Thom Browne is an All-American showman. A Hollywood actor-turned-superstar tailor, he presents his high-concept menswear in the kind of overtly theatrical fashion shows that would have made P T Barnum proud. His version of the Star-Spangled Dream is also seriously strange. Whether it's in the rather restrictive proportions of his suits, or the twisted details of his catwalk "performances", there's a seemingly deliberate perversity to the Thom Browne aesthetic.
"From the beginning, I've always just done things in my own way," he explains. "Things become much easier when you're not constrained by the rules."
We meet a few days after Browne's spring/summer 2008 show at New York Fashion Week, and, holding court in his showroom overlooking the Hudson river, the designer is in a typically ebullient mood. This season, the reviews of his show have been almost entirely positive – a curious new experience for the 42-year-old.
"For some time, people just discounted my work and didn't accept it," he says. "Everyone was, like, 'Who's gonna wear this?'. But now people are starting to realise that they can never know what to expect when they come to my shows."
Riffing on themes of American sports and surfwear, the show saw Browne operating at his most provocative. Alongside the designer's trademark silhouette – tight-fitting, soft-shouldered suiting that often ends just before the wrist and ankle – the Bruce Weber-esque models marched out wearing a surreal blend of plaid suits, rosette-adorned jackets, trousers with added codpieces and super-short shorts.
Mixing the practical with the downright unwearable, the presentation seemed all the more controversial given its relatively staid context. Relying largely on its front-row stars to generate publicity, New York Fashion Week doesn't generally welcome grand catwalk gestures. "Because it's New York, people expect to see things shown in a certain way," says Browne. "Well, I don't do that and never will. I think it's good to provoke new ideas and make people sit up. I want them to see that, in menswear, you can do something different."
But how was it different? Thanks to certain key elements in the show – the shredded tricolour strips, the extended shirtsleeves tied like straitjackets, the ironic burst of Hendrix's "Star- Spangled Banner" at the end – a few writers saw the presentation as a not-too-veiled critique of American values. It's an idea that the designer diplomatically refutes, instead proposing a more idealistic reading of his work: "It's not anti-American at all. It's more anti-Establishment in a way. It's against any kind of rule that keeps you from striving to be the best, or anything that keeps you from doing what you want to do."
Naturally, Browne himself has always done exactly what he wants to do. The son of two attorneys, he was raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and spent his teenage years "playing non-team sports and doing a lot of things on my own". In his early twenties, he staged what he describes as "a serious act of rebellion" against his professional, middle-class family by – gasp! – running off to Hollywood to become an actor. Although he achieved some degree of success (apparently, he was quite big on the commercials circuit but, quite sensibly, refuses to name any of the products he endorsed), he now says that he hated the experience from start to finish.
"It was truly horrible!" he recalls, laughing. "Seriously, I give anybody credit who wants to act because it's the hardest thing you could ever want to do. Waking up every day knowing that people are going to say no to you... it's just a terrible existence." Surely the fashion industry can also be pretty tough sometimes? "Listen, it doesn't even compare."
Having decided that he "wasn't gonna be 45 and still struggling", Browne abandoned acting in his early thirties to pursue a career in fashion. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, he rejected the idea of going back to college, preferring instead a more unorthodox education. "I learnt on the job, with a tailor," he explains. "Which is probably the most valuable type of training you can get. When you apprentice with someone like that, you really understand how to make clothes. And honestly, I don't know what they learn at fashion school these days anyway."
It took the designer close to a year of training before he could make his first suit, but Browne says that the lean, extreme silhouette was there from the start. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do," he explains. "I was inspired by the old Brooks Brothers jackets my grandfather and father used to wear, and by old movies from the 1950s and 1960s. But it was more about capturing the essence of things rather than copying how they were actually put together."
Look around the audience at Browne's show – or, indeed, at any significant gathering of New York metrosexuals – and it's obvious how much the designer's more formal look is influencing the current state of menswear. And thanks to an ongoing collaboration with Brooks Brothers, Browne is extending his empire even further. In a move that sees him working with one of his original inspirations, Browne has created the Black Fleece collection, a limited-edition range of mens- and womenswear for the esteemed American brand, now in its second season.
It's definitely one of the more logical designer/high-street collaborations, and one with a surprising fairy godmother behind it: "A few days after Thom won the CFDA/Vogue award, he received a call from Anna Wintour," explains Miki Higasa, Browne's PR and right-hand woman. "She's very good at looking after the designers nominated for this award, and she asked Thom if he'd ever thought about doing a collaboration and, if so, with which brand. Thom mentioned Brooks Brothers and, the next thing you know, it's all happening."
While the Black Fleece collection has a more relaxed fit than his own brand, Browne is evidently pleased with the results. "I wouldn't say there's been any compromise," he says. "I had to stay true to what Brooks Brothers was about, but that was pretty easy. There was so much heritage to draw upon, so many old catalogues to look through. Brooks Brothers has been in business for close to 200 years, so I wanted to make sure that the first collection fitted into its world.
One significant difference between the two lines, however, is the price – while Browne's own beautifully handmade suits can cost upwards of $3,000, the Black Fleece collection is clearly more affordable. "There are younger guys I'd love to see wearing my clothes, but they're a little more expensive than they can afford. So, with Black Fleece, it's nice for them to have a 'first step'. I'm very conscious of how expensive my own line is, but a lot of work goes into it and I want people to appreciate that."
With a jewellery range for Harry Winston, and a womenswear collection also completed, one can't help wondering if Browne is pushing himself and his small team to the limits. Right now, however, he seems unstoppable. "The business has evolved nicely so far, it just kind of happened," he says. "I want it to grow more, but you can't know how big something can get until it actually happens."
In the meantime, he is clearly enjoying his status as American menswear's prime provocateur. "People ask me all the time, 'when are you gonna take a vacation?', but I don't need to," he says. "I know this is what I should be doing, and I absolutely love it."
Thom Browne is available at Dover Street Market (020-7518 0680) and Harvey Nichols (020-7235 5000). The Black Fleece collection is available from Brooks Brothers, 132-134 Regent Street, London W1 (020-3238 0030)Reuse content