The award-winning fashion designer Thom Browne revels in consistency in an industry that expects constant change.
Yeah, basically Brooks Brothers and J. Crew. Khakis, navy jackets, gray flannels. The classic American uniform.
You went on to study economics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Was fashion still not on your mind then?
No. I think it probably entered my conscience the first time I ever saw a GQ magazine in the library. But I didn’t even understand that it was—as horrible as it sounds now—a profession to consider. My parents were both attorneys, and everybody else in my family was kind of trapped to go into either law school or medical school. That was pretty much the track I was on. Then, when I was graduating, I thought to myself, I have no interest in either one of those.
I was tailoring vintage pieces for myself and not thinking that it was going to be anything other than that.
I feel like it’s so much easier to create something new when you start from a cleaner point of view. So much is out there, and there’s so much that has been done that’s really good, and it can be intimidating. When you don’t know as much, it’s very easy just to try to create something new. It’s also a lot easier to create your idea, as opposed to it having too many reference points and becoming just a new version of somebody else’s work.
When L.A. didn’t work out and you came to New York, your first job in fashion was in wholesale for Giorgio Armani. What was that like?
I was one of four salespeople, and I had to learn how to email. I had no idea how to do it. The time in L.A. was kind of the time that the internet came about—well, maybe it happened earlier, but I didn’t know how to email when I got to work. I had to ask the guy next to me.
This was 1998?
Yeah, and then I went to work at Club Monaco. These were good experiences in getting into fashion. They directly affect what we’re doing today, though they certainly don’t affect how I design.
One, quality was the most important thing. Rocco was a true handmade Roman tailor. He’d been here since the fifties, but he knew how to make really beautifully handmade clothes. That was the first and most important thing for me. Second was that it’s not so easy to find an Italian tailor who will want to do something other than what he’s been doing for fifty years. Rocco rolled his eyes, initially, when he saw me, but he always tells the story that he understood what I wanted to do because of how clear I was in that vision. We had a lot of years and collections together, and he’s the reason why it all started.
For most of the first decade, your label’s production was in Long Island City. Is that still the case today?
No. We outgrew it. Especially now, business is so big. And that’s the challenge of growing: keeping the quality and really being able to scale. Most of what we do now is in Italy, some in Japan.
Most of them were artists or architects or people who understood—sort of—what I was doing. They also had the confidence to be wearing something a little bit different. Because it was very different. Actually, as normal as it kind of seems now, back in 2003 people thought I was crazy. All the stores advised me to change this a little bit or change that a little bit. Being different was something that I really thought was important and interesting. I liked the collection myself, and that was the reason I didn’t change it. Thank god I didn’t, because I don’t think I’d be around if I did.
It came through Anna Wintour asking me, “If you were to collaborate with somebody, who would it be?” For me, Brooks Brothers was an institution, but it had had some not-so-good years. The respect people had for Brooks Brothers over the years was still there. I just felt like it needed some new blood. And that’s how it happened.
That collaboration lasted for an unusually long period of time.
Nine years. We’re really proud of it because it really fit within the world of Brooks Brothers. At the beginning, I was very conscious and very respectful of it being that. They had different ideas on just how they wanted to move forward with the business.
Then there’s Moncler, which is still going on. It’s a very similar situation—an Italian version of a classic brand that was very strong. People had a clear idea on what it was. Remo [Ruffini, the CEO of Moncler] created an amazing business out of what it was when he got it.
I have no interest in changing the aesthetic of the brand, so it’s really about their knowledge and being able to enhance it. Flavio [Albanese] just did the store in Milan, and he’s doing the store in London, as well as the upcoming stores in China.
How do you embrace other fields of design, whether architecture or furniture, in your work?
I think it’s important that people see something outside of the collections. It all plays into one idea. It’s that German term gesamtkunstwerk—I can never pronounce it. It’s important that everything you do is almost like one piece of art.
I’ll be taking the installation and then having fifteen art students from Basel interact with it. They’ll be writing or sketching or creating anything they want within the space of an hour while sitting at important midcentury desks. Hopefully, afterward we’ll have something that we can publish from their work.
How did you arrive at this idea for the project?
Initially, I wanted it to be kids from elementary school doing the art, because I think the purity in their thought is really interesting. But that didn’t work out. So it’s a local art school. I always knew I wanted it to be an interaction with the installation and involve some students.