How Thom Browne Turned the Gray Flannel Suit Into Something Subversive

It’s how Browne’s businessman father, James, dressed for work. (He shopped at Brooks Brothers, with which Browne collaborated from 2007 to 2015.) The family lived in Allentown, Penn., a former iron town where Browne’s mother, Bernice, a lawyer, sent her seven children to Catholic schools that required uniforms of oxford shirts, navy blazers and leather shoes. As the middle child, Browne was, and still is, “very competitive” and excelled at tennis in high school before swimming at Notre Dame, where he studied economics and overlapped with several of his siblings, most of whom went on to become doctors and attorneys. (They’re still close; the sisters wear his clothes more than the brothers do.) Today, he mostly runs, eight miles in the morning, one of many routines — like eating toast for breakfast or having Krug Champagne in a crystal coupe every night — that Browne employs to give his days the same order his brand espouses. “I like the rigor of a schedule,” he says. “The game of a more regimented life.”

It’s easy to see how Browne’s upbringing influenced his fetish for boundary-setting. More striking, though, is how he’s taken the look of his father’s generation — and the tropes of straight suburban life — and subverted it, questioning the role and purpose of the suit, wresting it away from its white-collar tedium and transforming it into something that’s undeniably fashion. By constantly tweaking his trademark gray tailoring, remaking (and unmaking) it in countless permutations over 76 collections, he’s forever referencing the heteronormative hegemony of the American patriarchy, but he’s also always taking revenge on it, encouraging all sorts of artists, tomboys, trans people, foreigners and other outsiders to wear pieces that weren’t originally meant for them, all produced in a country that wasn’t meant for them, either.

Although Browne is one of America’s most successful designers, he’s also a deserter — an avant-gardist from a ready-to-wear nation who, since 2010, has primarily shown his men’s collections in Paris, a city that, he says, better accepted his conceptual approach and opened his business up to a more international audience (he also started showing women’s wear there five years ago). As with any absconder, this vantage point appears to have helped him reconsider America itself, not that he’s renounced it: “I’m challenging myself to make it important that I’m worthy of being in Paris,” he says. “Hopefully, America is proud that I’m representing it well.” Before he begins each collection, he invents a romantic story and mise-en-scène in his head — a menagerie of giraffes, unicorns and other creatures who come alive on the runway; cute boys ice-skating together on a snowy evening — and later chooses and elaborately decorates a venue as if it’s a movie set; there’s always a sense of theatricality that reflects Browne’s admiration for acting and old Hollywood. You can tell everyone knows they’re performing: As the director, Browne styles every collection himself and casts models, he says, “who can do something other than just walk in the clothes, because it’s more than that.”

Unlike other designers, who are often chasing new silhouettes or trends, Browne’s iterative practice involves revisiting similar motifs from year to year (punk-prep plaids and hand-pieced intarsia in fall; floral embroidery and seersucker suits in spring), each time overlaid with a distinctive theme, whether it’s nautical or carnival, clowns or dandies, med school students or Japanese schoolgirls, Victorian brides in coffins or John F. Kennedy. But the fabrics, fabrications, shapes and palette — often limited to Easter Sunday pastels, in addition to the continental red, white and blue of his customary grosgrain trim — haven’t changed much, even as the context does. In that way, one can see Browne’s influence on designers such as Balenciaga’s Demna, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and others whose aesthetics remain constant even as the content of their shows — or films or performances — varies widely.

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