Far From Uniform

Far From Uniform

Fashion designer Thom Browne on creativity, dress codes and curating Visions of America at Sotheby's New York
Fashion designer Thom Browne on creativity, dress codes and curating Visions of America at Sotheby's New York

I n a pristine showroom on the 16th floor of an office block in Manhattan’s Garment District, Thom Browne recalls the time when one of his employees wore pink socks to work. “Pink socks are not allowed!” he says and chuckles – though he is absolutely not joking. Browne, the designer best-known for shrinking the proportions of the suit, is a stickler for detail. His staff dress in accordance with precise specifications, as outlined in an 11-page handbook. There are edicts on shoes, buttons and colour: from Monday to Thursday, they may wear one of three shades of grey; on Fridays, navy jackets are permitted.

Entering his office feels like stepping into an immersive theatre production: figures in grey blazers, cropped trousers, shorts and pleated skirts mill around in spaces sparsely populated by mid-century furniture. The entrance is pure film noir: a glass wall covered in Venetian blinds, a long marble corridor, a wooden desk and leather chair, enigmatically free of personnel or clutter. Though his staff are clearly adults – fashion adults at that, with tattoos and directional haircuts – the influence of the uniform Browne wore to his Catholic school in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is apparent. “The image of us together is not fashion at all,” he says. “It’s like an amazing piece of living art.”

“Being American means the freedom to do things that are true to yourself”
– Thom Browne

It has been 20 years since Browne launched his business with a handful of suits – designed in shrunken proportions, purely because he liked them – and no formal fashion training. In the early days, “people laughed” and even some friends told him his suits didn’t fit right. But he persisted, gradually winning over influential fans, including David Bowie, and eventually the fashion industry. In 2011, he launched womenswear. In 2013, he dressed Michelle Obama in a sleek coat for her husband’s second inauguration. In 2018, the Italian textile company Zegna bought 85% of the business for an estimated $500 million.

Models at Browne’s Autumn/Winter 2009 show in Florence

Now a grandee of American fashion, he recently replaced Tom Ford as chair of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the body that promotes American designers. A large part of his focus is on nurturing the next generation of independent talent. He hopes to lead by experience. When he speaks to young designers, he advises them to do something that’s their own. “That was easy for me – I just did it. I didn’t think about anybody else liking it.”

Clearly, the US has birthed many incredible designers – some mononymic in their fame. “Ralph, Donna and Calvin created the American sensibility,” he says, adding Marc Jacobs, Ralph Rucci, Isabel Toledo and Rick Owens among its biggest talents. Now, he says, “We need strong, independent designers that will sustain their careers and become important enough to become the next generation.”

To that end, within his role as curator of the upcoming Visions of America sale series, he is collaborating with Sotheby’s on an auction to raise money for the CFDA Foundation, which funds scholarships and mentoring. Browne has donated a bombastic tulle creation worn by Erykah Badu, a regular within his circle of tastemakers (others include Whoopi Goldberg, Cardi B, Janelle Monáe, LeBron James and South Korean boyband BTS). Other designers donated pieces that “idealistically, museums would want to collect... A mix of iconic designers and new designers that are doing really good conceptual work.”

Erykah Badu at the 2017 Soul Train Awards, wearing the outfit that Browne has donated to raise money for the CFDA Foundation. Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET

Championing American creativity matters to Browne, in defiance of longstanding narratives that US fashion has prioritised commerce at the cost of it. He says the CFDA is showing the world “slowly, but surely” that this is not the case. “There is a pure, diverse level of creativity that I think is very unique to America,” he says. Browne is ideally placed to make this argument, with his boundary-pushing design and shows that are about “more than just the clothing”.

Those shows have high production values and complex storylines, with models playing aliens or emerging from coffins. Detail reigns throughout – the caskets’ padded interiors lined with an on-brand ticking stripe. “I want you to see the story being told through the collection,” he says. At one show in Florence, Browne styled all 40 models in precisely the same way, sitting at desks in grey suits, clattering away at typewriters. “I love the idea of corporate America, the monotony of corporate life, but introducing it in interesting ways. The repetition made it look interesting. But the reality, when people think of that lifestyle, almost turns them away.”

“I think we’re all kind of misfits, in a way, trying to make it all happen”
– Thom Browne

He very much sees himself as an American designer. What America means, he says, is “diversity and freedom. I think being American sometimes means the freedom to create something new, do things that are true to yourself.” He adds that the “idea of genderless fashion feels very American to me”.

Browne has lived all over the US: he studied at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana; he lived in Los Angeles for six years, and briefly dabbled in acting, before moving to New York City, which has been his most enduring home. But it is his childhood, as one of seven siblings in an Irish-Catholic family in Pennsylvania – “classic, quintessential Middle America”, in his words – that he returns to most.

Backstage at the Thom Browne Autumn/ Winter 2023 show. Photo: Nina Westervelt/WWD via Getty Images.

“The northern East Coast is probably my biggest reference. That old, preppy aesthetic, which I feel is quintessentially American,” he says. “It’s a very Ivy League sensibility, taken to an almost-uptight level of aesthetic, which is funny to play with.” It is also intrinsically linked with sport, a big part of Browne’s life – he swam “at least four hours a day” from the age of six until he graduated college.

His designs all feature a red, white and blue grosgrain trim inspired by swimming medals, there in a subtle flash, around the buttons at the wrist, or behind the pleat of a skirt, making his items instantly recognisable. Another motif – four bands – is also a sporting reference. He runs a lot, and believes swimming influenced his drive: “If you’re a swimmer and you don’t make the Olympics, you think, ‘I wasted all this time. And I didn’t make the Olympics.’ But what you take from it is the rigour and the discipline. I’m very competitive with myself.”

Browne’s 2017 tennis capsule collection drew on an Ivy League and sportswear aesthetic. Photo: Courtesy of Thom Browne

Browne is hugely inspired by American art and culture. He loves Hollywood films of the 1920s–40s, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cites Mark Rothko, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper and Eric Fischl among his favourite visual artists. He has an orderly eye for architecture: he admires many of Manhattan’s minimalist skyscrapers (the Seagram Building and Lever House particularly), and Philip Johnson’s almost-transparent mid-century Glass House in Connecticut.

Over the past three years or so, he has become a collector himself (prior to that, any money earned went back into his business.) He has a John Singer Sargent painting, Study of a Nude Boy, 1901, which he bought in a private sale at Sotheby’s, where he also acquired a Brâncuși and two Milton Avery works – Picnic, 1942, and Piano Player Waiting, 1963. As collectors, he and his partner Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “are very instinctual, but we love paintings, sculpture – Antony Gormley would be nice”. This extends to furniture; they have two Diego Giacometti tables.

Milton Avery, Piano Player Waiting, 1963, purchased by Browne at Sotheby’s. Photo: © 2023 The Milton Avery Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Browne likes architecture that is “square and rectangular”; he and Bolton recently bought an “iconically perfect 18th-century Georgian house” upstate, built by one of New York’s founding families. “George Washington ate there once,” he says. In Manhattan, the couple live in a 1920s neo-Georgian townhouse in Midtown East, on the river. New York has been home now for longer than Pennsylvania ever was. And, while Browne doesn’t overtly reference the city in his designs, he finds the people endlessly inspiring. “I had a collection I loosely called the Island of Misfit Toys – and I feel like [the city] is such an Island of Misfit Toys. You look around and think, ‘Where did that person come from?’ I think we’re all kind of misfits, in a way, trying to make it all happen.”

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