Last night at the French Alliance Institute Francaise, Thom Browne sat down with critic Robin Givhan to discuss his career as a designer. In the hour long talk, they covered everything from the beginnings of his business when he couldn’t even convince his friends to buy a suit, to what he wears running, to how he wants his stores to look like a 1905s Midwestern bank, to how sexy he thought Michelle Obama looked in his womenswear. Highlights, below.
1. When Thom Browne was starting out in 2001, he made five suits in what is now his signature shrunken proportion, and simply wore them around New York. “I didn’t have money to invest in a business,” he said. “I tailored them exactly how I wanted them and I decided I would be my own advertisement.” People thought he was crazy; it took a year and a half for the ball to start rolling. “It was really important at the beginning to stay true and pure to that proportion,” he said. “I had to be very strong for it to stay clear in people’s minds about what it was.”
2. Back in those days, he wasn’t creating a collection, it was a purely bespoke affair, so he offered his services to everybody he knew, including his friends. One refused, saying, ‘Why would I buy a suit when it doesn’t even fit you?’ According to Thom Browne, they remain close to this day.
3. Thom Browne believes it’s extremely important to provoke his critics, his customers, and even himself, and he’s not afraid of polarizing his audience. “I want to sometimes scare myself and open up people’s eyes that clothing can be a lot more than what you see on the street,” he said. “If people came to my shows and saw the classic things I do they’d be bored. For me, the show is truly for provocation, making that great grey suit interesting again. If you do anything provocative you’re kidding yourself if you think half the people won’t like it. I think I’ve done it wrong if too many people like it.”
4. Thom Browne takes inspiration from films, but doesn’t always enjoy watching them. “Stanley Kubrick visually stimulates. Sometimes you sit there and get bored, but the visuals suck you in. It’s not always so [entertaining], but it’s visually very stimulating.”
5. When Thom Browne gets stressed, he goes for a run. A member of the audience asked if he runs in a suit. He shook his head. “No, I run in running shorts and a running tee shirt.” (I thought it was a fair question.)
6. Besides his own line, Thom Browne designs Brooks Brothers Black Fleece, and Moncler Gamme Bleu. Here’s how his first collaboration happened: “When you’re on your own there are financial reasons why you do things,” he said. “I was approached and asked if I was going to do something for another company who would it be, and I said I grew up wearing Brooks Brothers so it would be interesting to do something more interesting within that world.” I can’t confirm this, but I’d bet the person who approached him was Anna Wintour.
7. Thom Browne’s advice to young designers: “Start small. Make something beautifully and interesting because there will always be people who want that. You’ve got to know about the business because it’s really easy to go out of business, but I see people starting a label with a business plan, and good luck, but it sounds boring. There has to be product.”
8. So how did he come to design Michelle Obama’s inauguration outfit? “I was approached with a group of other designers and asked if I was to make something for the First Lady what would I do. She wasn’t necessarily going to wear it but I was the lucky one. I really wanted her to look like the strong, confident woman that she is, I wanted her to look good with her husband and I assumed he was going to wear navy, and I wanted it to be true to me. I didn’t know until the day when I saw her on TV standing next to him on The Mall I thought she looked really cool. Sexy and strong and cool.” The jacket and dress now live in the Smithsonian archives.
I LIKE YOU!