Thom Browne talks of his inspiration for spring-summer 2016 line
Designer plans to bring back quality American tailoring with the purchase of a suit-making facility in New York
Thom Browne is having a wardrobe crisis. The New York-based designer is due to have dinner at the China Club later this evening but is in a panic over the restaurant's "no shorts" dress code. It turns out that the man who is famous for bringing the suit back in for contemporary fashion, does not travel with a pair of trousers.
"Well, what if someone from Bermuda shows up," he says laughing, signalling to his perfectly pressed, tailored Bermuda shorts.
"Of course, I respect dress codes, but this is my uniform. It's always a grey suit. I don't know why women don't have uniforms too. It would make their lives so much easier," he says.
While it's unlikely that many women would subscribe to Browne's personal style philosophy, it's certainly resonated with men. Ever since his shrunken suits landed in boutiques such as Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Colette in Paris in the mid-noughties, Browne caused a style revolution in the way men dressed, something not witnessed since the days of Giorgio Armani.
Soon they were taking to the streets in his buttoned up, conservative jackets and ankle baring trousers, a look, that according to one GQ writer, makes the wearer look like Pee-wee Herman's employer.
Today, he has a cult following. A recent event at his new Hong Kong boutique attracted a sea of Thom Browne clones and Mini-Mes dressed in his signature grey suit bearing the brand's tricoloured grosgrain tag like a badge of honour.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Browne's clothes weren't always this popular.
"Business was so bad at the beginning but [Joyce boutique in Hong Kong] kept buying. They couldn't even give them away!" he jokes.
Born in Allentown, in the US state of Pennsylvania, Browne had a classic American upbringing. The middle child of seven, he was raised in a strict Roman Catholic household where there was no place for fashion and Brooks Brothers navy jackets and grey trousers were the order of the day.
"Fashion came in a few years after I graduated. Growing up in my family we never thought about fashion - there were no Vogue or anything like that in the house. If my father didn't have a suit on he wouldn't have known what to wear. My mother was an attorney and dressed very classically," he says.
After graduating from Notre Dame University, he moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. It was there that he started buying and altering vintage men's suits together with his friend, Libertine designer Johnson Hartig.
When it was obvious that his acting career was going nowhere, he relocated to New York where he landed jobs at Armani and Club Monaco. It was soon after that he met famed menswear tailor Rocco Ciccarelli, who would help him bring his label to life.
"My biggest education was with Rocco. I was buying fabrics from this guy and I asked him if he knew a tailor and he recommended Rocco. So I walked into his place out of the blue, and he looked at me like he did every New York designer, and probably thought, 'here we go again'. But I think it was my conviction that eventually won him over," says Browne, whose first collection consisted of - you guessed it - five grey suits that referenced silhouettes from the 1950s and '60s.
He initially specialised in made-to-measure suits and it wasn't until a few years later, for spring-summer 2004, that Browne decided to show his first ready-to-wear collection.
"I wanted to do ready-to-wear because I wanted more people to wear it. It was not this thought-out strategy - most designers have a master business plan, but for me it was about making beautiful things that look different. What I do for ready-to-wear is still based on something classic and very understandable. The concept was in the proportion," he says.
Browne's exaggerated silhouettes initially won over fans and his theatrical fashion shows have helped increase his brand's awareness.
Over the years he has shown models emerging from coffins; playing a game of hunter and hunted; or dressed identically sitting at desks like characters from TVs Mad Men. At the end of one show, black ash fell from the sky reminiscent of nuclear fallout.
"I do the shows because I don't need to show the classic part - they prove that I am still part of a world that's energetic, interesting and provocative. When you think of Thom Browne many people do have an image in their head, which is why I create these conceptual shows. I still need to make it more interesting each season," he explains.
Take, for example, his recent spring-summer 2016 collection, where he created a Japanese-inspired set complete with a tatami house and geisha warriors. His classic grey suits were updated with high armholes and kimono jackets covered in embroidery and raffia threadwork showcasing traditional Japanese motifs such as koi, Mount Fuji, chrysanthemums and dragons. It made quite a spectacle.
On his creative process, Browne says he takes inspiration from closing his eyes.
"I close my eyes and imagine," he says. "I try to remember and forget as much as I can. It makes it so much easier to create something new when you are not staring at things. Not knowing a lot makes it so much easier."
While his menswear line has made him a pioneer in some circles, it's his womenswear work that's starting to gain momentum. He debuted his first ready-to-wear collection in 2011 (he has offered bespoke since the beginning) and it wasn't long before Michelle Obama was seen wearing one of his coats. Like the men's line, it's all about beautiful tailoring brought to life with new constructions, exceptional fabrics and embellishments.
"I never wanted to start a revolution with men's and women's clothing, but it is what it is. Women come for the same thing as men, which really is the tailoring. Everyone has an opinion about what I do, and it is even worse for women," he says.
Looking ahead, Browne's world could get bigger. The designer recently announced that he has purchased a tailoring facility in New York, which previously belonged to Ciccarelli, who has also officially joined his brand.
The facility will make all his made-to-measure suits, which still account for a significant part of his business, as well as a small collection of ready-to-wear suits that will be available at his freestanding boutiques including in Hong Kong (his ready-to-wear line is predominantly made in Japan).
He held a show in New York last month to showcase a handmade line.
"It's a bigger story than just the new collection. American tailoring is disappearing. Here I am trying to bring it back by opening a facility with one of the best tailors in the world while mentoring other tailors. This level of work doesn't exist anymore. People usually go to UK and Italy for it, but is now made in the US. It's something I also want to bring to women's soon," he says.