Interview by Filep Motwary
Apart from shaping a new era for menswear, Thom Browne is also a skilled storyteller. It’s considered a true privilege to be invited to his shows because they exceed all expectations. There is no element of risk, as his world is very precise and draws circles around terms like elegance and classic while always managing to raise questions. Such was the case for his recent show where everything was about a gathering, or, more specifically, a funeral.
FILEP MOTWARY: You studied economics and you became an actor. At which stage did fashion enter the picture? What are your first fashion memories? And how did they shape you?
THOM BROWNE: I always really feel like life worked its way into almost me needing just a job, and the job happened to be in fashion. So, fashion wasn’t really anything I thought about. Maybe a little bit when I was in LA, when I was acting—with all my free time, I used to play with vintage clothing. But it’s not like I ever really thought about fashion as something to do, apart from simply something I liked and just had fun with. So fashion really started at my first job at Giorgio Armani. He got me into it and that specific job showed me the business of
fashion. And then came the need to do something on my own. Knowing that, I was going to do something that had a reason for its existence and also that meant something to people.
FM: How much time did it take you to set up Thom Browne and shape it as a company?
TB: It took me almost a year to develop the first thing that I wore myself. Working with a tailor that I am still working with, it took that long to really get
the proportion right because proportions were really where the fashion was. It was really getting that classic piece right so that it was almost a re-education for people, especially guys, in regards to tailored clothing. After that, it took the time of me just wearing it myself and having people respond to it…
And the setting up. I really wanted to do it on my own and self-founded it by taking special orders by people that appreciated the clothes on me. So about a year after that… The first collection didn’t start until the spring of 2004 but the business begun about a year and a half prior to that.
FM: Every show has a very strong theme. How do you decide on it and how long does it take to research? What are the commercial considerations, if any?
TB: The time of collections varies from season to season. It all depends how quickly I come up with the idea. Each collection is different: sometimes the idea for the show comes first, while at other times it comes later. It is very important to me to be able to put in font of people 40 interesting ideas and contextualize that with a story or a concept that just makes it more interesting. The collection itself and the way that is made, I think it is conceptual as well. The ideas and the stories I tell within the collections do translate into the commercial part but I never design thinking commercially—I always design from a purely conceptual point of view and the commercial part comes after.
FM: Your latest show was inspired by death and mourning attire and was presented far out from the centre of Paris, in quite an interesting area. It is not the first time you have used death in your shows. What is so fascinating about it? The gathering, the mortality or the loss?
TB: I almost celebrate the life that comes prior to death and that’s why I feel the concept of mourning, if done romantically and beautifully, is beautiful to show. In a way it shows that people are respecting and appreciating the person who has passed. For me the show was more about mourning than it was about death, appreciating that young guy’s life and how beautifully he lived through it and how he was confident, singular and how individual he wanted to be. There is something really beautiful about everyone coming together to celebrate that.
FM: I wonder if somehow your past as an actor is linked to the way you present your shows: since the Hollywood or screenplay approach is in your DNA as an American, this ability to fit beauty into the context of short timeframes and create something magical. I love your shows.
TB: I think in my collections there is a sensibility of me being American. I don’t know specifically about how I present or how the stories I tell are perceived. Good stories and good filmmaking are universal: there are amazing European directors and Asian directors and so on. From that perspective, I want to be a universal type of storyteller.
Maybe indirectly it does relate to my life as an actor yet I have evolved so much and grown since then. Everything in life has a reason and a meaning. I love putting images in front of people and telling interesting stories and this is the part I love the most in what I do. I want people to leave with an impression and their own interpretation of what my collection is about. A lot of my shows can be open to a lot of interpretations of what it is all about. I like the entertainment of it. I like it as much as you do.
FM: Why are your shows always so precise? Always raising emotion yet, we, the audience can only observe, not participate in those heroes’ lives…
TB: It makes it more interesting. Once something becomes too accessible, I think it becomes not as interesting. There is something really intriguing about not being able to be as familiar and I feel it plays into the intrigue and the concept of what I want to put in front of people.
FM: How does precision come into your personal life?
TB: Very much like that: very simple, organized and I don’t like a lot of things. I was always the one at school to finish things early as opposed to late. I did sports so I guess the rigour and the discipline comes somehow from that but it’s just my personality really.
FM: Why do you present your shows in Paris but not in Milan or New York?
TB: Milan I don’t because it approaches fashion more commercially and I feel I don’t fit in there. I do present my collection for Moncler Gamme Bleu there, which I think almost, satisfies that world for me and I know through that show it just feels more suited to the world of Monlcer. With Paris, there are two reasons… There hasn’t been a true men’s fashion week here in New York for a long time, but there will be in July. Also, logistically just in regards to getting production started, I never sell my collections before I show them, so I had to show them earlier and that happened to be in Europe. Paris I know really appreciates conceptual design and that is the most important reason, I would say.
FM: Fashion used to predict the future. Does it still? How does fashion link to the practicalities of the world?
TB: I don’t always intellectualize what I do so much nor think how it really affects what’s going on.
FM: Yes, but the outside considers your work as intellectual.
TB: Maybe, yes, but I approach it more instinctually that I do intellectually. What the future is I don’t really know and I never design thinking how this will affect the future. I almost blindly just do what I feel is right at the time.
FM: What about haute couture? In all your collections there are wonderfully crafted pieces, for both men and women, which go beyond prêt-a- porter. How do you perceive the meaning of craftsmanship and how feasible it is to sustain it in the context of ready to wear?
TB: The quality of what I do is sometimes the most fashionable thing of what I do. Even for the most conceptual pieces I want to make sure that the quality is as high as some of the most beautiful classics. The quality of my production is equally as high. I avoid separating my collections into ready to wear and what you see in my shows. It is all kind of one because the quality is approached on the same level.
FM: You helped develop the menswear uniform of our times: the tight fitting jacket, the cropped trousers, the schoolboy suit and the obsession with grey. How do you react when you see your work so widely copied?
TB: When I started I wanted to make a difference by creating something that affected people and I guess that’s how I react to it. It’s nice to do things that mean something to people.
FM: You have previously said that your muse lives an understated life. How does this relate to the explosion of magic and dark romance of your shows?
TB: I think it takes a lot of confidence to be able to live your life on your own.
FM: Do you work best alone or within a team?
TB: I work very well with people but I like to know that they are the best at what they do but I am also very comfortable working on my own.
FM: In what way can one still make a statement with fashion today?
TB: The only way is to make a statement that is true to yourself. When people approach fashion in a way that has nothing to do with the way they are, or that feels forced, it never works. It really works when something is very true to who you are.
FM: What, for you, is the greatest fashion invention of all time?
TB: I am the furthest from being a fashion historian… I don’t know. Maybe the zipper?
FM: What is most attractive thing on a man?
TB: A really well made suit.
Thom Browne is an American fashion designer. He is the founder and head of design for Thom Browne, a New York City-based menswear and womenswear brand. Browne made an audacious move in 2011, launching a womenswear collection at New York Fashion Week. His womenswear aesthetic is as equally novel as that of his menswear, however for all of his collection’s avant garde sensibilities Michelle Obama called upon the designer to custom make a coat dress for her husband’s second inauguration. Read more about Thom Browne here