By DAVID COLMAN
ACCORDING to the current fashion playbook, Thom Browne has made several crucial errors in his five years as a men’s wear designer. He has been out of step with the real world, focusing on a fastidiously tight and buttoned-up look when most designers aim to accommodate a dressed-down workplace. He has been out of step with fashion, working in fusty, old-man fabrics like gray flannel, while others are dressing men in denim, velvet and nylon.
He has yet to have a proper runway show. He is not a fixture on the party circuit. He does not give clothes to celebrities. And his basic suits, which average about $3,500, are so expensive that, even on sale and with a friendly insider discount, the young trendies who talk up and flaunt new designer labels are completely unable to play along.
Worst of all, he wears his pants profanely short, revealing not only ankle — he does not wear socks — but a good three inches of shin. This not only elicits jeers from wiseacres on every street — “Hey, Pee-wee!” is one of the most printable — but also sneers from fashion snobs who prefer their $350 skinny jeans to crumple just so over their Dior winkle-pickers.
The result of all those blunders is that Thom Browne, 41, is today the most envied and influential American men’s wear designer. Five years ago, the short-jacket-and-pants silhouette he created looked sweet but goofy, a look no real man would wear. Now he has won the Council of Fashion Designers of America award as men’s wear designer of the year; the venerable Brooks Brothers has signed him up to do special collections; and his signature look is being copied, however blurrily, by more than a dozen men’s wear lines, from traditionalists like DKNY and Zegna to edge-of-fashion houses like Nom de Guerre.
“He hasn’t conformed to normal business strategy,” said Tommy Fazio, the men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, where Thom Browne is a top-selling line. “At the beginning, I think people were skeptical. But he’s always true to his aesthetic, and now everyone is following suit.”
You can debate whether he has actually made it fashionable for men to show off their ankles, since almost none of his customers wear their Thom Browne pants as short as he does. But he has made the “break” — that faint crumple of trouser leg dusting the top of the shoe, a strict standard of men’s business dress for decades — look sloppy and obsolete. It is a difference of perhaps a half-inch, but what a half-inch.
“There’s something about dressing like Pee-wee Herman that I didn’t fully understand at first,” said Daniel Peres, the editor of Details. “And in all honesty, I am not certain I fully understand it today. But whether you personally appreciate the silhouette or not, he’s taken something men do every morning for years — put on a suit — and made it different. It’s really a tremendous feat.”
Moreover, his enthusiasm for minute details of tailoring (not trained as a tailor himself, he steadfastly insists on having the suits in his line handmade by expert Italian tailors in Queens) has made the idea of putting on a suit seem not an unwelcome duty but a luxurious option, a concept almost alien to a generation of men in their 30’s and 40’s. And for better or for worse, his prices have helped legitimize the suit as a status item with young men for whom Brioni and Kiton seem old hat (and even for the not so young: Ronald O. Perelman has four of them. Other clients include George Stephanopoulos and David Bowie.)
Mr. Browne’s business is still small — his line is sold in 22 stores worldwide and only six in the United States — but last month, Brooks Brothers signed him to an open-ended two-year contract to design men’s and women’s collections for the store, with projected first-year sales in the range of $10 million to $20 million. It was a match initiated by the Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, who called Claudio Del Vecchio, the company chairman, to suggest that Browne might help revitalize the Brooks brand.
“Thom Browne is going to give us a different dimension,” Mr. Del Vecchio said. “He’s more on the edge of fashion, but it will still fit in the store.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Browne sought and received permission from the Chambre Syndicale in Paris to show at the men’s collections there, a first for an American men’s designer. Yesterday Harry Winston announced that it had hired him to design a line of men’s jewelry. And this week, Mr. Browne is opening a 2,000-square-foot store at 100 Hudson Street in TriBeCa, its ivory terrazzo floor and gray marble walls bringing to mind, as his clothes do, an elegant early-60’s bank somewhere between Milan and Pittsburgh.
In his counterintuitive plan of attack are lessons about what it takes to cut through the fierce and famously stodgy world of men’s wear. If other designers try to create looks in step with fashion, with just enough personality to stand out, Mr. Browne began by making clothes that he wanted to wear, and was soon wearing them all day, every day, slipping out of character only for his morning run in Central Park.
In 2001, urged on by his then boyfriend, Charles Fagan, an executive at Polo Ralph Lauren, and his longtime friend David Biscaye, an architect with Biscaye Frères (he designed Mr. Browne’s store and wears his clothes), he quit his job as the creative fashion director of Club Monaco and started simply. With some backing from his siblings, he rented a little showroom and store in the meatpacking district.
Just as important, he started eating breakfast — black coffee and white toast — every morning around the corner at Pastis, neatly dressed in a Thom Browne suit-slash-sandwich board.
“I was very conscious about that, because I did want people to recognize what I stood for,” Mr. Browne said last week at Il Cantinori, the Greenwich Village restaurant where he dines on grilled salmon, green peas and Champagne roughly three nights a week. “At the same time, I really do wear these clothes because this is what I like.”
It was at Pastis that he and his shrunken fit caught the attention of stylish men like Euan Rellie, a natty-dressing British-born banker, and Frank L. Fleming, a costume designer, who enlisted Mr. Browne to design clothes for Ewan McGregor’s character in the film “Stay” (2005). “He was this little inside secret, there every day, never talking to anyone, just drinking his coffee and looking impeccable,” Mr. Rellie recalled.
His style also caught the eye of Robert Burke and Ron Frasch, then of Bergdorf Goodman, who bought his line for the store. There, the line was so clearly different that you wondered if it would not be better on the more conservative second floor rather than the third, where his sober-sided gray flannels and navy cashmere clashed with the colorful designer scene.
But the clothes caught on with an underserved customer: the businessman who wants to look both conservative and cool. Brian Swardstrom, a prominent agent who had known Mr. Browne in the mid-90’s when he was living in Hollywood and struggling to be an actor. Running into him years later, Mr. Swardstrom bought a suit, and after a brief panic at how short it was, became a devoted customer.
“They’re actually really classic,” he said. “They remind me of the 60’s, when Lew Wasserman was running MCA, when it was still an agency. He had a policy that everyone had to wear dark suits, white shirts and dark ties, and that’s kind of the Thom Browne aesthetic.”
Not everyone embraces the look, of course. “Maybe if you’re 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, you can pull it off,” said the men’s wear designer Alan Flusser. He also derided Brooks Brothers for choosing Mr. Browne to design for the company. “One of the things for them is a certain naturalness about how you wear clothes, and his style is anything but natural. It’s contrived.”
Where Mr. Flusser sees artifice and pretense, Mr. Browne sees spirit and individuality. “I think that clothing being natural is all in the way a guy wears it,” he said, adding that he is not after an army of men in clam-diggers, but men who are “classic, with a little personality.”
Indeed, one of the curious secrets of Mr. Browne’s clothes is that they do look good, even natural, on a wider range of men than one would guess. It helps to be relatively fit, but that can be said for almost every fashion line. And if he is frustrated by the perception that his clothes are designed for a select group of rich, superlean esthetes, he is aware that it has helped him more than hurt.
As David A. Aaker, the vice chairman of Prophet, a brand management company, pointed out, “One aspect of brand success is creating something that’s different and memorable.”
And as David Byrne once observed, “People will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit.”
“I never heard that, but I love it,” Mr. Browne said when told of Mr. Byrne’s remark. “People think wearing a uniform makes you less interesting, but I think the opposite.”
Even in his uniform, Mr. Browne has imagination to spare. His presentation for fall 2006 was a kind of boy’s school alpine fantasy on ice, with models on skates displaying his signature plays on proportion, like shorts and floor-length overcoats, and old-world touches like sock garters.
His spring 2007 presentation was a haunting 30-minute film by the artist Anthony Goicolea, called “The Septembrists.” It was set in some bizarre, rural tailoring-fetish commune, like a blend of an Amish community and a military academy. In a series of vignettes, a dormitory full of young men arise, pick their own cotton to make and sew clothes, go octopus fishing at night to extract the inky dye, and perform ritual baptisms — all the while scrupulously dressed to the nines in tailored gauze and broadcloth.
Beautifully filmed at a farm in Massachusetts, the film makes an excellent metaphor for how fanatical, verging on fetishistic, Mr. Browne’s vision is. And how blinkered. “I don’t like to know what’s going on,” he said, explaining why he does not like to go shopping. “It’s too easy to be influenced. It’s better to be totally off base and have it be something you love.”
It is also easier not to see himself as a player. “It’s not hard, really, if you do your thing,” he said. “Then it’s not the game of fashion.”
And, it appears, it’s easier to win.