THOM BROWNE

INSIDE THE MIND THOM BROWNE

He just won his lawsuit against Adidas who accused him of having plagiarized its famous stripes. In nearly 20 years, Thom Browne, 55, has built a silhouette, a universe and a business. All that from a simple grey suit. How did he do it? The answer lies somewhere between his hometown in Pennsylvania and his New York offices.

By Raphaël Malkin, in Allentown and New York.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 4.


We start in this long corridor, carved in imposing black marble. At the end, under the cold light of a halogen lamp, a mahogany desk behind which no one is sitting, expect perhaps a ghost. Than this thick, heavy silence. Suddenly, a small group bursts out from behind a glass door and dashes towards a nearby elevator, eyes kept firmly to the ground. They all wear the same outfit, fancy or confusing, one might wonder. Their grey jackets stop just below the waist, the pants just above the ankle. Some wear atop the outfit some white lab coats. At the 14th floor of one of those monstrous buildings of the Garment District, one the west side of Manhattan, in New York City, creator Thom Browne’s building could be the setting for an anticipation novel. “Welcome to the Matrix,” whispers one of the few staff still wandering the floor.

But the king of the castle welcomes us with a bright smile. It almost looks like he blushes when he says hello. Several rooms further in, Thom Browne is hard at work on his next collection. Everywhere around him, grey clothes on hampers. He’s obviously wearing a grey suit as well, but his had the pants turned into shorts, showing his knees, as well as a pair of black wool socks with white stripes…. At Thom Browne’s, everybody wears the designer’s clothes. It’s the rule, top to bottom. From the busybodies in administration to the dashing Rodrigo Bazan, the brand’s general director, to every member of the workshop, nobody can avoid it. Even outsider consultants, passing by for a single day, must abide by the rule, and too bad if they have to change in a cab or prepare another outfit for the rest of the day… ‘I’m attempting to create a world, Thom Browne’s world, and that requires everybody’s immersion,’ explain the designer, ‘things have to be pure.’ In fact, everyone here remembers the day when an employee had the gall to present himself wearing random pink socks. We never saw the pink socks again. The man was spared, but it was a close call.


LIONEL, LEBRON, AND THE OTHERS

It’s a firm - and a designer - that stands apart. When asked to define his world, Thom Browne has this answer: ‘my world is that of the uniform. It allows me to evacuate the question of style and focus on the other things life has to offer…’ Yet, everything in his life revolves around that timeless style, codified, immutable. Grey suits in serge of wool super 120. Square jackets but tight and short, very short. Pants shortened (‘They must arrive at the top of the ankle and finish with a 6cm reverse’) or shorts (‘the right length is right above the knee.) White oxford shirts (‘never buttoned up to the top, that’s forbidden’). Narrow ties, often grey too (‘always tied in a tiny four in hand’). There’s also the shoes, imposing brogues or boots in black leather, tripled soled. There’s also this signature, a piece of heavy grain blue-white-red, found randomly at Mokuba, in Manhattan, and visible on the back of the jackets, under the collar, or on the back of the shoes.

Since his beginning in 2001, Thom Browne’s plays with this wardrobe short and referenced. He declines it in various ways, plays with it, deconstructs it, adapts it for women or sometimes to the exigence of showrooms, but never strays too far. ‘In fashion, dozens of creators have changed style because they thought it would net them a better profit,’ says Margaret Spaniolo, former head buyer of Bergdorf Goodman, the mainstays of New York’s Fifth Avenue. ‘Thom did the opposite. He had a vision, and he stuck with it his own life, he never left anyone destroy him.’ That’s how he managed to drag in his wake a drove of fans. Around fashion shows, walking in groups, all wearing grey, they pop out. Among those, we see a lot of Japanese, some English and some Americans. Andrew Bolton, the omniscient curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, is part of the tribe. Because he loves Thom Browne’s style, or because he shares his life with him? Probably a bit of both. In New York, the shop of Hudson Street, in Lower Manhattan, also has its mainstay customers. Interior designers, restaurant owners, and directors of various and many things. There’s also that old lawyer, who can tell all the fabrics from the tip of his fingers, or this recent millionaire who, every month, makes the trip from Canada in order to buy himself a new jackets and pants, even though, behind the counters, some whisper ‘that he doesn’t know much about fashion.’

Other customers, more illustrious yet, have recently joined the Browne’s stables. Among them, the players of the FC Barcelona football club, dressed by Browne for their last two seasons. A big money story? Not really, or at least not only. It all began with a simple message from a member of the Catalan giants marketing team to the designer, as a fan, on LinkedIn… One year later Messi was parading in a grey suit, under the jeers of supporters with little knowledge of Thom Browne’s work. Things happened more naturally with basketball superstar LeBron James. He started to buy suits on his own, before meeting Thom Browne and developing suits to his size. ‘It was a real puzzle’, notes one of the artisans who had the honour of clothing the basketball royalty. ‘We were wondering how to dress someone so large and so tall - LeBron James is 2,06 meters and weighs 113kg - with such a narrow suit. We had to change everything, from the number of buttons to the length of the sleeves.’ While Thom Browne’s costume sizes stopped at 5, size 7 was therefore created. For James, Thom Browne’s also created several pairs of boots, size 49. A few months after these pieces’ delivery, Thom Browne’s was dressing up all of LeBron’s teammates at Cleveland for the 2018 NBA playoffs.


THE FAILED ACTOR

Where did Thom Browne’s world was built? First, in Allentown, capital of the county spreading throughout the valley of Lehigh, in Pennsylvania, a true postcard of Middle America. Here, in post-war days, the white picket dream is alive and well. First house, first car. Every morning, after having read the paper, salarymen in grey suits, hat firmly set on their head, go off to work. Thom Browne’s father, James Michael Browne Sr, is a lawyer, also in charge of the municipal orchestra. ‘He was a man hard at work who cared nothing for his clothes. He bought his clothes in cheap stores, and it made him look handsome naturally,’ says the creator. ‘It took me some time to realise that but his looks have influenced me a great deal…’ The mother, Bernice, can often be found at Saint Thomas Church on Flexer Avenue, always sporting a dashing red brushing. Thomas, since that is his given name, has four brothers - Michael, James, Patrick, Christopher - and two younger sisters, Jean Marie and Marty Beth. During his teenage years, the first boy in the Browne household, joins the William Allen high school, this downtown building, big as a shipping boat, which picked as its mascot a yellow and blue canary. We are in the 1980s. The young Thomas Browne, always in jeans, likes to wear V-neck sweater above his buttoned up shirt. In his promotion’s yearbook, it is written that the young Browne ‘still thinks the preppy style still has a bright future.’ The man laughs: ‘I couldn’t care less about fashion at that time, I couldn’t imagine for a second that it would become my life.’

The young Thom Browne is more attracted by sport. Member of the school’s team, he dreams himself the new Mark Spitz, the medal-covered star of the sport. He’s also a regular at the tennis club located in a nearby park. Not far from there, on West Liberty Street, one can find the Ringer Roost bar, a neighbourhood haunt where the pint of Miller High Life for two bucks. It’s here, in a backroom with its walls covered with posters of old wrestlers, that Larry Wasko holds session once the night falls. This old gentleman with broad neck used to coach Thomas Browne in tennis. ‘He was a gentleman, hard on each point, and always shaking his opponent’s hand,’ says coach Wasko. He also remembers that Thomas Browne showed up to the court in an impeccable white tracksuit, for the great pleasure of the girls, who, on the side of the court, only had eyes for him. ‘When we told Thomas, he’d go stand in a corner, embarrassed’ smiles Wasko. Until this winter night in Allentown, Wasko had no idea that the local kid had become a fashion icon. On the phone screen, he stares at the creator in his uniform, this tiny blazer and the shorts. ‘My god! He sells a lot of those? It wouldn’t be everyone’s game here. Moi? I couldn’t wear that, no way. But maybe it’s because I don’t have a refined taste like Thomas.’ Larry Wasko examines his own looks: a thick sweater, a jean bought at the mall, and big work boots covered in mud. ‘I’m only a regular guy having drinks at the local bar,’ he says in some sort of apology. Like his older brother, Thomas Browne reads economy art the prestigious Notre Dame University, in Indiana. Following it, he accepts the first proposition made to him: for an obscure council firm, he audits the finances of the plants manufacturing Gibson guitars. The experience was not made to last. Thomas Browne decides to head West, with dreams of a career as an actor in Hollywood. Since there’s already a Thomas Browne in the files of the Screen Actors Guild, the main syndicate for actors at the time, he will become Thom Browne. He runs around for audition all around Tinsel Town, getting a lucky role in a commercial once in a while. His athletic physique allows him to shoot for Nike and Reebok. There’s also a commercial for American Express.

‘To him it was a troublesome life, tiresome and boring,’ comments Johnson Hartig, who then shares a studio with Thom Browne not far from the famous Hollywood Sign. To brighten their dull daily lives, the two roommates start running every bar and party in town. Their outings make an impression: they’re the only two wearing suits. Already ‘I like the idea that we put some effort in our outfits. I find some romantic side to it,’ Browne smiles. With his friend Johnson Hartig, Browne imagines for a while launching some proto-collection. The duo spends several afternoons lurking through second hand shops in search of material that could make their dream concrete. They already have a name for the tags: The Great Organisation. Tired, the story ends there when Thom Browne suddenly decides to leave town. ‘I lived in a tiny apartment, I wasn’t making any money. I needed some change in my life,’ he explains soberly. ‘I think his future was set there,’ reflects Johnson Hartig who, years later, would launch the brand Libertine.

Thom Browne - his name from there on - settles in New York with nothing but a suitcase full of suits. Thanks to a friend’s help, he quickly gets a small job in Giorgio Armani’s showroom, where he’s charged with selling new collections to buyers from everywhere around the country. But here again, people stare at Thom Browne with wide eyes. Because he’s never used an email in his life. Because, mostly, he wears smaller and smaller vests, like armours. The seller’s job start to frustrate him. He soon joins the artistic pole of the Club Monaco, direct rival from GAP at the time. He ends up at the end of the pole, until 2000 when arrives the desire to just drop it all. ‘I’ve done many things, I’ve spent time trying to understand what I really want with my life and I finally found,’ sums up Thom Browne. In 2001, he launches his own brand.


A FEW CENTIMETRES SHORT

Rocco Ciccarelli fits perfectly the idea one can have of an old fashioned New York tailor. Born in Rome ages ago in a tailors family, he fits his fist suit at age 17. When the Ciccarelli migrate to New Yorkin the 1950s, the young Rocco is quickly hired has a worker in a tailored clothing store of Manhattan’s 46th street. Now an American citizen, he quickly sets up his own shop, Rocco Ciccarelli Custom Tailoring. In a large warehouse on the sides of the East River, in Queens, some 80 employees work behind shining Singer sewing machine - the best ones on the market - to produce the suits sold in the city’s large boutiques. Some day in the year 2000, Ricco Ciccarelli receives an order he could never have imagined. Suits that are too tight, too short, too everything opposed to today’s standards and to those his father’s and master’s have taught him. The order is signed by some Thom Browne. ‘I told myself this guy is crazy. Why cut all these centimetres’, says Ciccarelli, still shocked. ‘But lucky for him, I’m never afraid of anything. Plus, that Thom had a good head on him. So I made the damned suits.’

In his fancy house of Long Island, East of New York, Mr. Ciccarelli goes look through an old cupboard. He finds a hamper with a Thom Browne shirt on it. He puts it on delicately, closes the top button, then rolls his shoulders. ‘You can see the perfection of the fit, the proximity of the suit… Thom is one impressive man,’ says Rocco Ciccarelli, who ended his partnership with the creator in 2015 in order to retire. To arrive to this results, a lot of time and a lot of trials were needed. In an interview in 2005 with Fantastic Man, Browne told the story so: ‘It took us a year, with my tailor from Long Island, to finalise the very first jacket. We reduced the frame, played with the lapels, but every time we touch something we lost the balance… We must have tried 19 different jackets before reaching a satisfactory result…’ Rocco Ciccarelli laughs then whispers a secret: ‘Thom always wanted to reduce the proportions. But if we had done it exactly like he wanted, we would never have been able to feel free in the suit. So I’m managed to secretly leave a bit more room to the sleeves. Even today, Thom doesn’t know…’

The formula is now set, but why this one in particular? Why all this grey, to begin with? Is it the grew is father wore in Allentown? ‘To me, it's absolute classicism,’ concedes halfway Browne. ‘This colour is mostly the first one my mind goes to. It’s the perfect shade of grey.’ Mostly, why this fit, almost sacrilegious to those with a more classic mindset, to whom the body imposes restrictive dimensions, and to whom excesses are by nature inelegant? ‘The fit is extremely personal. I like my jackets very short. Every time I wear them I find them too long. So I reduce them again and again. To me, this fit is more flattering to the body.’ His, at least. Because people with a more heavy body will have a hard time fitting in Thom Brown’s line. Which doesn’t mean thin people will necessarily embrace it…


BACK TO (A)NORMAL

After this first order from Rocco Ciccarelli, Thom Browne now has five suits with which to make his style known. He wears them. Sacrilege among sacrileges, he puts them in the washing machine. After all, he puts ‘everything in the machine. It’s by washing clothes that they come alive. And it doesn’t damage them, suits, cashmere… They just reduce a bit in the first wash… Nut whatever.’ This is how Thom becomes his own brand ambassador. In the white-walled studio he settled it on 12th street, the creator starts to meet his first buyers. Margaret Spaniolo, the buyer found at Bergdof-Goodman, is shocked: ‘I was overtaken by a really powerful emotion when I discover his collection. It was a completely new experience. It was what was needed for the shop.’ Nevertheless, she has to struggle with the higher ups to agree to the order. Who is gonna want some grey suits several times to small?’ In the American Men’s Vogue, Richard Buckley also pushes Thom Browne’s work, despite the reservations of his colleagues. No matter, Thom Browne pushes his style in the fashion landscape. The connection guru Andrew Bolton, close to Anna Wintour, is obviously part of the equation. Little by little, we discover Browne’s personality: his apartment empty of furniture or bookshelves. ‘There are very little things I love, and I hate being cluttered. That’s just how it is,’ he explains. His dietary habits as well: a few slices of marinated salmon eaten each afternoon. His brother, Patrick, member of the Republican Party and former Senator of Pennsylvania. His quiet social life. A cup of champagne (Krug, obviously) drank in a salon of the Four Seasons or at the Carlyle and nothing else. Soon, in 2007, Browne begins a long collaboration with the institution Brooks Brothers. For it, he designs a capsule titled Black Fleece, softening the edge of his creations to make them more marketable, and giving them back their classic 1950s look. It is not a commercial success, and Browne, not very present, would not only make friends at Brooks, yet his notoriety is boosted.

The brand leaves the smaller venue on 12th street to set up shop in a proper workshop, but business remains fragile. In 2008, the very years where he dresses up Michelle Obama for her husband second investiture, the economic crisis strikes, and threatens to take the business with it. Thom Browne is shaken to his core. ‘During meetings, his face was all read and he was trying not to cry. He was saying we could fold over one day to the next,’ remembers a member of his entourage. To stay afloat, the creator considers going to work for some shady financier. His inner circle tell him that the man is not trustworthy. In order to convince Thom Browne not to go further with that shadowy figure, Rocco Ciccarelli confiscates the fabric necessary to the production of another collection. ‘I did this for Thom’s good,’ proudly shouts the tailor. ‘This businessman, just by shaking his hand, I knew to be wary of him. Yes, the negotiations went down because of me, and I’m proud of it.’ The worse of the crisis behind, some well needed capital added, the company finally bounces back.

12 years later, the Thom Browne brand, estimated at more than 500 millions dollars, now belongs to 85% to the giant Zegna. The creator, the only other shareholder, has lost in independence but won in serenity and stability. Encouraged by Zegna to feminise his offer to accelerate the brand’s development (women now only represent 35% of the business) Thom Browne now has shows in Paris, in the women’s Fashion week. Each season, his shows are expected with delight, being more bold, more spectacular. After having for a while reinterpreted various sports, with shows on tennis, fencing, swimming or biking, after having also put on a show on an old American thematic, complete with an Amish barn, Thom Browne now amuses himself with telling stories filled with creatures, monsters, animals…. ‘After all these years, I still don’t understand how Thom can be so creative,’ confides Johnson Hartig, his all flatmates and buddy through their Californian struggles. ‘Each of this creation leaves me in awe.’

In Paris, on March 1st, under the high skylight of the l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, the podium was a long runway of snow, covered in naked winter trees. Two large wooden doors were set in each ends as if to create portals to another dimension. A model wearing a white blazer and a striped dress, perched on high heels, and masked with a giraffe help, held the title of master of ceremony. Somewhere between the character of The Wizard of Oz and The Adams Family, the silhouettes walked the runway without any preconceived order, wearing long coats, accessorised tweed pants that made it look there was a third leg in there, plus an assortments of leather bags shaped like penguins, stags, dachshunds… Forgotten, the grey suit? No, it popped up everywhere, on almost of the silhouettes. He was also, obviously, on Thom’s shoulders, who walked up to the media at the end of the show: ‘Somehow, I’d like for that work on shows creation ends up one day in a museum,’ he said about his show, when he was one winter away to presenting his first work of art at Art Basel, a gigantic palm tree in seersucker. But we had another question, much more important: is he never cold in his jacket-short combo in the winter? ‘No, never. I’ve got solid thighs. Plus, you know what? I like when people don’t understand what I do.’

Gino Delmas

He just won his lawsuit against Adidas who accused him of having plagiarized its famous stripes. In nearly 20 years, Thom Browne, 55, has built a silhouette, a universe and a business. All that from a simple grey suit. How did he do it? The answer lies somewhere between his hometown in Pennsylvania and his New York offices.

By Raphaël Malkin, in Allentown and New York.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 4.


We start in this long corridor, carved in imposing black marble. At the end, under the cold light of a halogen lamp, a mahogany desk behind which no one is sitting, expect perhaps a ghost. Than this thick, heavy silence. Suddenly, a small group bursts out from behind a glass door and dashes towards a nearby elevator, eyes kept firmly to the ground. They all wear the same outfit, fancy or confusing, one might wonder. Their grey jackets stop just below the waist, the pants just above the ankle. Some wear atop the outfit some white lab coats. At the 14th floor of one of those monstrous buildings of the Garment District, one the west side of Manhattan, in New York City, creator Thom Browne’s building could be the setting for an anticipation novel. “Welcome to the Matrix,” whispers one of the few staff still wandering the floor.

But the king of the castle welcomes us with a bright smile. It almost looks like he blushes when he says hello. Several rooms further in, Thom Browne is hard at work on his next collection. Everywhere around him, grey clothes on hampers. He’s obviously wearing a grey suit as well, but his had the pants turned into shorts, showing his knees, as well as a pair of black wool socks with white stripes…. At Thom Browne’s, everybody wears the designer’s clothes. It’s the rule, top to bottom. From the busybodies in administration to the dashing Rodrigo Bazan, the brand’s general director, to every member of the workshop, nobody can avoid it. Even outsider consultants, passing by for a single day, must abide by the rule, and too bad if they have to change in a cab or prepare another outfit for the rest of the day… ‘I’m attempting to create a world, Thom Browne’s world, and that requires everybody’s immersion,’ explain the designer, ‘things have to be pure.’ In fact, everyone here remembers the day when an employee had the gall to present himself wearing random pink socks. We never saw the pink socks again. The man was spared, but it was a close call.


LIONEL, LEBRON, AND THE OTHERS

It’s a firm - and a designer - that stands apart. When asked to define his world, Thom Browne has this answer: ‘my world is that of the uniform. It allows me to evacuate the question of style and focus on the other things life has to offer…’ Yet, everything in his life revolves around that timeless style, codified, immutable. Grey suits in serge of wool super 120. Square jackets but tight and short, very short. Pants shortened (‘They must arrive at the top of the ankle and finish with a 6cm reverse’) or shorts (‘the right length is right above the knee.) White oxford shirts (‘never buttoned up to the top, that’s forbidden’). Narrow ties, often grey too (‘always tied in a tiny four in hand’). There’s also the shoes, imposing brogues or boots in black leather, tripled soled. There’s also this signature, a piece of heavy grain blue-white-red, found randomly at Mokuba, in Manhattan, and visible on the back of the jackets, under the collar, or on the back of the shoes.

Since his beginning in 2001, Thom Browne’s plays with this wardrobe short and referenced. He declines it in various ways, plays with it, deconstructs it, adapts it for women or sometimes to the exigence of showrooms, but never strays too far. ‘In fashion, dozens of creators have changed style because they thought it would net them a better profit,’ says Margaret Spaniolo, former head buyer of Bergdorf Goodman, the mainstays of New York’s Fifth Avenue. ‘Thom did the opposite. He had a vision, and he stuck with it his own life, he never left anyone destroy him.’ That’s how he managed to drag in his wake a drove of fans. Around fashion shows, walking in groups, all wearing grey, they pop out. Among those, we see a lot of Japanese, some English and some Americans. Andrew Bolton, the omniscient curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, is part of the tribe. Because he loves Thom Browne’s style, or because he shares his life with him? Probably a bit of both. In New York, the shop of Hudson Street, in Lower Manhattan, also has its mainstay customers. Interior designers, restaurant owners, and directors of various and many things. There’s also that old lawyer, who can tell all the fabrics from the tip of his fingers, or this recent millionaire who, every month, makes the trip from Canada in order to buy himself a new jackets and pants, even though, behind the counters, some whisper ‘that he doesn’t know much about fashion.’

Other customers, more illustrious yet, have recently joined the Browne’s stables. Among them, the players of the FC Barcelona football club, dressed by Browne for their last two seasons. A big money story? Not really, or at least not only. It all began with a simple message from a member of the Catalan giants marketing team to the designer, as a fan, on LinkedIn… One year later Messi was parading in a grey suit, under the jeers of supporters with little knowledge of Thom Browne’s work. Things happened more naturally with basketball superstar LeBron James. He started to buy suits on his own, before meeting Thom Browne and developing suits to his size. ‘It was a real puzzle’, notes one of the artisans who had the honour of clothing the basketball royalty. ‘We were wondering how to dress someone so large and so tall - LeBron James is 2,06 meters and weighs 113kg - with such a narrow suit. We had to change everything, from the number of buttons to the length of the sleeves.’ While Thom Browne’s costume sizes stopped at 5, size 7 was therefore created. For James, Thom Browne’s also created several pairs of boots, size 49. A few months after these pieces’ delivery, Thom Browne’s was dressing up all of LeBron’s teammates at Cleveland for the 2018 NBA playoffs.


THE FAILED ACTOR

Where did Thom Browne’s world was built? First, in Allentown, capital of the county spreading throughout the valley of Lehigh, in Pennsylvania, a true postcard of Middle America. Here, in post-war days, the white picket dream is alive and well. First house, first car. Every morning, after having read the paper, salarymen in grey suits, hat firmly set on their head, go off to work. Thom Browne’s father, James Michael Browne Sr, is a lawyer, also in charge of the municipal orchestra. ‘He was a man hard at work who cared nothing for his clothes. He bought his clothes in cheap stores, and it made him look handsome naturally,’ says the creator. ‘It took me some time to realise that but his looks have influenced me a great deal…’ The mother, Bernice, can often be found at Saint Thomas Church on Flexer Avenue, always sporting a dashing red brushing. Thomas, since that is his given name, has four brothers - Michael, James, Patrick, Christopher - and two younger sisters, Jean Marie and Marty Beth. During his teenage years, the first boy in the Browne household, joins the William Allen high school, this downtown building, big as a shipping boat, which picked as its mascot a yellow and blue canary. We are in the 1980s. The young Thomas Browne, always in jeans, likes to wear V-neck sweater above his buttoned up shirt. In his promotion’s yearbook, it is written that the young Browne ‘still thinks the preppy style still has a bright future.’ The man laughs: ‘I couldn’t care less about fashion at that time, I couldn’t imagine for a second that it would become my life.’

The young Thom Browne is more attracted by sport. Member of the school’s team, he dreams himself the new Mark Spitz, the medal-covered star of the sport. He’s also a regular at the tennis club located in a nearby park. Not far from there, on West Liberty Street, one can find the Ringer Roost bar, a neighbourhood haunt where the pint of Miller High Life for two bucks. It’s here, in a backroom with its walls covered with posters of old wrestlers, that Larry Wasko holds session once the night falls. This old gentleman with broad neck used to coach Thomas Browne in tennis. ‘He was a gentleman, hard on each point, and always shaking his opponent’s hand,’ says coach Wasko. He also remembers that Thomas Browne showed up to the court in an impeccable white tracksuit, for the great pleasure of the girls, who, on the side of the court, only had eyes for him. ‘When we told Thomas, he’d go stand in a corner, embarrassed’ smiles Wasko. Until this winter night in Allentown, Wasko had no idea that the local kid had become a fashion icon. On the phone screen, he stares at the creator in his uniform, this tiny blazer and the shorts. ‘My god! He sells a lot of those? It wouldn’t be everyone’s game here. Moi? I couldn’t wear that, no way. But maybe it’s because I don’t have a refined taste like Thomas.’ Larry Wasko examines his own looks: a thick sweater, a jean bought at the mall, and big work boots covered in mud. ‘I’m only a regular guy having drinks at the local bar,’ he says in some sort of apology. Like his older brother, Thomas Browne reads economy art the prestigious Notre Dame University, in Indiana. Following it, he accepts the first proposition made to him: for an obscure council firm, he audits the finances of the plants manufacturing Gibson guitars. The experience was not made to last. Thomas Browne decides to head West, with dreams of a career as an actor in Hollywood. Since there’s already a Thomas Browne in the files of the Screen Actors Guild, the main syndicate for actors at the time, he will become Thom Browne. He runs around for audition all around Tinsel Town, getting a lucky role in a commercial once in a while. His athletic physique allows him to shoot for Nike and Reebok. There’s also a commercial for American Express.

‘To him it was a troublesome life, tiresome and boring,’ comments Johnson Hartig, who then shares a studio with Thom Browne not far from the famous Hollywood Sign. To brighten their dull daily lives, the two roommates start running every bar and party in town. Their outings make an impression: they’re the only two wearing suits. Already ‘I like the idea that we put some effort in our outfits. I find some romantic side to it,’ Browne smiles. With his friend Johnson Hartig, Browne imagines for a while launching some proto-collection. The duo spends several afternoons lurking through second hand shops in search of material that could make their dream concrete. They already have a name for the tags: The Great Organisation. Tired, the story ends there when Thom Browne suddenly decides to leave town. ‘I lived in a tiny apartment, I wasn’t making any money. I needed some change in my life,’ he explains soberly. ‘I think his future was set there,’ reflects Johnson Hartig who, years later, would launch the brand Libertine.

Thom Browne - his name from there on - settles in New York with nothing but a suitcase full of suits. Thanks to a friend’s help, he quickly gets a small job in Giorgio Armani’s showroom, where he’s charged with selling new collections to buyers from everywhere around the country. But here again, people stare at Thom Browne with wide eyes. Because he’s never used an email in his life. Because, mostly, he wears smaller and smaller vests, like armours. The seller’s job start to frustrate him. He soon joins the artistic pole of the Club Monaco, direct rival from GAP at the time. He ends up at the end of the pole, until 2000 when arrives the desire to just drop it all. ‘I’ve done many things, I’ve spent time trying to understand what I really want with my life and I finally found,’ sums up Thom Browne. In 2001, he launches his own brand.


A FEW CENTIMETRES SHORT

Rocco Ciccarelli fits perfectly the idea one can have of an old fashioned New York tailor. Born in Rome ages ago in a tailors family, he fits his fist suit at age 17. When the Ciccarelli migrate to New Yorkin the 1950s, the young Rocco is quickly hired has a worker in a tailored clothing store of Manhattan’s 46th street. Now an American citizen, he quickly sets up his own shop, Rocco Ciccarelli Custom Tailoring. In a large warehouse on the sides of the East River, in Queens, some 80 employees work behind shining Singer sewing machine - the best ones on the market - to produce the suits sold in the city’s large boutiques. Some day in the year 2000, Ricco Ciccarelli receives an order he could never have imagined. Suits that are too tight, too short, too everything opposed to today’s standards and to those his father’s and master’s have taught him. The order is signed by some Thom Browne. ‘I told myself this guy is crazy. Why cut all these centimetres’, says Ciccarelli, still shocked. ‘But lucky for him, I’m never afraid of anything. Plus, that Thom had a good head on him. So I made the damned suits.’

In his fancy house of Long Island, East of New York, Mr. Ciccarelli goes look through an old cupboard. He finds a hamper with a Thom Browne shirt on it. He puts it on delicately, closes the top button, then rolls his shoulders. ‘You can see the perfection of the fit, the proximity of the suit… Thom is one impressive man,’ says Rocco Ciccarelli, who ended his partnership with the creator in 2015 in order to retire. To arrive to this results, a lot of time and a lot of trials were needed. In an interview in 2005 with Fantastic Man, Browne told the story so: ‘It took us a year, with my tailor from Long Island, to finalise the very first jacket. We reduced the frame, played with the lapels, but every time we touch something we lost the balance… We must have tried 19 different jackets before reaching a satisfactory result…’ Rocco Ciccarelli laughs then whispers a secret: ‘Thom always wanted to reduce the proportions. But if we had done it exactly like he wanted, we would never have been able to feel free in the suit. So I’m managed to secretly leave a bit more room to the sleeves. Even today, Thom doesn’t know…’

The formula is now set, but why this one in particular? Why all this grey, to begin with? Is it the grew is father wore in Allentown? ‘To me, it's absolute classicism,’ concedes halfway Browne. ‘This colour is mostly the first one my mind goes to. It’s the perfect shade of grey.’ Mostly, why this fit, almost sacrilegious to those with a more classic mindset, to whom the body imposes restrictive dimensions, and to whom excesses are by nature inelegant? ‘The fit is extremely personal. I like my jackets very short. Every time I wear them I find them too long. So I reduce them again and again. To me, this fit is more flattering to the body.’ His, at least. Because people with a more heavy body will have a hard time fitting in Thom Brown’s line. Which doesn’t mean thin people will necessarily embrace it…


BACK TO (A)NORMAL

After this first order from Rocco Ciccarelli, Thom Browne now has five suits with which to make his style known. He wears them. Sacrilege among sacrileges, he puts them in the washing machine. After all, he puts ‘everything in the machine. It’s by washing clothes that they come alive. And it doesn’t damage them, suits, cashmere… They just reduce a bit in the first wash… Nut whatever.’ This is how Thom becomes his own brand ambassador. In the white-walled studio he settled it on 12th street, the creator starts to meet his first buyers. Margaret Spaniolo, the buyer found at Bergdof-Goodman, is shocked: ‘I was overtaken by a really powerful emotion when I discover his collection. It was a completely new experience. It was what was needed for the shop.’ Nevertheless, she has to struggle with the higher ups to agree to the order. Who is gonna want some grey suits several times to small?’ In the American Men’s Vogue, Richard Buckley also pushes Thom Browne’s work, despite the reservations of his colleagues. No matter, Thom Browne pushes his style in the fashion landscape. The connection guru Andrew Bolton, close to Anna Wintour, is obviously part of the equation. Little by little, we discover Browne’s personality: his apartment empty of furniture or bookshelves. ‘There are very little things I love, and I hate being cluttered. That’s just how it is,’ he explains. His dietary habits as well: a few slices of marinated salmon eaten each afternoon. His brother, Patrick, member of the Republican Party and former Senator of Pennsylvania. His quiet social life. A cup of champagne (Krug, obviously) drank in a salon of the Four Seasons or at the Carlyle and nothing else. Soon, in 2007, Browne begins a long collaboration with the institution Brooks Brothers. For it, he designs a capsule titled Black Fleece, softening the edge of his creations to make them more marketable, and giving them back their classic 1950s look. It is not a commercial success, and Browne, not very present, would not only make friends at Brooks, yet his notoriety is boosted.

The brand leaves the smaller venue on 12th street to set up shop in a proper workshop, but business remains fragile. In 2008, the very years where he dresses up Michelle Obama for her husband second investiture, the economic crisis strikes, and threatens to take the business with it. Thom Browne is shaken to his core. ‘During meetings, his face was all read and he was trying not to cry. He was saying we could fold over one day to the next,’ remembers a member of his entourage. To stay afloat, the creator considers going to work for some shady financier. His inner circle tell him that the man is not trustworthy. In order to convince Thom Browne not to go further with that shadowy figure, Rocco Ciccarelli confiscates the fabric necessary to the production of another collection. ‘I did this for Thom’s good,’ proudly shouts the tailor. ‘This businessman, just by shaking his hand, I knew to be wary of him. Yes, the negotiations went down because of me, and I’m proud of it.’ The worse of the crisis behind, some well needed capital added, the company finally bounces back.

12 years later, the Thom Browne brand, estimated at more than 500 millions dollars, now belongs to 85% to the giant Zegna. The creator, the only other shareholder, has lost in independence but won in serenity and stability. Encouraged by Zegna to feminise his offer to accelerate the brand’s development (women now only represent 35% of the business) Thom Browne now has shows in Paris, in the women’s Fashion week. Each season, his shows are expected with delight, being more bold, more spectacular. After having for a while reinterpreted various sports, with shows on tennis, fencing, swimming or biking, after having also put on a show on an old American thematic, complete with an Amish barn, Thom Browne now amuses himself with telling stories filled with creatures, monsters, animals…. ‘After all these years, I still don’t understand how Thom can be so creative,’ confides Johnson Hartig, his all flatmates and buddy through their Californian struggles. ‘Each of this creation leaves me in awe.’

In Paris, on March 1st, under the high skylight of the l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, the podium was a long runway of snow, covered in naked winter trees. Two large wooden doors were set in each ends as if to create portals to another dimension. A model wearing a white blazer and a striped dress, perched on high heels, and masked with a giraffe help, held the title of master of ceremony. Somewhere between the character of The Wizard of Oz and The Adams Family, the silhouettes walked the runway without any preconceived order, wearing long coats, accessorised tweed pants that made it look there was a third leg in there, plus an assortments of leather bags shaped like penguins, stags, dachshunds… Forgotten, the grey suit? No, it popped up everywhere, on almost of the silhouettes. He was also, obviously, on Thom’s shoulders, who walked up to the media at the end of the show: ‘Somehow, I’d like for that work on shows creation ends up one day in a museum,’ he said about his show, when he was one winter away to presenting his first work of art at Art Basel, a gigantic palm tree in seersucker. But we had another question, much more important: is he never cold in his jacket-short combo in the winter? ‘No, never. I’ve got solid thighs. Plus, you know what? I like when people don’t understand what I do.’

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