Thom Browne steals the thunder at Paris Fashion Week


It wasn’t easy to steal the thunder from the European menswear designers this season: Raf Simons staged an exquisite 15th anniversary show that touched on themes from the last decade and a half of collections, Italian textile maker and clothing label Ermenegildo Zegna pulled out all the stops to mark its 100th year, and Dolce & Gabbana’s runway show, celebrating its 20th year of menswear, included a surprise performance by Annie Lennox.

But in the penultimate time slot on the final day of the Paris fashion calendar, nearly an hour late, American designer Thom Browne made his Paris Fashion Week runway debut, made a lasting impression and made it clear that he is poised to be as big as his suits are small.

“This is Thom Browne in his prime,” said Tim Bess, men’s fashion trend analyst for the Doneger Group. “There’s a lot more we’re going to see from him, and look, I’m from New York, so I’m all about New York runway, but showing in Paris is a very good step in his career. It’s the best way to get exposure to the international press.”

Browne’s Paris launch pad moment comes as his eponymous brand is about to mark its first decade. The native of Allentown, Pa., who once tried to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles before a stint as creative director for Club Monaco, started his made-to-measure suit business in 2001.

Shrunken suits, big profile

It wasn’t long before his unwavering predilection for the shrunken suit silhouette — narrow lapels, short-cropped trousers and truncated sleeves that sell in stores like Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman starting at $3,500 — was making waves and changing the direction of menswear, a world in which change happens at a glacial pace. It also made him a darling of the fashion community, earning him the Council of Fashion Designers of America menswear award in 2006 and GQ’s designer of the year award for 2008.

In September 2006, old-school clothier Brooks Bros. announced Browne would be the first-ever guest designer in that brand’s nearly 200-year history. That men’s and women’s label, Black Fleece, hit Brooks Bros. stores for fall-winter 2007. And while it has hardly made him a household name, it raised his profile considerably and has grown to include three standalone retail stores ( New York City, San Francisco and Tokyo) and his and her Black Fleece fragrances.

In January 2009, Browne’s collaboration with Italian skiwear brand Moncler (a company known for its ubiquitous puffy, down-filled nylon ski jackets) had its debut during Milan Men’s Fashion Week, expanding his reach into active wear. Most recently, Browne collaborated on a line of men’s jewelry for Harry Winston, bringing his signature aesthetic to pieces that include $33,000 cufflinks.

Bess thinks those projects are key to the growth of the core brand. “If he was just Thom Browne doing Thom Browne, it would be all great and fun and we’d go to fashion shows and that would be that,” he said. “But collaborations with these heritage brands allow him to get his name out there. … The collaboration with Brooks Bros. was brilliant. I think that’s actually made other designers reconsider what a collaboration could be. It was a real aha moment. He really gave Brooks Bros. its cool back.”

That sentiment is echoed by the man who made it happen, Brooks Bros. Chairman and Chief Executive Claudio Del Vecchio (who ended up attending one of Browne’s shows at the suggestion of Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour).

“We knew that our collaboration with Thom would make for a very good PR story,” he said in a recent e-mail. “But we initially under-estimated the commercial appeal of the Black Fleece collection.” Del Vecchio said the partnership has resulted in bringing a more fashion-forward customer through the retailer’s doors. (Although Brooks Bros. does not release specific sales figures, a company spokesman called recent trade paper reports that Black Fleece is on track to generate $10 million in sales this year “fairly accurate.”)

Able to get people talking

It’s a marked change in trajectory compared with the state of Browne’s company barely a year ago, when press reports suggested that it might consider filing for bankruptcy. Since that time, Japanese investor Cross Co., which owned a minority stake in the company, increased its ownership to 67%. This allowed the designer to further expand the brand. High on that priority list was relocating his famously over-the-top runway shows (which have included men in three-legged pants, feathered suits and bridal trains, among other things) to Paris.

Set in the Oscar Niemeyer-designed headquarters of the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party) headquarters, the June 27 show began with attendees seated like visiting fashion dignitaries at long, curved desks in the avant-garde building’s domed conference room, set with 100 identical, blank Mead notebooks, 100 precisely sharpened yellow No. 2 pencils and 100 dual sets of miniature U.S. and French desk flags.

Four men in crisp, matching blue crest-emblazoned blazers and dark sunglasses took to the dais, speaking — first in English and then in French — about heroes and sacrifice and pride.

Then, to the strains of “The Blue Danube” (a nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey”), the conference room doors slid open, and a cadre of identically helmeted astronauts wearing white Thom Browne spacesuits filed into the room.

Removing their space helmets, to reveal gold reflective sunglasses and gold-flecked lips, the Brownemonauts stood at attention before filing out of the room, where they doffed their space onesies in an anteroom to reveal the spring-summer 2011 collection and circulated back through the delegation.

When the trappings of space travel were stripped away — literally — the collection underneath was based out of Cape Cod, not Cape Canaveral, a colorful summer jaunt in Browne’s trademark short-suit silhouette that included pink and red seersucker pinstripes, blue gingham checks, tiny bows, sequins and the marine life motif of the season: a preppy allover embroidery of sharks and goldfish.

As the show closed to the sound of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (“This is ground control to Major Tom / You’ve really made the grade / And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear …” it was cemented as the kind of fashion moment destined to be discussed and dissected for seasons to come.

“It was a brilliant show,” said Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, who rated it as one of the top three shows of Paris Fashion Week. “The Communist Party headquarters was the perfect location because his shows are all about uniformity and conformity.”

Dawn of the second decade

So, as the Thom Browne brand closes in on its first decade, what does the second decade look like?

“Well, if everything failed and he was about to go out of business, he would certainly be able to make children’s clothes — his silhouette is perfect for that,” Bess joked. “But seriously, there’s a lot more we’re going to see of him. Especially if he continues to grow slowly with his own line and do these collaborations that extend his reach, I think he’ll just keep evolving. Ten years down the line, I could see him partnering or collaborating with a fast-fashion retailer — like Jil Sander for Uniqlo.”

But Tom Kalenderian, general merchandise manager of men’s at Barneys New York, doesn’t need to look further than the current calendar year to predict big things for Thom Browne. “2010 is definitely turning out to be a big year for him — especially with the women’s collection” coming out.

Kalenderian is referring to what could be the biggest boost to Browne’s brand since the Brooks Bros. collaboration — a Thom Browne women’s collection due in stores (including Barneys, Collette in Paris and 10 Corso Como in Tokyo and Seoul) in two months.

While Browne has done occasional, one-off capsule collections of women’s clothing in the past, and Black Fleece already includes women’s apparel, this time it is a bit larger and is expected to continue from season to season, another benefit of the backing by Japan’s Cross Co. (itself a manufacturer of women’s apparel).

The first pieces in the men’s-inspired women’s collection are focused on jackets, trousers and outerwear in gray flannel and navy cashmere, and the small collection is expected to expand in successive seasons.

In other words, Thom Browne and his short pants aim to be with us for the long haul, and his Paris space odyssey was evidence that when it comes to the clothes — and the stagecraft sizzle to sell the steak — he’s definitely got the right stuff.