Get ready for Thom Browne like you’ve never seen him before.
Minimalism?! From the guy hooked on corsets and couture-level craft, whose 2019 Met Gala gown for Cardi B had 30,000 red feathers and took 35 people more than 2,000 hours to create?
“I love big, dramatic pieces, but the work on these more simple-looking pieces, it’s the most special work I’ve done and people need to see there is this level happening in New York,” the designer said during a preview of his spring 2022 collection, which he’s showing in New York instead of Paris to support partner Andrew Bolton, curator of the “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition opening next week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
“There are so many interesting and talented people here and the world needs to see that again,” said Browne.
Without revealing too much (hence the colorful tulle he shrouded models — and himself — in for the WWD shoot), Browne shared that the runway show will demonstrate how American clothing has become freer and easier to wear over time, while staying true to his obsession with quality tailoring. There will also be a minimum of embellishment this season.
When it comes to his contributions to the Costume Institute exhibition, to the American lexicon as it were, Browne was mum, preferring to leave it to Bolton, who declined comment for this story.
The designer has certainly changed the way men dress in a big way, giving your father’s gray suits fashion cred, putting LeBron James and his NBA teammates in short pants, and men in skirts, from Dan Levy from “Schitt’s Creek,” to “Stranger Things” actor David Harbour in the Thom Browne fall 2021 ad campaign.
In July, Lyst’s report of the hottest fashion items of 2021’s second quarter ranked Browne’s men’s wear skirt in the top 10.
Skirts for men have been around since ancient times, of course, and on the runways since at least the 1980s. “But the way I approached it was not from a fashion point of view,” Browne said. “I wanted to normalize it. Whether it was the skirts or putting guys in things more stereotypically thought of for women, I want to show it looks normal, or just good.”
Photographed with Anh Duong in the fall campaign, Harbour gives out “American Gothic” vibes. “He’s just a regular guy. That was one of the reasons I wanted to work with him, too, because even though our business has grown so much, there are people who still think I only do clothes for skinny little people. And there’s so much more to it.…When you make something really well and it’s based on something familiar, that’s more challenging than making something big and fashion,” Browne said.
On the women’s side, Browne has had some missteps over the years, including showing models with arms bound behind their backs, in hobble skirts and punishing shoes, which led some to criticize the work as misogynist.
“Look, sometimes you may cross over. But the last thing I take from criticism is fear,” he said. (Notably, the Thom Browne world has become less freaky and more friendly in recent seasons, with its menagerie of animal-shaped handbags, and expanding range of four-bar cozy wear cardigans, sweats and tube socks nipping at the heels of sportswear king Ralph Lauren.)
Browne said lately he hasn’t been thinking much about gender at all. His spring collection will be modeled on the runway by all genders. “We live in an amazing world that it just doesn’t matter.”
The show will also have a story arc worthy of those seen in his recent films, like the jewel box of a tale starring Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn that he made to present fall 2021.
“Films will always be an idea we toy with, but this had to be in person.…And I wanted to get back to doing it,” said the runway showman.
Browne will celebrate 20 years in business in 2023. As he begins to look back, he is proud of his former employees now leading other brands.
“They are like my kids…and I hope what they learned from me is to make sure they are true to themselves and create their own point of view that will live on its own,” Browne said of Daniel Roseberry at Schiaparelli in Paris and Jackson Wiederhoeft, who recently launched his own namesake line in Brooklyn. “And to make sure the quality is good.”
Browne’s business has been going gangbusters since being acquired by the Ermenegildo Zegna Group in 2018. With chief executive officer Rodrigo Bazan at the helm, annual revenues are now in the $400 million range and the retail store count is 75 worldwide, the designer said.
“Rodrigo is one of those new-generation CEOs, incredibly strategic and really sensitive to the creative side. He understands what I do and I understand what he does, and he’s been hugely influential for the growth of the business and where we are now.”
Bazan doesn’t get involved with design but “appreciates everything that’s being designed,” said Browne. “He knows there is a reason for all of it. Of course, he has an intelligently commercial side, as he should, but he’s open and curious and interested in doing it the right way. That’s why he’s been with me for five years.”
Having recently launched children’s wear and performance athleticwear, Browne isn’t afraid of growth, even factory outlet-level growth. “I want to be as big as we possibly can but I want to do it our way.”
Beauty? Home? “All of it,” he said. (Browne already buys the furniture for his retail stores, which is all for sale.) “There’s something so good about how we’ve grown because it feels still so true to that original idea. Every season, things keep getting better and better.”
Will the fashion industry be celebrating his 50th anniversary in Central Park with Double TB Ranch burgers?
“Well, I definitely want to be around,” laughed Browne, though he does plan to head back to Europe to show future collections.
But first, it’s the runway at New York Fashion Week on Saturday followed by the Met Gala on Monday.
Browne is hosting a table of 10 at the gala. “It’s a really good mix,” he said of his all-ages guests.
The designer should know; he has been to nearly every one of the galas over the years. “I love seeing the day through Andrew’s eyes. It’s not my day, it’s his day. He is and always will be my date, no matter who we bring to the table.”
And though he has never been cornered by Kanye, and wasn’t in that infamous elevator, it’s still a heady scene, Browne said: “You know every single person in the room but you don’t know any of them. And when you look at the stairs, I don’t know what it’s like at Cannes, but it’s a pretty loaded moment. All I can think is, ‘Don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip!”’