Local shoppers warm to designer Thom Browne's American tailoring

It took a while, but Hong Kong shoppers have finally come around to the Thom Browne way, writes Abid Rahman

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 6:26pm

It's a humid September afternoon in Hong Kong but US designer Thom Browne looks comfortable in his trademark shorts, structured grey jacket, white shirt and black skinny tie. And, of course, no socks.

Browne has walked the short distance from his hotel to Joyce in Central, busying himself with preparations for the Hong Kong launch of his autumn-winter 2013 men's and women's collections, as well as a showcase of his spring-summer 2014 collections.

To mark the occasion, Joyce has commissioned an eye-catching Amish barn-inspired window display. "I grew up in Pennsylvania near the Amish area, so it was an homage to the Amish," says Browne.

The Amish influence also informs his clothes with Browne's square-brimmed hat, a highlight of his autumn men's collection, not too far off the round brimmed variety that is de rigueur with the Amish community. And as with everything Browne does, it retains the core principles of classic American tailoring and a simple, typically Thom Browne, colour palette.

"Every season is different. The autumn collection is based on military uniforms, primarily '40s military uniforms, and the colour comes from the groups of colours: red and white; grey and white; navy and white; and black and white."

On the first floor of Joyce, Browne is also showcasing his latest spring-summer collection for women, which again has its origin in structured military clothing, but adds a dash of Elizabethan costume, a smidgen of the macabre and a whole dollop of the finest American couture.

Thom Browne's journey to the top of the fashion world lacks the order and clarity of his clothing, partly because the 48-year-old never really had that burning "passion for fashion" at an early age. "I never really thought about clothing when I was growing up. I grew up in a large family and we all basically wore Brooks Brothers, and that's what I grew up in and that's what I liked. I was comfortable in it. I like the idea of almost having a uniform and not having to think about clothes."

Studying economics at the University of Notre Dame, Browne's path seemed to be heading in the opposite direction to fashion. After graduation his life to another turn - he headed to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting. "When I lived in LA, in the '90s, I started playing with vintage clothing. That's probably where it all started," he says.

In LA, he gave vintage suits a modern spin. In a city famous for its relaxed aesthetic of jeans and T-shirts, Browne quickly gained a reputation as the guy who always wore immaculately tailored suits. But it was only with a move to New York did Browne start taking fashion seriously. "In New York I worked for Giorgio Armani. That was the initial immersion into the world of fashion."

Browne's potential was eventually spotted by Club Monaco, where he went to work for the creative design team. At Club Monaco he learned the business of fashion, which only fuelled his desire for striking out on his own. "It was their world [at Club Monaco], and you respect that and you learn from that. I wanted to do my own thing. I almost wanted to re-educate guys and then girls about really well-made clothes, about tailoring, but done in a younger way."

But it is Browne's passion for classic American tailoring that really comes across when speaking to him. "Well I don't think Americans really appreciated American tailoring, up until now," he says, expounding on some of his theories as to why it fell by the wayside. "Things went awry because things like casual Fridays came in," he says with a laugh. More seriously he adds, "also the influence of European fashion became more prevalent in the US and [people] thought more of that than what they had in their backyard. That soft European suit became what was cool for guys. And that stiff, heavily canvassed jacket went away. But I always loved really structured clothing," he says.

Browne is pleased his focus on classic American tailoring has reached a wider audience both in the States and in places such as Hong Kong, in part popularised by the successful television show
Mad Men, which is set in the '60s.

Although a fan of the show, Browne stresses that he was revitalising American tailoring "quite a bit before"
Mad Men. He was taking it in a more modern direction with his own label and for others, including the well-received Black Fleece capsule collection for his beloved Brooks Brothers and a more sporty edge with the Gamme Bleu line for Moncler.

On top of those collaborations Browne has found time to design eyewear for Dita and men's jewellery for Harry Winston. "Time is becoming an issue. I do 16 collections a year. Womenswear is now important for me, so I want to make sure I have time for that," Browne says.

Staying true to his principles has proved to be a recipe for success for Browne. In just over a decade, his American aesthetic with modern twists have seen his brand grow from cult to industry benchmark, and Browne has the baubles of success to prove it, not least the Council of Fashion Designers of America menswear of the year award in 2006 and 2013.

Browne has been working with Joyce for almost six years, and while things weren't always so rosy, his determined approach eventually won through. "When it first came to Joyce it didn't do well at all. The weights were too heavy, and people didn't know who I was. It didn't sell very well," says Browne.

Things are different now with business booming and Browne's influence spreading. Through it all, however, he hasn't deviated from his core beliefs. "Strangely, the weights haven't changed much, but I think it's because people know me better now, and times have changed."