As with women’s wear, there are several men’s wear designers that have defined how men dress over the years. In the 1990s it was all about Raf Simons while Hedi Slimane made a huge impact with his skinny suits at Dior Homme in the early noughties.
For this decade, that title goes to New York based designer Thom Browne. Ever since his shrunken suits landed on the floors of boutiques like Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Colette in Paris , he caused a style revolution in the way men dressed not witnessed since the days of Giorgio Armani. He singlehandedly brought the suit back from extinction, this time with a new look identified by its buttoned up, conservative jackets and ankle baring trousers.
Thom was recently in Hong Kong to showcase his spring/summer 2016 collection where we caught up with him. Read on to find out more about his story….
BORN in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Thom Browne had a classic American upbringing. The middle child of seven, he was raised in a strict Roman Catholic household where there was no place for fashion and Brooks Brothers navy jackets and grey trousers were order of the day.
“Fashion came in a few years after I graduated. Growing up in my family we never thought about fashion – there were no Vogues or anything in the house. If my father didn’t have a suit on he wouldn’t know what to wear. My mother was an attorney and dressed very classic,” he says.
After graduating from Notre Dame University, he moved to Los Angeles to follow his dream of becoming an actor. It was then that he started buying and altering vintage men’s suits together with his friend, Libertine designer, Johnson Hartig.
When it was obvious that his acting career was going nowhere, Browne he relocated to New York where he landed stints working at Armani and Club Monaco. It was soon after that he met famed men’s wear tailor Rocco Ciccarelli who would help him bring his label to life.
“My biggest education was with Rocco. I was buying fabrics from this guy and I asked him if he knew a tailor and he recommended Rocco. Rocco is Roman, Italian born, and has been in the States since the late 1950s. I walked into his place out of the blue, he looked at me like he did every New York designer, and probably thought. ‘Here we go again.’ I think it was my conviction that eventually won him over,” says Browne, whose first collection consisted of – you guessed it – five grey suits that referenced silhouettes from the 1950s and 1960s.
Although he initially specialised in made-to-measure suits, it wasn’t until a few years later, for spring/summer 2004, that Browne decided to show his first ready-to-wear collection taking his look to global audiences.
“I wanted to do ready-to-wear because I wanted more people to wear it. It was not a big thought out strategy – most designers have a master business plan but for me it was about making beautiful things that looks different. What I do for ready-to-wear is still based on something classic and very understandable. The concept was in the proportion,” he says.
Although it was his exaggerated silhouettes that initially won over fans, his theatrical fashion shows have only helped spread the Thom Browne gospel further. Over the years he has shown models emerging from coffins; playing a game of hunter and hunted; or dressed identically sitting at desks a la TV series Madmen. At the end of one show black ash fell from the sky reminiscent of a nuclear fallout.
“I do the shows because I don’t need to show the classic part – they prove that I am still part of a world that’s energetic, interesting and provocative. When you think of Thom Browne many people do have an image in their head, which is why I create these conceptual shows. At the end of the day I still need to make it more interesting each season,” he explains.
Take for example his recent spring/summer 2016 collection where he created a Japanese inspired set complete with a tatami house and geisha warriors. His classic grey suits came updated with high armholes and kimono jackets covered in embroidery and raffia threadwork showcasing traditional Japanese motifs such as koi, Mount Fuji, chrysanthemums and dragons. It made for quite a spectacle.
“I close my eyes think of things, watch movies, remember and forget as much as I can,” says Browne of his creative process.
“It makes it so much easier to create something new, when you don’t have something staring at you in the face. So many things have been done really well that it’s almost intimidating. When you look at what other designers too it’s intimidating. Not knowing a lot makes it so much easier.”
While his men’s wear has made him a pioneer, it’s his women’s wear that’s starting to gain momentum. He debuted his first ready-to-wear collection in 2011 (he always offered bespoke since the beginning) and it wasn’t long before Michelle Obama was wearing one of his coats to her husband’s second inauguration. Like the men’s line, it’s all about beautiful tailoring brought to life with new constructions, exceptional fabrics and embellishments.
“I never wanted to start a revolution with men’s and women’s is what it is. Women come for the same thing as the men’s which really is the tailoring. Everyone has an opinion about what I do and it is even worse for women. Every season and collection is different; I play with proportion, that’s where you see the evolution. I have no interest in changing the classic because it is so timeless,” he says.
Looking ahead, the world of Thom Browne is only set to get bigger. The designer recently announced that he has purchased a tailoring facility in Long Island City, Queens, which previously belonged to Ciccarelli, who has also officially joined the brand.
The facility will make all his made to measure suits which still account for a significant part of his business, as well as a small collection of ready-to-wear suits that will be available at his freestanding boutiques including Hong Kong (his ready-to-wear line is predominantly made in Japan). To commemorate the milestone, he held a special show in New York last month to showcase a handmade line.
“It’s a bigger story than just new collection. American tailoring is disappearing. Here I am trying to bring it back by opening a facility with one of the best tailors in the world while mentoring other tailors. This level of work doesn’t exist anymore. People usually go to UK and Italy for it , but is now made in the US. It’s something I also want to bring to women’s soon,” he says.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post newspaper.