Thom Browne Explains the Thinking Behind His Dramatic Fashion Shows

From insane asylums to religious ceremonies, Browne approaches his fashion shows each season as a way to make his classic, more commercial pieces feel more exciting, he says.
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Tyler McCall
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From insane asylums to religious ceremonies, Browne approaches his fashion shows each season as a way to make his classic, more commercial pieces feel more exciting, he says.
Thom Browne and Robin Givhan at the FIAF. Photo: (c) Michael George, courtesy of French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)

Thom Browne and Robin Givhan at the FIAF. Photo: (c) Michael George, courtesy of French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)

Perhaps more than any American designer currently in business, Thom Browne treats his fashion shows as theater -- or more accurately, as provocation.

"I think it makes the commercial part of our business more interesting," Browne told journalist Robin Givhan during a talk Monday night at the French Institute Alliance Française. "I also need it so I'm not bored."

From insane asylums to religious ceremonies, Browne approaches his fashion shows each season as a way to make his classic, more commercial pieces feel more exciting. His team works on runway pieces without any kinds of mood boards or visual aids.

Browne is open to anything design-wise, so long as it doesn't feel like costume -- a distinction he calls instinctual. "I want to sometimes scare myself," he said of his conceptual designs. "Clothing can be a lot more than you see on the street."

And while he hopes people leave his shows understanding why his clothes exist, he's not that fussed if you don't get the concept. "I feel like [the audience] leaving with those questions and answering it themselves is more interesting than me answering for them," he said. "I feel like I'm not doing something right if more people do like it."

But while he still shows his women's collections in New York, Browne decamped several seasons ago to show his menswear in Paris. "[Showing in Paris] changed the business -- I don't like to sell the collections before I show them," he said, emphasizing the importance of giving his clothes context. (New York does not currently have a menswear-dedicated fashion week; the European menswear shows happen before the seasonal menswear sales.)

More than that, though, Browne finds more support abroad -- especially, he says, in Japan and Europe -- for both his clothing and his theatrics. "Paris does embrace more conceptual design; it's embraced what I do for men more than New York," he told Givhan.

Of course, he's been very successful at home as well, including CFDA Award wins in 2006 and 2013, and another nomination for menswear this year. But while he's proud of those wins, he also doesn't set too much store in them.

"I feel like winning awards in a creative field is a bizarre concept," he said, adding jokingly, "I feel like all of us who run a business deserve an award."