Ground Control To Major Thom

Ivy Style revisits this piece we did on Thom Browne in 2008.

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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:

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.)

Below are looks from Browne’s Black Fleece collection for Brooks Brothers. — ZACHARY DELUCA

18 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 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.

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Thom, lay off the drugs. Your latest collection is like Brooks Brothers on a speedball.

  10. I spoke with a friend last night who had been in the fashion industry for a number of years. He was close with THE top designer in the world, spending many weekends at his homes. My friend said the designers are all well acquainted with the rules of men’s wear, but see them as rules made to be broken. “That’s fashion”, he said.

  11. Edsel Marsdale | June 25, 2019 at 1:21 am |

    Why not just ignore him?

  12. Old School Tie | June 25, 2019 at 4:22 am |

    For fashionistas at least, one supposes that the very high prices lend a certain cachet to be seen wearing his stuff. It is also instantly recognizable, so that helps with impact factor. I have thought for quite some time now that a lot of fashion is designed to be worn and seen at some fashion week or other whilst you view upcoming fashions to be worn and seen in at upcoming fashion weeks…

  13. I agree with Edsel – just ignore the clown.

    There’s nothing to see here, move on!

  14. Charlottesville | June 25, 2019 at 10:51 am |

    Mr. Browne is getting worse. The 2008 gray suit above (on the model, not on Mr. Browne) is not that bad, if only the trousers and sleeves were a bit longer. The stuff he is putting out now is beyond ridiculous, even aside from the high-heeled spectators and cod pieces. I too wonder why anyone pays attention to the clown clothes.

  15. I 100% would rock the charcoal suit on the first model and just have the pants and cuffs lengthened slightly.

  16. @Kenny I know you meant well, but he’s one my closest friends.

    My point (and it’s not my opinion) is that it’s easy to conflate style and fashion.
    Fashion is an art. The Thom Browne high heels and cod pieces are more like David Bowie wearing silver lamé, or Pollack paint splatters, than it is like anything else.
    My understanding is that Haute Couture is an extremely demanding and highly skilled endeavor, and like most things of its sort, rarely turns a profit for the atelier.

  17. I wore a seersucker cod piece to Costco last weekend to pick up some hotdogs and wine and nobody gave me an askance glance.


  18. Will. Maybe they were distracted by the hot dogs.

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