America Runs on Thom Browne
By Aaron Hicklin
Thom Browne has always been disciplined. But his discipline has a touch of mania about it. From the age of 9 through to his college graduation, he swam five to seven hours a day, every day. It was very serious, very competitive -- and very solitary. 'You are so closed off from the world for those hours,' he says. 'There's so much time to think about things.' Browne does not swim anymore (although he does run eight miles most mornings), but you find yourself wondering about the effect of all those hours below water. His days, like his suits, are meticulously structured, beginning every morning with breakfast at Cafe Cluny (black coffee and white toast) in New York City's West Village and ending with a glass of champagne, often at Indochine, the 25-year-old French-Vietnamese restaurant on Lafayette Street. Has he ever sat down at his regular Cafe Cluny table and thought that it might be nice to try, say, Dunkin's for a change? 'There's a great place just two blocks away, but it would feel too different,' he says. 'I'm very organized, and I like things to be done in the way I envision them. Having that very regimented life makes that easier.'
Like his breakfast, the designer's stripped-down aesthetic resists elaboration. Miki Higasa, Browne's PR and right-hand woman, recalls taking him to a birthday party at a friend's baroque loft and knowing immediately how Browne would respond. 'She had so many really nice things, but it was like a warehouse,' she says. 'Lots of stuff, so much stuff,' adds Browne, wincing slightly. 'I'm not a shopper, and I can throw things away very easily. I spend money on food, but I'm not a collector. The only things I collect are champagne coupes.' This might seem oddly decadent for someone as spartan as Browne -- a mismatch with the military haircut and emblematic gray suits -- but his sensibility has always made room for a dash of verve. Whatever else it may be, his iconic short pant leg is a statement, one that requires confidence to pull off. His runway shows famously play more like performance theater -- or 'Sweeney Todd, meets David Lynch, meets Big Top Pee-wee,' as Bruce Pask, writing in The New York Times, described Browne's fall/winter 2008 presentation. That show included two models walking in a pair of three-legged pants. It's this combination of audacity and classicism that has made Browne the most influential American menswear designer of our time.
There was nothing preordained about Browne's life in fashion. The middle child of seven, he grew up in blue-collar Allentown, Penn., where he stood out for being quiet and self-contained. 'I am a loner -- I'm very comfortable being by myself,' he says. At the University of Notre Dame, he majored in business before moving to Los Angeles to try acting. His athleticism lent him credibility in ads for Reebok and Motrin, but 'the reality, five years later, of just getting commercial work wasn't going to do it.' By then, revolting against L.A.'s slacker code and inspired by a friend, Libertine designer Johnson Hartig, Browne had begun buying vintage suits and shrinking them in the dryer. It was, clearly, time to move to New York City.
When he introduced his shrunken suits at the beginning of the last decade, Browne's premise was simple: Men dressed better when they had less choice. Think of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, one of Browne's favorite movies, and you have the archetypal Thom Browne man in a nutshell. He's a gentleman with a lean, athletic build, a sophisticate who doesn't need to be told that brown shoes are for the country. Behind closed doors he may be a little kinky. Reviewing his fall/winter '09 collection in Florence last year, Suzy Menkes admired the 'atmospheric sense of pent-up masculinity' that the collection achieved: 'You knew that there was a Clark Kent Superman under the prim gray cardigans.'
At first, Browne was ahead of his time, the time being an endless regurgitation of the '70s and '80s. As a designer at Club Monaco 10 years ago, he couldn't give away his button-down cardigans, much less sell them. But time has caught up. His eponymous company may be small, but his influence is huge. The cardigan is firmly ensconced in the modern wardrobe, along with other Thom Browne flourishes, from a tighter silhouette to the humble tie-pin. Meanwhile, his beloved gray has become standard issue at Club Monaco, the place where it all started. And as for that collection of vintage coupes, have you noticed how every new bar in New York is doing that midcentury Breakfast at Tiffany's'meets'Mad Men thing?
But unlike Mad Men, Browne is not trying to recreate the past, so much as put a contemporary spin on it. 'There was something very charming about the way it was back then, but we're not back then,' he says. 'Why not try to create today's version of that?' For his next collection -- which uses rugby as a motif -- Browne promises to expand the proportions. 'Everyone thinks of me as small and tight and very fitted, and this is definitely pushing it and telling people there's a lot more to what I do.'
And the more there is to Thom Browne, the more there is to the rest of us. He says that he was a stubborn kid who 'never wanted to be like everyone else.' In the meantime, everyone else has become like him.