Later, Browne went over the show’s soundtrack with his music supervisor. Along with the Visage song, the playlist included gloomy tracks from Björk and David Bowie and a pair of arias from the opera “Dido and Aeneas.” Browne likes to have his models walk slowly. Most fashion shows are under fifteen minutes; Browne’s regularly go on for more than thirty. Critics sometimes complain about it, he said, “but I’m, like, you know what? I spent so much on this. You’re all gonna sit and enjoy it.”
The music supervisor queued up the choo choo of a freight train, the clanging of an old-timey clock, and a chorus of pigeon coos. “Hey, I like to be cheesy sometimes,” Browne said. He had imagined sprinkling the stage at the Palais Garnier with handmade felt pigeon droppings—“They would have to be embroidered by Lesage,” Browne said, citing the legendary French needlework atelier—but had run out of time.
It was goûter hour in France. A publicist produced a spread that combined the glamorous and the mundane: a bottle of Dom Pérignon and a bag of plain potato chips. He poured the champagne into coupe glasses—Browne hates a flute—and the chips onto paper plates. Browne said that the idea for the combo had come from Marilyn Monroe’s character in “The Seven Year Itch.” “Chips always go with champagne,” he added, reaching for a plate.
Every Thom Browne piece includes a red-white-and-blue striped grosgrain ribbon as an accent, whether it’s a tab hanging off the back of a collar or a ring encircling a shirt arm. It is meant as a throwback to the cheap ribbon necklaces on the sports medals that Browne won in his competitive-swimming days. The fourth of seven siblings from a tight-knit Irish-Italian family, Browne would wake up on school days as early as 4 A.M. to train. His younger sister Jeanmarie Wolfe recalled, “We all held each other accountable and we were all competitive, but we knew that Thom just had it. We never worried about him. He always stayed the course.” (Today Wolfe, a lawyer in Allentown, wears head-to-toe Thom Browne to work nearly every day.) Browne became an all-American swimmer as a teen, and was recruited to Notre Dame’s Division I team. “I grew up in a Speedo,” he recalled, when we met up in New York later in July, at Sant Ambroeus, an Italian café on Madison Avenue. “That regimen was always part of my day. I loved the organization of it, and the discipline.” Browne is still a creature of habit. Since he and Bolton moved to Sutton Place, on the far East Side, in 2021, he has gone to Sant Ambroeus each morning to pick up his to-go breakfast—a sugar croissant and an espresso. That day, he’d agreed to dine in, at a red leather banquette. “This is new to me,” he said. His order remained the same.
Browne’s father, James, a lawyer and accountant, worked at a financial-services firm and wore Brooks Brothers suits to the office. His mother, Bernice, who’d met James in law school, stayed home with the kids and then, at fifty, passed the bar for a second time and went to work as a county solicitor. Browne thought he’d follow a traditional corporate path. He graduated from college with a business degree and took a consulting job in New York City, but he hated it and quit in less than a year. Not long afterward, a friend, the British interior designer Paul Fortune, offered to let Browne stay in the guesthouse at his Los Angeles home. Browne took him up on the offer, and ended up living in L.A. for six years.
Fortune, who died in 2020, was known for his high-profile clientele—Sofia Coppola, Marc Jacobs, Aileen Getty—and for his patrician sense of style. Like Browne, he was a gay man who’d gone to Catholic school. “He knew everybody,” Browne recalled. “And he had excellent taste. He was inspiring just to be around, to see how you could make your own life.” After two years, Browne moved into his own place, in Los Feliz. Many stories about Browne report that he spent his twenties as a “struggling actor,” but he laughed when I brought this up. He briefly studied with a drama coach and appeared in a few television ads. But he mostly supported himself as a production assistant and script reader. The one souvenir of Browne’s short-lived show-business career, he says, is his British-seeming name. Because there was already a Tom Browne in the Screen Actors Guild, he started going by Thom.
Since his year in the corporate world, Browne had gravitated toward wearing suits—Brooks Brothers, like his dad. But in L.A. he began to develop a more distinctive personal style. He would scour vintage stores for classic men’s pieces and have them altered at a local dry cleaner, raising the leg hems and truncating the sleeves. When asked about the inspiration for the look, Browne has cited memories of John F. Kennedy’s slender suits. But in reality J.F.K. often wore slouchy sack jackets and pants that broke over his shoelaces. The design “was this idea I had in my head, and I just had to get it out,” Browne said. He told me that he enjoyed the way his too-small suits “drove people crazy,” especially in laid-back L.A. He added, “I can’t stand things that are very vanilla. I get bored by things that are just normal.”
In 1997, he moved back to New York—“I had no money, and it was just scary,” he told me—and, through a friend, landed a job as a sales assistant at Giorgio Armani’s wholesale showroom. Armani had revamped power suits in the eighties with loose, billowy silhouettes, and though the aesthetic wasn’t to Browne’s personal taste, he quickly became a top salesman. Around the same time, he befriended the designer Ralph Lauren’s chief of staff and eventually met Lauren, who was looking for a new designer to develop menswear for his mid-level work-wear brand Club Monaco. Despite Browne’s lack of training, Lauren hired him for the job. Browne tried to bring his own ideas to the brand—miniature cardigans, high-water pants—but “it wasn’t right for them,” he recalled. “I couldn’t give that stuff away. But I really loved it so much that I thought I should just be doing it myself.”
Browne was not trained in sewing. To make suit prototypes for his own line, he needed to partner with an experienced tailor, but it was difficult to find one willing to use his bizarre specifications. After a stalled collaboration with a master tailor in Brooklyn, Browne connected with Rocco Ciccarelli, an old-school suit-maker in Queens, who agreed to make five sample suits (and went on to work as the head tailor for Browne until his retirement, in 2015). In 2001, at the age of thirty-five, Browne launched a made-to-measure business out of his one-bedroom apartment. He served as his own model, wearing the sample suits around town. He recalled that when he asked friends to purchase them “they were, like, ‘Why would we want to buy something that doesn’t even seem to fit you?’ ”
Innovation in tailored menswear has historically taken place in what one critic described to me as “infinitesimal adjustments.” But by the turn of the millennium, with the rise in casual work wear, most men no longer had to buy a suit. The challenge was to make them want to buy one, and designers were trying out increasingly daring ideas. Raf Simons, at his eponymous label, and then Hedi Slimane, at Dior Homme, produced sleek black suits that gave their wearers the look of louche indie rockers. Tom Ford, during his tenure at Gucci, introduced high-waisted velvet suits in sultry jewel tones. Browne’s tapered design drew on codes of American conformity—the trope of the “man in the gray flannel suit”—but also quite literally undercut them. The result was something impish and a little bit kinky: all that male cleavage, out on display. Within the fashion world, Browne was initially considered an intriguing artist on the fringes. “It was so small and so custom and so eccentric,” the veteran British fashion critic Tim Blanks recalled. “If somebody had told me this would be a half-a-billion-dollar business in twenty years, I would have laughed.”
Browne gained an important ally when a friend introduced him to Miki Higasa, a brand strategist who’d worked for Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde fashion house Comme des Garçons. Higasa had seen how a designer could make even the most challenging ideas legible to the public through repetition and persistence. She persuaded Browne to make a limited ready-to-wear collection in 2003, and soon afterward the operation moved into a small storefront in the meatpacking district. Higasa invited buyers to stop by, including Sarah Andelman, of the late trendsetting Paris boutique Colette, who placed an order for Browne’s heavy oxford shirts and then, as she recalled, “had to keep reordering them.” A buyer from Bergdorf Goodman agreed to carry the collection. “They wanted to put it on the tailoring floor, and not on the third floor with the fashion,” Higasa recalled. “We said, ‘This is not for the conventional guy.’ ”
In 2005, following Browne’s first menswear runway show in New York City, David Bowie came into the store. He asked for a suit “exactly as I was wearing it, with no alterations,” Browne recalled; Bowie later donned it during a televised concert at Radio City Music Hall. Browne’s look has since filtered into the mainstream. The rows of high-water pants in any Gap store owe a debt to his work, as does J. Crew’s ubiquitous slim-cut Ludlow suit. Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue (and the global chief content officer of Condé Nast, the parent company of The New Yorker), works closely with Bolton as the co-chair of the Met Gala and counts the couple among her good friends. She told me, of the Browne silhouette, “Now we accept it as being absolutely part of the fashion vocabulary. He completely changed the way we see.” One Browne staff member recalled that construction workers used to jeer at him when he walked down the street in his gray skirt. Today they just yell, “Hey, nice Thom Browne!”
One of Browne’s publicists had given me an official invitation to the couture show, which was printed on card stock as thick as a Wasa cracker and included a small square insert bearing the request “. . . Please wear your best grey.” (Browne has a fondness for ellipses and prefers to spell “gray” the British way.) On the day of the event, the sky above the Palais Garnier’s Beaux-Arts façade was a mottled, hazy apricot. Owing to the protests over the police shooting, armored guards stood around the building’s perimeter. At the back entrance, I met one of Browne’s lead publicists, Jonathon Zadrzynski—known as J.Z.—a skinny redhead wearing a full Thom Browne suit. I asked if he was roasting in the summer heat, and he shrugged. “We’re used to it,” he said.
Browne was inside in an airy rehearsal room with florid crown moldings and softly glowing globe lights. He stood quietly watching as two women added finishing touches to an ivory “gargoyle” gown that was hanging on a canvas dress form. There were two hours left until showtime.
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