Ground Control To Major Thom

Zachary DeLuca, who answered our recent call for an editorial assistant, herein presents his first piece for Ivy Style. DeLuca recently completed an MA in English from the University of Edinburgh, and has lately been writing about film. He is a fan of midcentury menswear and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

To be at all familiar with Thom Browne’s line of menswear is to be exposed to the sound and the fury of both adulation and disgust that surrounds the designer: The Pee-Wee Herman jabs, the kids-department jokes, and the exaltations of his genius as the man who made the stodgy 3/2 sack suit a fashion item.

Lately it seemed like Browne had receded into the confines of his tailor-shop-cum-laboratory, content to make his line in peace. But now, thanks to the December issue of GQ, in which Browne is named Designer of the Year, the hullabaloo is sure to begin again, and it’s doubtful that the rhetoric will have changed.

Like football, menswear is a game of inches, and for some the small measure of fabric that separates a trouser hem from no-break to flood-length, and from flood-length to up-in-the-stratosphere, is a sacred quantity, a measure ensconced in history since the time when men first shed their culottes and donned trousers.

Of course, trouser length has always been a matter of preference, but for Thom Browne’s detractors (Alan Flusser famously called Browne’s designs “the most irresponsible clothes I have ever seen in my 30 years in fashion”), the designer has found the line that separates the preferential from the tasteless and brazenly crossed it, bare ankles shining in the sunlight.

Lost in all the name-calling and rule-citing lies the real question: Why all the fuss about Thom Browne?  Ignore his conceptual runway stuff and what you have is a well made collection much more involved with the continuing tradition of American style than most other designers working today.

But for those who are anti-Thom, that’s part of the problem. Browne has struck a nerve with so many not because he messed with the suit, but because he messed with the quintessential American suit, the three-button, gray flannel, natural-shouldered suit.

To say Thom Browne looks like Pee-Wee Herman is inaccurate: He looks like J. Press on heroin. But who’s to say that J. Press (and American style in general) doesn’t need the occasional shot in the arm? How is Browne’s riff on the gray flannel suit any different than Sidney Winston’s scissor-happy experiments with patches of madras and tweed 50 years ago?

In GQ’s article, Browne reveals how traditional American clothing serves as his own source of inspiration, how nostalgia can transform a sense of history, and what can happen when that nostalgia is brought to the design table. The following excerpts are often interesting and sometimes bewildering. Below them are looks from Browne’s Black Fleece collection for Brooks Brothers. — ZACHARY DELUCA

He’s wearing a dark gray Thom Browne suit and a narrow tie cut from the same material. He could be an early-’60s banker, a defense contractor, an IBM executive studying a printout from a computer the size of a one-bedroom apartment. Except nobody at DuPont or Young & Rubicam dressed quite like this.

He looks like a time traveler, an emissary from planet 1958. The Man Who Fell to West 12th Street. Observe the exposed calf below his abbreviated pant leg, the severe brush cut on his peanut-shaped head, the shiny black personal-injury-lawyer briefcase on the floor by his feet. Greetings, rumpled humans.

Decisions, decisions. Browne likes John F. Kennedy’s two-button Brooks Brothers suits, less because he admires John F. Kennedy—“It’s nothing political at all”—and more because he likes the America that Kennedy lived in.

Early on, he’d wash vintage suits and throw them in the dryer. He was trying to make them look like Thom Browne suits before anybody knew what a Thom Browne suit was. He was thinking about that late-’50s-early-’60s organization-man moment, post–electric typewriter, pre–Meet the Beatles. He wanted a suit that looked the way he thought suits had looked back then. The distinction matters; the silhouette of the Thom Browne suit actually, technically started out as Browne misremembering classic American tailoring.

And when he borrows elements from womenswear, ties a guy up, dresses a guy like a bird, he’s not gluing new pages into the Preppy Handbook or imagining a world where JFK could greet the New Frontier in a jacket puffed out with tulle; he’s just trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.

(He buys the briefcases on eBay. They’re Samsonite, or something like it, and he thinks they’re perfect. “Some things are so perfect there’s no need to redesign them,” he says. “This is one of those things.” He feels this way about Sperry Top-Siders, too—“Good ol’ Sperry did a good job”—and Levi’s, although he doesn’t own jeans.)

10 Comments on "Ground Control To Major Thom"

  1. Thom B. is lost on me. I must be a philistine. I just can’t imagine the board chairman or anyone in a responsible job actually working in this clothing. Men’s clothing is a game of inches and T.B. is always a couple short. No Touchdown, no matter what GQ says. More like clipping below the waist. HTJ.

  2. pluariltyrule | December 12, 2008 at 9:15 am |

    thom browne’s collections are genius…

    “he looks like J. Press on heroin.” thats new, and I like that. good article.

  3. I don’t think Browne is catering to board chairmen or people with a “responsible” job (every job has responsibility; “respectable?”) If he were, the clothes wouldn’t look so funny.

  4. I can honestly say that as we speak I am sitting in the lavish office of a prominent private equity firm, watching board chairmen and “responsible” investors walk by. All of them have yachts. Some of them have private jets and “compounds.” NONE of them has a pair of trousers that fits properly.

    Unlike their British counterparts, the vast majority of American businessmen simply have no sense of fit. I knew a Marketing VP who ordered all his Tom James suits with the sleeves at least 2 inches too long. Same with the trousers. To say that a Thom Browne suit would look out of place in a boardroom is probably correct. But it is also correct to say that any well fitting garment would look equally out of place.

  5. The trouble with bare ankles and oxfords, suits worn without belts, ultra narrow silhouhettes and the like is the trouble with all things fashion: its going to look really dated really soon. No staying power, and expensive as hell.

    Thom Browne deals in suits which are clearly derived of an inherently American traditional aesthetic, but that doesn’t make them business clothes. Don’t forget that this is fashion, and fashion (at least for men) rarely has a place in the office.

    You don’t wear patch madras or corduroys embroidered with whales in the boardroom either.

  6. Is this what is going to happen to Trad in the future?
    What a depressing thought!

  7. One thing I think old T.B. gets right, at least from photos I’ve seen is shoulders. Jackets should fit from the shoulders, and his jackets usually look pretty good at the shoulder. Never too wide, always natural looking. Many men’s suits suffer from shoulders that are too wide. Zachary, great article, btw.

  8. Nice article. I understand T.B. aesthetic. I just don’t like it.

    “Like football, menswear is a game of inches” — So is porn for that matter.

  9. Gregorius Mercator | December 19, 2009 at 7:14 pm |

    Yeah, I’m not a hater, but as far as the top picture goes, that is just ridiculous. He’s not revolutionizing the suit trousers; he’s cutting them so that they’re ill-fitting on purpose. Postmodern? Maybe a bit, but there’s no utility in this beyond that minority of gentlemen (should one even exist) that finds any fabric about the ankles to be intolerably warm.

  10. Ryan Rodriguez | January 26, 2013 at 10:19 pm |


    You comment on Browne not being able to be worn in an office setting, but that’s exactly the point, he doesn’t design for that. He designs for the man who still believes in wearing a classic suit, casually. Anywhere! For anything. As he does. He’s aware that his preferred attire, a traditional jacket and trousers, are the “anti-establishment.” And frowns upon the casual nature of Americans to be fine with jeans and a t-shirt.

    And the man doesn’t design for “fashion.” He puts out whatever he likes. He isn’t riding trends or trying to start them.

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