In the early 2000s, Thom Browne’s statement was clear and directed: men, be better; dress better. Now he implores all of us to get our act together with an impeccable public persona. If Giorgio Armani was responsible for the relaxed suit and its synonymy with sex appeal, then Thom Browne started the slim-fit, fuss-free look. Retracted sleeves, wilfully exposed ankles and calves are necessary eliminations of material in this age of excess. His shrunken grey-on-grey outfits paired with wing tips and garters became iconic because they fed into our obsession with nostalgia whilst embodying the slickness of the contemporary urbanite.
A Pennsylvania native born in 1965, Thom Browne grew up being involved mainly in two things: swimming and school. It was a life of routine ingrained in him for twelve years, something that he accredits for his success. Just as an athlete’s training does not happen overnight, Thom Browne’s rise to fame was a process of endurance. Although he launched his own label in 2001, his name was relatively unknown in mainstream media – albeit well-acknowledged in his respective circles – up until 2013, when Michelle Obama wore a stunning coat dress tailored by him at the second Presidential inauguration. This same coat dress now sits in the National Archives of the United States.
Thom Browne is a fashion designer set on resurrecting the classic American, masculine sensibility of the 50s and 60s through the modern vernacular. Never mind that 1950s and 60s masculinity meant repressed emotions and being terrified of the slightest notion of vulnerability. It was a sophistication that he admired and observed growing up, especially through his father who wore the same suit to work every day. His mother was an attorney, and similarly very put together. As the middle of seven children, Browne mostly wore hand-me-downs, navy blazers and grey flannels from Brooks Brothers – a brand that he ended up collaborating with for 8 years with the collection Black Fleece. This is a man who we will never see in casual wear that is not his running clothes.
Starting out by handmaking suits in his apartment and then setting up a made-to-measure store in New York, Thom Browne’s designs show a deep respect and adherence to traditional tailoring methods. He mastered them to the point where he can reconfigure disassembled parts of the suit with a self-assured creativity that produces perfect measurements of the weird and wonderful.
His Autumn/Winter 2019 showcase viscerally expresses this. The menswear collection displays sleeves hanging on the torso, collars wrapped around the shoulder and suits patchworked together and draped around the body. There are feminised silhouettes and layered skirts flouncing over each other. Only a passionate master tailor could pull off this unfettered reassembling of conventional suit parts. Don’t feel defeated by the suit, they tell us. It’s okay to wear the same suit as everyone else if everyone is wearing Thom Browne.
His women’s collection was a self-referential performance to his 2009 showcase in Florence but refreshingly superimposed with the presence of Romaine Brooke’s 1924 portrait of the eminent lesbian writer and aristocrat Lady Una Troubridge. Framed on every office desk sitting on the runway and recurring as prints on cropped tuxedos, the flattened reality of Brooke’s painting comes to life in an enthusiasm of trompe l’oeils and real parts of the suit all sewn together. There are illusions of layers and pockets, and cameos are printed on the front and back. Traditional menswear is reclaimed by women, which is nothing new but always welcomed. Now, instead of Coco Chanel we think of FLOTUS and powerhouse musicians Cardi B and Janelle Monae who are regularly dressed head to toe in Thom Browne.
Thom Browne is well-known for his fantastical and theatrical runway shows, which are just as immaculate as his collections. The Autumn/Winter 2019 show for menswear displayed a row of miniature versions of his collection but bubble wrapped and skewered on poles – voodoo dolls that were probably used to resurrect his army of models marching around midtown Manhattan last month. In his Spring/Summer 2020* show this year, the deadpan office person is pushed aside by Marie Antoinette’s pannier dresses and pastel colours. Everyone is in some kind of skirt and decked with veiled poufs. A pram wheels out past pairs of beachball sized shoes painted like a tuxedo. It’s a world made-to-measure for excitable imaginations. He still absolutely maintains a seriousness in his unwavering core pieces of classic knit vests and Chesterfield jackets, but there’s room for a chuckle.
Outside of this particular dimension is a tamed reality of Thom Browne’s more commercial options. Here we have both formal and casual wear minimally patterned with blue, red and white grosgrains, which you can find in our stores or online. The same self-assurance of the young professional is there, in pared down simplicity and with no embellishments or fussy details to get in the way of your productive day.
In the mess and excess of our present, Thom Browne’s designs assure us with classic structures and uniformity. Life is just routine, and we can all thrive in it stylishly. This applies to most successful and powerful people, be it athletes, politicians, artists, or a man in his 50s who has the same breakfast (white toast and coffee) everyday but has pushed American fashion to a truly exciting place.
*Follow The Dossier or Club 21 on Instagram for updates on new arrivals for Thom Browne Spring/Summer 2020