In 2003, American essayist Judith Thurman, while covering the men’s collections in Milan and Paris for The New Yorker, wrote, “The flash of an ankle used to represent the chasm between a sophisticate and a rube”. Had she turned toward her countryman Thom Browne, who introduced his ready-to-wear collection that same year, she might have noticed a seismic shift in culturally sanctioned displays of masculine (that is to say, American) vanity. Browne, who always declared that he “never wanted to be inside fashion,” was the outsider’s guarantor. He gave men, and later women, a uniform that was grey: for fashion’s sub-literates, it was a militant bore; for the connoisseur, formidably stylish. His men looked stunted but felt exalted. He erected aesthetic battle flags in the dispute amongst the monarchists and the insurgents, who represented both the rare and avant-guarde, over the exact cut of a suit. He embraced the art of dressing for work but scolded the piety of the life it often demanded.
Browne’s apotheosis among a conservative and a clotheshorse is that his designs pass muster with both parties. He flaunts styles of American prep—cardigans, checks and golf course pastels wrung of their colour to create soot—by way of drag queens and dandies. He uses classically popular fabrics including linen, seersucker and lightweight wools with perverse thrusts. For his Spring/Summer 2014 men’s collection, the designer sent a defile of stiff and slender models down the runway sporting bombastic drapes of American pageantry: inspired not by an officer or a gentleman, but by “Joan Crawford go[ing] to West Point”. Fashion critic Tim Blanks likened them to toy soldiers: “lips painted and cheeks rouged”. The preceding spring, Browne’s women’s collection was a paean to Bauhaus luminary Oskar Schlemmer. It featured silver ballerinas exerting their limbs atop turning discs, hot and hypnotic. Browne channeled the 1920s, but the finespun broderie anglaise didn’t relieve national malaise. Four months later, Michelle Obama wore one of Browne’s coats to her husband’s second inauguration.
Browne was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1965. He was one of seven children in an Irish Catholic household. Both his parents were attorneys; his older brother, Pat, a Republican member of the Pennsylvania State Senate. Browne attended the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a degree in economics. If the resolute loner didn’t find his love of fraternity at home, he might have sought it as a member of the swim team—tonic for someone of his quiet and reserve. Dreary of his milieu, Browne later escaped to Los Angeles and pursued a career in acting among the snobs, bohemians and their agents. He was cast in a number of painkiller and footwear commercials. “I haven’t been able to find them myself,” he says, though somewhere in the dusty corners of the Internet is a Motrin commercial in which Browne plays a jogger with a side stitch. In between odd jobs, Browne and a friend, Johnson Hartig—founder of the label Libertine, cult among “East Coast socialites and West Coast creatives”—bought and cut up vintage suits to be worn. “The one thing about LA is that everybody gets rid of their suits, so there’s a treasure trove of classic American tailoring,” he says.
He sold his car and returned to New York in 1997. Browne found a job in Giorgio Armani’s showroom, then, through a personal relationship with Ralph Lauren, was hired to join the merchandising and design team at Club Monaco. “Club Monaco had nothing to do with how I approach design,” he refutes. “It was basically a job. But I learned how the infrastructure of a business in fashion worked, but I left because it wasn’t a level of fashion I was interested in.” In 2001, Browne launched his label with five grey suits that he wore himself. “The world of jeans and t-shirts—that casual world—became a really horrible new establishment,” he said, in 2011. “My world of jackets and trousers became the anti-establishment.” Browne has worked with Rocco Ciccarelli, his tailor, since discovering his shop in Long Island City (Ciccarelli’s studio was eventually bought by Browne and now operates in-house). In 2008, on top of his own label, Browne joined Italian sportswear and down specialist Moncler to design their men’s line, Gamme Bleu, in a deal that was brokered by Robert Rabensteiner, fashion editor-at-large at L’Uomo Vogue. “It’s a challenge, but I enjoy it so much because Moncler makes me figure out problems,” he affirms.
The designer doesn’t make traditional sketches and avoids mood boards, reasoning that “you can forget enough about it to make it your own”. He doesn’t look at other designers’ work and never bothers with a stylist. His team—four on men’s collections, three on women’s, and two in the knit design team—are involved in conversations that begin with abstract sketches: taut, robotic forms that resemble crudely arranged Kandinsky lines. He shuns the myth that he’s a nostalgic designer. “It’s never literal. I’m not one of those designers that pine for another time,” he says. Moreover, he eschews the notion that he’s influenced by his father. “My father really isn’t part of my approach to design at all,” he laughs. “He’s the furthest thing from my aesthetic.” Did he ever inherit any piece of clothing from his father or brothers? “No,” he says, deadpan.
That undercurrent of sartorial patricide—sons dressed as wanton as their fathers were scrupulous—might have been detected in his Fall/Winter 2016 collection, presented in January. Each look appeared in triptych: first, ragged; then, slightly distressed; finally, pristine. “It’s the appreciation of well-made clothes, and wearing them until they basically fall apart,” Browne says. Fashion editor Carine Roitfeld once said that a suit can hide a lot of sins, and any one of Browne’s fans might feel the ache of his unique brand of moral extremism: cherishing complete uniformity. His practice in modern dressing—properness flirting with perversion—operate like two sides of a coin: while both can be seen, they cannot see each other.
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