Mirror, Mirror: Suited to a T

Posted: March 07, 2013

NEW YORK - About 15 years ago, designer Thom Browne had his own ideas about how a suit should fit. So he shortened the arms and the pant legs, opted for a flat-front trouser, and shrank everything else.

The rest of the fashion world jumped on Browne's exaggerated proportions, and by 2003, he opened a bespoke tailoring shop in New York's Meatpacking District. Browne was on his way to becoming the most influential menswear designer the world had seen in 20 years, his contributions to suiting as significant as Giorgio Armani and Christian Dior.

If you didn't know who Thom Browne was, you likely knew a Thom Browne suit.

Then, in January, Browne, an Allentown native, experienced a couturier's dream of a lifetime. While in Paris, he got an e-mail: To President Obama's inauguration, Michelle Obama was wearing the slate-gray and navy silk jacquard, über-fit-and-flare coat that he had designed.

Of course, she added the Michelle touch: a jeweled J. Crew sash and a pair of purple leather gloves. But she was wearing Thom Browne, and now even the least fashion-savvy would recognize that coat.

"It was fantastic," Browne said recently. After all, precedent has been set: When the first lady wears a designer for a marquee occasion, it's only a matter of time before household-name fame sets in. Think Jason Wu, Tracy Reese, Isabel Toledo, Maria Cornejo . . . .

"I wanted to see her in navy walking down the Mall hand-in-hand with her husband," Browne said. "It was just perfect for her. They just looked so strong together."

Browne initially met the first lady in September in Washington, when he won the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award. Obama hosted the ceremony, and Browne forged a relationship with Obama's personal stylist, Meredith Koop.

Obama ended up wearing a Browne gray-and-black lace-sleeved sheath during a presidential debate the following month. But it was the inaugural coat - he also designed the dress she wore underneath - that women coveted. The magic was in the tailoring, Browne said, which took months to get right.

"However many fittings you can have, it can't be perfect," Browne said. "But that was as close to perfect as you could get . . . . It was seriously tailored to her."

It's the Monday after New York Fashion Week, and Browne is finally getting a chance to rest at home in New York's West Village before he travels to Tokyo this month to open his next store. Until then, he's enjoying drinking champagne every day and hanging out with boyfriend Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The last two months have been more than a whirlwind for Browne. In early January, he started the fall 2013 collection season in Milan with a runway show featuring down and English plaid versions of his signature suits for Moncler Gamme Bleu.

That was followed by a show in Paris with a menswear collection that showcased boxy fur jackets, wide-brimmed top hats, tiny sunglasses, and his signature short pants in a patchwork-quilt cargo style.

After the inauguration, he hosted a presentation for Brooks Brothers Black Fleece during New York Fashion Week that featured bold plaid suits and skinny jewel-toned pants.

And Browne ended the season with a dramatic women's-wear presentation: Men clad in his signature suits were strewn across the runway as women with mussed hair, pursed red lips, and pale faces dropped roses on them.

The women wore suits tailored in a square SpongeBob style, but a closer look would show the same silk jacquard fabric sprinkled within the heavy shoulder pads and extra layers.

"I love that people have their own interpretation of my shows," said Brown of the runway presentations he calls "fantasy." "I'm never going to give a specific story. I want it to be an experience. I want it to be fantastic."

The clothing for sale in Browne's Tribeca showroom isn't as dramatic as his runway presentations. Along the 2,000 square-foot perimeter are four racks of the women's-wear collection, featuring pastel-colored resort wear and subdued fall pieces: tailored peplum jackets and wool A-line skirts. There's also what is becoming Browne's signature piece - the long, white shirtdress in various sizes that can be layered to look like a stand-alone skirt.

The men working at this Tribeca store look like doppelgängers for Happy Days' Richie Cunningham - right down to the parts in their slicked hair. But the showroom's soundtrack is more 42nd Street - all the salesmen are wearing Thom Browne shoes, which have silver taps on the heel and toe so they last longer.

Browne, 47, grew up in a family of lawyers, which he says helped him develop a conservative, Brooks Brothers style. With six brothers and sisters - including Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Browne - fashion, as long as he looked presentable, was an afterthought. He focused on swimming and academics.

After graduating with a degree in accounting from the University of Notre Dame, he moved to California with hopes of becoming an actor. As a struggling artist, he shopped at vintage stores, but he didn't like the cuts of the suits. They were too boxy, so he started tailoring his own.

But Browne had no plans to be a designer.

Then in 1997, Browne, broke, moved to New York and took a job in sales and marketing at Giorgio Armani. A few years later, he got a job designing at Club Monaco.

Eventually, he started designing suits - think Steve McQueen from  The Thomas Crown Affair and John F. Kennedy when he was still a Massachusetts senator - from his apartment. And after two years of building a small but loyal fashion following, he opened his first store. (He has since closed it.)

Browne became known for experimenting with fit. "For me, fashion is the way things are made," Browne said. "The way they are cut."

The look slowly crossed over to the mainstream. Menswear companies caught on (in 2005, Ralph Lauren introduced a slimmer "Black" label), and men bought more suits.

In 2006, he won the prestigious Council of Fashion Design Award for menswear.

Today, brands from Men's Wearhouse to Suitsupply to Henry A. Davidsen offer modified versions of the Thom Browne suit.

"He has helped the younger guy get back into suits again," said Michael Oxman, image consultant at Center City-based Henry A. Davidsen. "All the detailing these men are asking for - the thinner, skinnier leg - it's all Thom Browne-influenced."

Ralph Yaffe, one of the owners of Boyds, agrees.

"When I first saw his clothing, I thought it was Bizzaro La-La land," Yaffe said. "But his influence has been major - on younger guys, on older guys. Still, everyone cannot wear it."

Browne introduced his first women's wear collection in 2011, and since then has made it his business each season to alter the proportions of his looks. The result: very modern-looking pieces.

He knows he takes risks with every collection: shifting a woman's natural waistline, creating boxy shoulders, tightly cinching her waist, hemming her pants an inch too high. But that's all a part of Browne's art.

"A lot of what I put in front of people isn't for everyone. I don't want it to be for everyone," Browne said. "I would rather people see things that they love or hate, as opposed to what they like. I don't want to be in the middle."


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215- 854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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