Thom Browne’s Fun Side
The man who made suits cool again creates an inspired capsule collection for MR PORTER.
Mr Thom Browne is sat in his startlingly minimalist new Manhattan offices wearing the same uniform he always wears: the shrunken grey suit he has made his trademark. His cuffed trousers finish halfway up his calves to reveal several inches of bare ankle. His black brogue shoes are worn with a secret liner to appear sockless. The buttons on his Oxford shirt collar are undone, his skinny grey tie schoolboyishly askew. The bottom two buttons on his cardigan are left undone to part-reveal his signature placket strip of red, white and blue grosgrain – the only pop of colour in the entire ensemble. Umpteen shades of grey but unmistakably Browne.
Those who view Mr Browne as a traditionalist misread how radical and creative a designer he is. When he launched his label in 2001, the prevailing wind in men’s dressing was dotcom casual; donning an extremely tailored suit was at worst geeky, and at best anti-establishment. Mr Browne won the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for menswear in 2006 (and again in 2013), and suits with shorter jackets and stove-piped trousers became an oft-copied trope by others. A hugely successful collaboration with Brooks Brothers, called Black Fleece, also launched in 2006.
Lately, as more and more designers move from the suit to explore more relaxed, streetwear-driven looks, Mr Browne becomes even more fascinating. As the static of imitation dissipates, his modern and irreverent reinterpretations of classical fabrics (tweed) and menswear staples (an overcoat, a Derby boot) provide a stark reminder of why we became fans of his when he first hung out his shingle in the West Village.
The classic Thom Browne silhouette is instantly recognisable: the jacket is cut narrow, the trousers are cropped short and everything bar the tricolor strip is monochrome.
“Thom Browne is arguably responsible for bringing back the grey suit,” says MR PORTER’s Senior Buyer Mr Sam Lobban. “The clever thing is, he keeps deconstructing and reconstructing it so that it stays fresh. But the strength is in its uniformity.”
It’s a neat trick the 49-year-old New York designer has pulled off once again as the centrepiece for this exclusive capsule collection for MR PORTER. This time the suit is presented in two-tone grey herringbone and the entire nine-piece collection – comprising jacket, trousers, overcoat, Oxford shirt, tie, cardigan, sweatshirt, chukka boots and beanie hat – is a direct reference to his grey tweed and wool themed fall/winter 2014 catwalk collection. “We loved the show in Paris in January and asked Thom Browne to create a MR PORTER version of it – which is exactly what he has done,” explains Mr Lobban.
Mr Browne sits bolt upright at a marble table as we talk through the collection, piece by piece. His features are completely symmetrical, his frame is athletic (he was on the swimming team at the University of Notre Dame), his hair is cropped in a military buzz cut. The room is so empty it feels almost cell-like and there is little small talk – it’s straight down to business.
“We’ve taken the classic items of a Thom Browne wardrobe and used the fabrics of the fall/ winter 2014 collection such as herringbone and Shetland wool and referenced the ‘fun-mix’ idea that ran through the show,” he explains. Fun mix? “Yes, this is the idea of mixing patterns together. It was initiated by Brooks Brothers back in the 1940s and 1950s as a way of using leftover fabrics. It started with plaids and seersuckers and we sewed them together and fun mix is what came out. It’s very iconically East Coast American preppy.” Up until recently, you could still see grown men along America’s eastern seaboard wearing broadcloth shirts composed of different coloured candy stripes – each one tussling with the other. He smiles. “Riveting story, I know…”
The collection hangs together cohesively as variations on a single theme. Looking at the jacket from the front, it’s not immediately apparent that it is made in two halves from different shades of grey herringbone. But from the back you can see the join more obviously. The same is true of the overcoat. With the trousers, each leg is a different shade. The fun-mix theme filters through to the cable-knit Shetland wool cardigan; the sweatshirt made from wool rather than jersey; the button-down Oxford shirt in clashing checks; and the boots in patched-pattern wool.
Are the pieces supposed to be worn together? “That depends on the guy and how he wants to wear it,” says Mr Browne. “They are designed to work together and it does look really cool together but they do stand out on their own too.”
As ever, grey is the unifier. “For me, there’s something almost non-fashion about grey,” he says. “It’s masculine and timeless.”
So why does he, as a fashion designer, always dress the same way? “My motto is: keep it simple,” says Mr Browne. “There is something beautiful about creating a uniform for yourself so that it almost looks as if you don’t think about it in the morning. There is nothing worse than someone who looks as if he tries too hard.” No grey areas there. That much, at least, is very black and white.