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Thom Browne changed the way men dress in America. He redefined the suit—fitting it close to the body and raising the hem. He made it okay for men to care about they way they look. He made dress shorts a thing, for goodness’ sake. It’s been nearly fifteen years since he started his eponymous brand, and now, when you say, “That’s very Thom Browne,” people—even outside of fashion—know what you mean. And while “Thom Browne” may have become synonymous with clean lines, buttoned-up, and not a thread out of place, his collection presentations and shows are anything but. His shows have involved a gray landscape of woodland creatures, a turn-of-the-century operating theater, a French garden of silver shoes and Minotaurs, and recently in New York for the first-ever men’s Fashion Week, a mirrored cube filled with male models that felt like Yayoi Kusama-meets-The Matrix.
A few weeks prior to that presentation, which is more aptly described as an installation, we sat down with the designer at his New York office to talk about making a big impression versus making people like you.
WHITEWALL: A lot has been written about where you grew up and that you weren’t into fashion to begin with, or that wasn’t exactly what you thought you would go into instead. In fact, you first went into acting. What drew you there?
THOM BROWNE: It wasn’t even that I wanted to go into acting. I had a job at a consulting firm right out of school, but it was really just so I could have a job, because I knew that I wanted to move to New York and I needed a job in order to live here. I was in L.A. after I quit that job and I booked a commercial out of nowhere and somebody came up to me and asked me, “Hey, would you be interested in this?” and I said, “Yeah, sure.”
WW: So it wasn’t a passion for theater.
TB: It kind of just landed in my lap. But if I was going to do it I was going to be serious about it. So I went to classes and I studied with acting coaches. I loved doing it, but you never really get to just do it. So I gave myself a time frame—I gave myself five years. I didn’t want to be one of those older people in L.A. that are still trying to get their big break. So after that realization I moved back to New York and fell into fashion.
WW: Your shows and presentations are so theatrical. Yet your clothes are so put together, almost conservative, very clean-cut. Do you think the experience you had in acting found its way into the drama of your show sets? It seems like you still want to entertain.
TB: Yeah. I do think that everything happens for a reason. Everything you do in life kind of works into the next thing. I think my shows are for entertainment as well as for fashion. And the installations are a cross between entertainment and art installation, and then the fashion that sits around it. I think my time in L.A. definitely plays into my wanting to just entertain people.
WW: When putting a show together, are you always concerned about putting on a show?
TB: It really starts with my first collection. I really didn’t want to do things that weren’t myself, and there is so much in the world of fashion. Everybody is very similar in the way they approach their way of doing shows and collections. I wanted to make sure people did not see it the same way for me and from me. I mean, they have gotten more conceptual and performance-based. In the beginning, we thought, and I thought, it was so interesting and provocative and when I look back now they were so not.
WW: What is the process to begin creating the installation? Is it just from your imagination? Are you working with a team?
TB: I pretty much do them on my own [in terms of design and concept]. With the production of them, it’s the same production company. For the Fall/Winter 2014 scene, the animal scene, we used one hundred young students outside of Brussels that hand-stitched the animals and the scenes. The production company is founded in Brussels, so they found them, but all the initial ideas really start with me. I usually do not get anybody involved until it’s fleshed out.
WW: You play down your first show, but even since you started in 2001, especially for a men’s market in the U.S., the setting and scenography has been truly unique in comparison to your peers.
TB: It is a big difference, and I sometimes don’t understand why more people don’t [do more for their shows], because the designer for the most part has some creative energy in himself or herself. I love doing my shows. I don’t understand why people would not want to have fun with it more.
WW: Right, you have such a few short minutes in a fashion show to make people remember your collection, why not?
TB: Yeah, you have fifteen minutes to really make an impression of the six months that you just spent creating this collection. Why don’t you really leave them with an impression other than the clothes? The clothing is important, but I want people to leave not just thinking about the clothes. I think if you want to do something interesting, you always have to expect some people to not to like what you do and people who really like what you do. I think those polarizing or opposite reactions are important and to strive for that instead of that middle ground of someone just liking what you do.
WW: So for something like the Fall/Winter 2014 show with the woodland creatures, does the setting and installation suit the collection, or does your idea for an installation ever influence your collection?
TB: With that the collection came first, and then the installation I thought of because it would work perfectly with it. But sometimes the installation comes first and then the collection comes after. Like the silver shoes—definitely the shoes came first and then the collection kind of worked in with that, and then the Minotaurs were an added bonus that I thought of at the end.
WW: That was your Spring/Summer 2013 show, where you had gilded shoes in a grid on a lawn, and then the models came and stood in them. Was that because that was your first time designing a shoe?
TB: Yes, the shoes came first and it was all about that charming story of when I was growing up my mother silver-plated our first pair of shoes. I thought it would be funny to silver-plate the first shoe that I did for my collection. I knew I wanted to have an installation of the shoes, and I thought in Paris it would be beautiful to have it in a garden, a house in Paris. Then I thought it played into the iconic American aesthetic of tailoring and sportswear. Then the Minotaurs just came in at the end.
WW: Can you tell us about the idea behind the Fall/Winter 2015 show, the “One Man” show, on a set of three staged rooms?
TB: Yeah. That was a simply story of guy on his last day of his life. I am always very attracted to people being by themselves and living a very singular life, and that is who this character was. I love the performance of it all starting in white because he was then going into his final sleep and then he turned everything black.
WW: What attracts you to that very singular life?
TB: I think there is such confidence in somebody that can be that on their own.
WW: Is that something that you are good at? Being alone?
WW: The Fall/Winter women’s collection was very dark, very austere. It was set in an old, wood-paneled operating theater.
TB: Yeah, that is really playing off of the idea of death and mourning, and the initial idea came from a show at the Met [“Deah Becomes Her”] that was inspired by looking at death and mourning and the beauty of it. I didn’t see the show, but was inspired by the idea of it.
WW: Did you not go because you didn’t want to be directly influenced by it?
TB: Yeah, I never do. If I have a specific reference, I don’t research it too deep, or at all. You know the initial idea of stealing the idea is stealing enough. My mind opened up to my interpretation of what the beauty can be. Then the set didn’t have that much to do with death and mourning, but then it was an operating theater from the turn of the century. It was simply a beautiful image of a beautiful room.
WW: You started your women’s collection in 2011. Are there relationships between the men’s and women’s collections for you?
TB: I am making them more and more. One, because it makes it easier, and there are so many collections to do. The nature of developing fabrics and developing ideas—there are only so many things to think of. So yeah, more and more they are. And I think that there is something interesting about that on so many different levels, how commercial it sounds. I mean, the collections are at the stores at the same time and then the men’s and the women’s having a similar look is interesting.
But also, I am in the same mindset because I am designing them at the same time and I am not schizophrenic enough to think of two totally different things. A good idea is a good idea; it can definitely translate into both.
WW: In menswear, you really reshaped our idea of how men in America should dress. For women, did you want to make a similar change in our idea of what to wear every day? A uniform for women?
TB: Yeah, but more reintroducing tailoring in a way that it looked not so dressed up or corporate. It is very similar to guys—kind of more feminine, but not too feminine.
WW: Now that New York is officially having a men’s Fashion Week, will you show that week?
TB: I think that it is very ambitious initiative, and I hope it works for them. I am supporting it for the first season. I am not moving my show in Paris, but I am doing an additional show for this week. It is a true installation. It is exclusive for that week and takes from things that have been done in the past, and I created the installation for that. I am very serious about people having an initial reaction of people walking into the space—I think that is very important. I think it’s going to be great.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s fall 2015 Fashion Issue.
Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.