Thom Browne's Imaginarium

The designer behind some of menswear's most otherworldly spectacles is bringing the show to womenswear. And despite an endorsement from Michelle Obama, he isn't about to trade provocation for respectability

Published April 10, 2013
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On the day Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, Thom Browne was bent over a pallet in New York City, instructing his staff on the proper way for a boy in a gray suit and a crown of thorns to be tied, crucifixion-style, to a bed. The timing was, at least as far as terrestrial observers could make out, coincidental. Monday, February 11, had been set for weeks as the day of Browne's Fall 2013 show. In any case, the designer—who was raised, for the record, a Roman Catholic—had more pressing matters to attend to than pontifical succession.

Browne first found notoriety as a menswear designer with a convention-smashing streak. This afternoon's baroque show was to be the first full runway outing for his women's collection, which had till now been living in the shadow of his men's. What's more, a recent display of earthly power had served to raise the stakes even higher. Three weeks earlier, Michelle Obama had surprised the world by wearing a Browne dress and matching coat in tie-inspired silk jacquard to her husband's inauguration. Among fashion insiders, the joke went that she was sending a clear message: Thom Browne makes womenswear.

For most designers, that would have been the cue to send out a safe, commercial collection, the sort a First Lady could wear without raising ambassadorial eyebrows, and to present it in a sterile but photo-friendly setting. Thom Browne is not most designers. At 3:30 p.m., one and a half hours before the scheduled start, he surveyed the scene he was creating. A mini forest of pines had been trucked into Center548 on West 22nd Street, along with a heavy dusting of fake snow, which janitors were busily sweeping out of the main catwalk area and back toward the grove. The rest of the male models were being blindfolded and tied to ten plywood beds, where they'd be teased in their confines with long-stemmed roses by girls passing by. Having completed their rehearsal walk-through, those girls were backstage in hair and makeup, already eyeing their outfits: dresses, capes, and suits made of menswear fabrics but blown up to proportions of almost cartoonish womanliness, with hugely padded square shoulders and hourglass hips.

The staging was nearly finalized, but there was one last addition. At the 11th hour, an 11th guy arrived and climbed into bed with another of the boys, ready to be bound. Browne seemed satisfied. "A little more provocation," he shrugged.

The Obama boost was still very much in the air a few days after the show. "Very few people get opportunities like that, and I always take those opportunities and make sure I don't blow them," Browne said in his showroom. "That added pressure was definitely there—just on top of the pressure that I put on myself anyway." The show ultimately received strong reviews: The International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes praised its "vision" and "imagination," in contrast to most of New York's "bland" and "forgettable" presentations.

There is an Oz-like, pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain strangeness to finding, after Browne's operatic shows, a laconic, compact man in a gray flannel suit. Unlike some designers, he is invariably dressed head to toe in his own collection. (When a nor'easter was pelting New York City with snow a few days before his show, Browne came in from the cold, umbrella in hand but ankles bare.) He stages fire and brimstone on the runway but lunches at the Four Seasons and insists upon Champagne at 6 p.m. in the office. He has designed Baccarat coupes for the purpose.

But make no mistake, showmanship is an essential part of the brand. The shows are what give Browne his seditious edge—part of the reason the Obama choice surprised so many. He stages the kind of pomp-and-circumstance productions more often seen in Paris (where, for reasons of timing, he shows his menswear). "I do approach it differently, I think, from most American designers," he said. "I think New York does appreciate concepts and conceptual ideas. I want to be a conceptual designer here in New York."

The dominant motif in the collection was roses, but the staging emphasized the thorns. The key color, apart from gray, black, and white, was—in Browne's words—"blood red." That made him think "of the crucifixion and how could I incorporate that into the show," he said. The result was half Stations of the Cross, half kinky seduction—a notion underscored by the suggestively paint-splattered shoes.

"I think it is part of my just wanting to entertain and wanting to give it a life that sometimes I need at the end of the collection," he explained. "I just feel like it's part of what I do. And now it's really a part of what I do—people almost expect it now. I've created a monster. But I love doing it."

Browne's closest predecessor in this courtship of provocation may be the late Alexander McQueen—who died three years, to the day, before Browne's Fall ’13 show. This was, at least as far as terrestrial eyes could see, coincidental.

Behind the showmanship, however, is a growing business. In 2009, Cross Co., a Japanese company, increased its investment in the label, bringing it up to a majority share of 67 percent, with an eye to expanding in Asia; in March, Browne's first Tokyo store, a three-floor, 4,500-square-foot space in Aoyama, opened its doors. (Browne scoured 1stdibs for all its furniture himself.) Trino Verkade, a 17-year veteran of McQueen and one of the late designer's closest friends, recently moved to New York to work on Browne's sales and business development. In fact, Browne's wayward spectacles only serve to burnish the appeal of the gray suits he makes season in and season out that hang ready at the wait in his showroom. Besides, he said, most of his accounts buy the showpieces as well as the more traditional tailoring that doesn't always make it to the runway. (They are said to do an especially brisk business in the Ukraine.)

But even Browne's most commercial pieces have an insurgent twinge. The best example is still his shrunken, high-water interpretation of that old emblem of conformity, the gray flannel suit, which Browne has offered since the beginning of his label. Even before striking out on his own, friends say, he had an itchiness toward traditional tailoring. Brooke Cundiff, a VP at Gilt Groupe's menswear arm, recalls meeting Browne when he worked in sales at Armani. "Even at that time," she says, "Thom was taking his Armani suits and cutting up the pants and making shorts."

He developed the distinctive silhouette with the Queens-based tailor Rocco Ciccarelli. The codes of men's tailoring are hidebound, and Browne didn't hesitate to break them. "I didn't know what the rules were," he said. "Rocco certainly had a very clear idea of what they were. The great thing about Rocco was that he was so interested in breaking them, too. Even at his age and with his experience making clothing—which is some of the best clothing in the world—he was so excited to see that somebody wanted to do it. I always say, 'Rocco, you probably hate the day that I walked in here.' And he says that he loved all of it because I always knew what I wanted to do and that's the only reason why he wanted to do it."

"I would always want to challenge myself to break any type of rule—respectfully. You talk to some clothing guys, and they think I've been the most irresponsible in regards to what I've done to men's clothing."

On the strength of that conviction, Browne managed to make men's suits look revolutionary—almost punk. (Malcolm McLaren was a fan and customer.) Over the years, he has honed and clarified his ideas rather than deviating from them, always at a remove from the crowd: Browne is impervious to trends, fads, and momentary vogues, barring his own.

In the early years, plenty of critics were hostile, stores and customers befuddled. "I would always want to challenge myself to break any type of rule—respectfully," Browne said. "You talk to some clothing guys, and they think I've been the most irresponsible in regards to what I've done to men's clothing."

But perseverance reaps reward, and the reaction has evolved more than the spur. Browne has watched as nearly everyone in the market has shortened and tightened their suit silhouettes. What once seemed odd now seems sui generis. Last month, for the second time, the CFDA nominated him for its Menswear Designer of the Year Award.

Having moved the needle of menswear, Browne is now hoping to do the same for women. "I want people to see my women's like they see my men's," he said before the show. "It's time for that."

For all the talk of rule breaking and the aggressive styling of his shows, Browne's clothing doesn't require utter fearlessness off the runway. It plays nicely with other labels, fans say. Cundiff estimates that 20 percent of her wardrobe is by Browne; much of the rest of it is made up of The Row, Prada, and Chanel. She was married in a dress Browne custom-designed for her at the Upper East Side temple of propriety that is La Grenouille.

In the final minutes backstage before the show, the models stepped into their padded trousers and padded capes, taking care not to rip the lace with their sharpened, red-painted fingernails. Browne and his second-in-command loaded them onto the freight elevator from which they would exit to walk the winding runway, then the designers hopped on themselves. This bubble only intensified how little there is of outside influence and interference, not even a stylist: "I want to fall on the sword myself," Browne said.

His is a circumscribed operation. He works with a small design team: Daniel Roseberry, his trusted lieutenant, and a very few other assistants. At Browne's request, they refrain from being overly involved in the fashion world. They're part of his world, and dressed to match.

"A big reason for the show is for everyone to have an experience, everyone to have a reaction, everyone to leave with an image in their head—whatever that image is."

For the show, the operation is not much enlarged. Etienne Russo, who works on runway shows for Chanel, Lanvin, and Hermès, is hired to produce, but Browne insists that his function is largely logistical, not conceptual. His concepts are his own, which is not to say he will explain them. The only explanation he would offer for Fall was "a winter scene, a winter feeling."

"A big reason for the show is for everyone to have an experience, everyone to have a reaction, everyone to leave with an image in their head," he said later. "Whatever that image is…I love what people have to say, and that's part of it. But when they insist on their interpretation being my interpretation, that's where they're not right. Because that's not what I'm thinking. Their imposing their references on me is wrong. It's great that they do, but don't say, 'It was this,'" he added with surprising, if quiet, forcefulness. "Because it wasn't."

Backstage, one of his designers gave an appreciative nod and said to no one in particular: "From the depths of Thom's imaginarium, man."

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