Thom Browne takes a few to chat with LECLAIREUR about his work and the power of uniformity
Creative people and visionaries are frequently cast as chaotic. Enter, Thom Browne, and all those elements previously seen as such, they just line up to order. Infusing his order and uniformity with elegant, fine touches of whimsy and wit, Browne’s work speaks to the highly refined individualist who treasures the potency of classic, precision tailoring with a fresh take.
Among today’s brightest shining fashion stars, Browne’s installation was recently up at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian in NYC, and he was honored for his achievements by the CFDA. He launched his own label back in 2001, when “he couldn’t get people to touch it”, and with his very palpable focus, persistence and singular vision, became an seminal figure in the blossoming of menswear diversity we’ve witnessed this past decade. We were delighted to share a few moments with Browne (and his dog Hector) in his Hudson Street shop — read the full interview text below.
LECLAIREUR: You’re from Allentown which is quite an American industrial town. Growing up, did you perceive yourself as a designer and what was it like, in that environment, to feel artistic?
THOM BROWNE: Being a designer wasn’t something I thought about, growing up. My parents were both attorneys, there were seven of us children, we all did sports and went to school… Being a designer wasn’t even an option. I think designing came to me after I graduated from school, when I figured out that what I really liked to do, was design clothes.
L: So you stumbled into it…
I lived in LA. I was playing with vintage clothing and the initiation came out of that. I was a struggling actor, which I gave up before coming back to New York. Getting jobs in the industry was where it really started. The first design jobs came through Ralph Lauren at Club Monaco, I learned the business of fashion during those jobs, and it was the furthest thing from what I really wanted to do as a designer myself. I started my collection, basically, with the first five suits that I made.
L: So this moment came right before you started designing, where you took a decision to start out on your own. Was there a catalyst or something that happened?
I think I was designing in a world and on a level I didn’t want to design in, and it was basically a desire to make something I wanted myself, at the level I wanted – hand-made clothing with proportions I liked, since proportions were very different then. It wasn’t something really thought out, it just happened. That’s where the shorter jacket and the proportions of the trousers came in. From a personal desire. Going out on my own was something I always wanted to do, but what I actually set out to design was something very simple and personal.
L: When people think about uniforms, or uniformity, they often think about institutions. There’s a different meaning, in your case, and you talk about how it resonates for you personally.
For me it correlates with the collection, in that I like things simple, I like things organized and somewhat regimented. The idea of uniform and uniformity is interesting because there is such a confidence in uniformity, and I think a person who can adopt a uniform for themselves brings confidence, and in that confidence I think there is true individuality. Individual people are confident people.
L: In that individual expression, there is so much room for play… Without it being calculated, where do you see the road to bring that playfulness in?
It’s definitely not calculated, but it is well thought out. There is a reason for everything and sometimes the uniformity is not necessarily there in the collections but it is in the classic ideas I started the collections with. All the clothing that all of my employees wear, and what I am personally attracted to wearing, are just really classic, really well-made clothing. I think that is enhanced, every season, by the humour I infuse into my collections, and the somewhat dark references I use sometimes.
L: Some of the fabric pieces you have are very tactile, you just want to touch them. Can you talk about how you came by them and how they in inspired you.
All the fabrics are specifically developed for my collections. The fabrics are very important and they differ every season but they always start from a classic idea. I like to infuse them with something that makes them a bit more relevant, not only for the collections, but also for my customers, who are mostly youthfully spirited people. I like to play with embroidery, and there’s a mill near Lake Como that I use a lot for all my jacquard fabrics.
L: In the last decade, menswear has undergone a lot of transformation. What is your perspective after 15 years in the business, and what do you think about what is happening today?
I don’t always keep up with what’s going on. I like to focus on my own thing, and there are other designers who know more about current fashions. I certainly think that what I am doing has become more accepted because I couldn’t give it away initially! It’s interesting, there’s a lot more choice for guys – which I don’t necessarily think is a good thing. I think more focused choices can be better for guys. For me, good design is putting interesting ideas in front of people and making sure everything is made really well, and moving forward.
L: You have been working with Leclaireur for about three years now. What is your relationship with Leclaireur?
Leclaireur is one of the stores I have had in mind from the very beginning. Being an American, it’s so hard to say the name! I really wanted them to buy my work much earlier, it’s only been 3 or 4 years now. They are one of those iconic stores that represent people’s collections well, and that I think every designer wants to be in. To be one of their selected designers is special, and I never take it for granted.
L: You were honoured in 2012 with the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and, more recently, there was an installation.
It has been an absolute honour. To be the first fashion designer to be asked is special, but I wanted to honour their collection at the same time, so we went offsite to their collection without any preconceived ideas about what I wanted to do.
The two eighteenth-century mirrors really stood out, and I just happened to be doing collections that included mirrors, so it was fortuitous. I wanted to make sure people also saw what I do, along with their collection, and so the installation of the silver clad desk and the silver shoes – which were very important in past shows – became part of the idea behind the installation. My ideas of uniformity and individuality came into play: I wanted people to see their own reflection and have their own experience with it.
L: Which mirrors were important to you?
There’s a Jim Dine mirror… The classic pair of mirrors was where I started, but in a way I wanted them all to feel equally as important, and I was looking to provide visitors with an overall experience.
L: Speaking of which – when you look in the mirror, who are you seeing? Who is Thom Browne?
It’s a hard question… I see somebody who loves what he does.