago. In the beginning, it seemed extreme, was mocked and incited comparisons to Pee-wee Herman, but it has turned out to be a defining shape of men’s clothing today.

If you want to see something really freaky, take a look at an average suit from just six years ago. I’ve got one. Both jacket and pants are slightly too long, and the whole thing is made from the kind of lightweight, ultrafine wool that drapes like silk. Put it on, and it feels like a kimono.

Browne cuts his suits of harder stuff. He likes sturdier materials that keep their shape. That’s why Michelle Obama looked so good in the Thom Browne coat she wore to her husband’s second inauguration. It was made from a heavyweight silk that lent structure to the garment and that, says Browne, “was amazing to tailor.” Worn by FLOTUS, that coat spread Browne’s name far and wide, but his influence was already an established fact in the menswear industry. As Todd Snyder, another New York designer, said in the March Esquire, “Thom Browne single-handedly revolutionized the way people think of how a man’s clothes should fit.”

Just a few weeks after the inauguration, and with that issue of Esquire just hitting newsstands, I expect to find Browne in a state of excitement. Instead, on the phone from his Manhattan studio, he’s self-contained and unassuming. To the word “revolutionized,” he responds, “I never really pay attention to things like that. I like to just focus on what I do.”

There’s something about Browne’s attitude that echoes the “nothing-to-look-at-here” attitude of Beau Brummell, the 19th-century dandy who dressed for discretion rather than display. In fact, in the preface Browne wrote for the catalogue published in connection with Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion, an exhibition currently at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, he describes Brummell’s look as “pared down, fitted and uniform-like,” and goes on to declare, “This is precisely what I relate to as a menswear designer… Menswear does not need to scream fashion.” Browne has said that every collection starts with the grey suit. He is not bored by uniformity. In fact, as he once told Women’s Wear Daily, “Not having so much choice is what I find refreshing.”

That was in 2009, as Browne was preparing for his first show in Europe. A guest of Pitti Immagine Uomo, a menswear trade show that takes place in Florence, he staged a theatrical presentation intended to let the European audience know what he was all about. Forty models were identically dressed, working at identical desks in front of identical typewriters.

Last year in Paris, Browne unveiled his collection for this spring and summer in a garden. This time, the models became statues stepping into silver-dipped wingtip brogues that were secured to marble slabs, as if to suggest the importance of a solid foundation. While there was an array of madly coloured madras plaids, the clothes reflected Browne’s fundamentals of fit and proportion.

Creatively, Browne doesn’t travel far from his principles. Thoughts become cloth. He doesn’t bother with sketches and never uses any type of visual reference. “It’s really just straight from my head.”

Business-wise, however, Browne has been more of a vagabond. Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1965, he studied economics at university, tried acting in Los Angeles and wound up in the fashion business in New York. After working for Club Monaco, he established his business in 2001.

It was a custom-made operation until 2003, when he began producing menswear collections, which he began showing in Paris in 2010. Since 2007, he has been designing a collection (for men and women) called Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers. In 2009, he started doing a menswear line (Moncler Gamme Bleu) that is presented in Milan. In 2011, he introduced a full women’s collection, which hit the catwalk in New York; he also signed his first licensing deal, with Dita Eyewear, a Los Angeles company. And, as of press time, he was scheduled to open a flagship store—his second, after the one in New York—in Tokyo.

In the course of this career, Browne has exerted influence, both general and specific. He took up scissors against all that was baggy and slack, and demonstrated to a new generation of men —who knew only Casual Friday—that tailored clothing can be cool. At the same time, he gave lessons in dressing down, and helped make the cardigan sweater seem as well turned-out as a blazer.

Of course, Browne has not been the only designer to have slenderized the male wardrobe in the 21st century. Hedi Slimane, a Frenchman, has pioneered clothes so skinny that it took a new breed of skinny models to wear them.

However, in Browne’s case, his sensibility happened to converge with a whole new appreciation for the heritage of American menswear, as evidenced by the impact of Mad Men and the revived interest in Ivy League style.

While Browne has made signatures out of American campus looks such as shirts with button-down collars or bare ankles, he upholds old-world values of fit and quality.

And quality can be costly. In an episode of Family Guy, Stewie paid three grand for a Thom Browne sweater. Rob Lo, co-owner of Roden Gray, a Vancouver store where Browne’s menswear collection has been available for the past three seasons, says that you can get a sweater for $1,000; suits start at $2,400 and sell well.

In the early days, such suits were seen to be so oddly fitting that they were comical. In this regard, Browne is comparable to another great American maverick, Gertrude Stein, a writer whose prose, plainer even than Hemingway’s, was thought to be a joke before it became known as modern literature. A little misunderstanding for an artist is perhaps not a bad thing. As Stein once observed, “My writing is as clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear.”