Thom Browne has been dubbed "the most underestimated designer in New York." With a business bigger than that of The Row or Proenza Schouler and critically lauded fashion shows that often feel like avant-garde performance pieces, Browne has demonstrated that he knows what he's doing on both the art and commerce sides of the fashion coin.
The designer known for the gray suit he wears as a uniform started his tailoring-centric line in 2001 with five suits he sold out of his apartment. Since then, he's grown his business to the point that he has 130 employees, both women's and men's lines and a revenue stream approaching $120 million to $125 million a year, according to the New York Times.
On Wednesday night, Browne joined New York fashion mainstay Fern Mallis for a discussion at 92Y about everything from being an aimless college kid to hanging around Los Angeles to getting hired by Ralph Lauren. Read on for highlights from their conversation.
On his early career
While he may seem like a person of singular vision and focus now, Browne says it took him some time to find his footing. After majoring in economics at Notre Dame ("I had no clue what I wanted to do in college"), he took a consulting job for nine months that he loathed. Browne decided to quit, moved to Los Angeles and struggled to make ends meet while living with his friend Johnson Hartig, who would eventually go on to found the label Libertine. Despite LA at that time being full of people who Browne would have described as having "no style at all, unless they get it for free," it became his introduction to the fashion world through the vintage clothing that he and Hartig thrifted and altered for themselves.
Eventually, Browne moved back to New York and took a job as a receptionist at Giorgio Armani. After having lived so cheaply for years, he "just wanted a job, [and] didn't care where it was at that point." But fashion wasn't done with him. Browne met Ralph Lauren through Ralph Lauren exec Charles Fagan, Browne's then-beau, and was hired to start designing for Club Monaco.
"I designed everything that we couldn't give away," Browne laughed, explaining that his attempts to bring tailored clothing to the Club Monaco man were less than successful.
On ignoring naysayers and doing it his own way
Still, Browne didn't abandon his love for fitted suits. In the early days, he says, no one really got what he was trying to do.
"People laughed at me," he said. "Tailored clothing is such a classic aesthetic and classic idea that if you don't push it really far, it just becomes another piece of clothing... That's why the proportion was exaggerated. It was exaggerated specifically because I wanted people to see the difference."
Luckily, a few "visionary merchants" from Colette and Bergdorf Goodman took a chance on him early on, even though his collections were often late and quite expensive. In the years since, his singular commitment to doing things his way — whether that's creating windowless stores, looking for unique ways to practice e-commerce or producing highly conceptual shows — has been Browne's default position.
On his love for the commercial — and the Kardashians
Despite the fact that he's well-respected for the artistry of his shows, Browne made it clear that he doesn't see himself as existing in some artist's world that's separate from commerce. He admitted to loving "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," explaining that "it really comes down to what they've created for themselves. That's what I respond to."
Ultimately, it's the ability for any person to stick with their own vision that earns his respect, which is how he explained the fact that he may get more excited about dressing an unknown person walking down the street than he does about some big-name celebrity. If he can sense their vision for themselves is consistent, he's a fan. The same rule applies to his attitude toward other designers.
"The people that I respond to are very true to themselves — that doesn't mean just on a conceptual level," Browne said. "If you're a commercial designer and that's who you are, and that's how you approach design, then great. As long as you're very true to yourself, that's who I respect."
On his relationship with Andrew Bolton
While Mallis had to work to coax Browne into divulging his feelings about many of the subjects she brought up, from his business to his coming out process as a kid raised in an observant Catholic family, there was one set of questions that easily succeeded in prompting him to leave his reticence behind: his partner of almost seven years, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Andrew Bolton.
"I think Andrew is the most important person in fashion," Browne said, "because of what he does at the museum. He elevates fashion to a level that justifies the work that goes into it."