Why the Fuss: Thom Browne

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First in this series, I made evident my puzzlement as to why Abercrombie & Fitch received so much attention and custom; a piece which attracted more than a few comments, most of which echoed my bemusement of that peculiar reverence – a reverence I have recently been witness to as the velvet roped queue for the precious sales items at the Burlington Gardens store snaked around Savile Row. The subject of this piece is an altogether different kettle of fish, for there are no squeaky-clean-teens clamouring at the emporium’s door; no loud thumping music, soap-smelling oily doormen or poor parents, reluctantly removing credit cards from wallets. For Thom Browne, one of the most unconventional contemporary clothing designers, appeals to an entirely different group, although this ‘appeal’ is something which I intend to analyse thoroughly.

I was browsing the racks of sale and non-sale items at Harvey Nichols, temple of fashion and furnishings, when I came across the Thom Browne concession which was really a small number of racks. I had read a great deal about Mr Browne’s clothing and philosophy; the so-called ‘saviour’ of men’s fashion, revered for offering simpler but eccentric choices. He is applauded for the tailoring and construction of his items, notorious for their ‘overgrown schoolboy’ look; incredibly short trousers and now incredibly short jacket sleeves. Many credit this as brilliance; tasteful and unique. Unique it certainly is, as I am unaware of any other designers who have attempted the short trouser trick before, although whether it is fully tasteful is questionable.

Some see Browne as a fad, a reaction to the lack of invention in menswear over the past 50 years that has led critics of fashion to rally and chorus that our designers have run out of ideas. Browne, superficially, counters this suggestion but an ‘idea’ isn’t necessarily a good one merely because it is new. For one thing, although fashion is highly influential, the mass of choice for the consumer puts a good deal of power in their hands; gentlemen are unlikely to have their heads turned by a minor whim. ‘It’s not for the masses though’ screeches a Browne-ite chum of mine ‘it’s for people who are capable of being different.’ An admirable quality indeed but for me, Browne is a symptom of our artistic modernisation; frustrated at our lack of aesthetic evolution, we reach out for the new in desperation. A recent article in The Times argued that we are entering a century of rapid change; the internet will feed our constant hunger for the new. This, the writer argued, makes us well prepared for the tough years immediately ahead: ‘speed of change’, the mantra for the 21st century.

Browne to me is rather like something that appears in the Tate Modern that luvvies, other artists and critics go absolutely mad for, but that the populace at large considers irrelevant. The other similarity between certain items of modern art and the sartorial products of Thom Browne is that many consider them to be monstrously overpriced. A sleeveless cashmere cardigan in ivory could be found for £250 (£160 in the sale) in Ralph Lauren. At Thom Browne, though the design was no more avant garde, the cashmere not discernibly better, the same item cost £900. I saw a cashmere tailcoat in camel with grosgrain ribbon detailing for £6,225. It seemed to me that purchasing an outfit from Mr Browne could cost as much as a couple of bespoke suits from Henry Poole.

Those arguing for Mr Browne may defend his ‘vision’ – something which Brooks Brothers considered worth using – the fact that he manufactures high quality garments using good materials and that the Thom Browne man can always stand out from the crowd. I accept these advancements of opinion; I myself happen to think that ‘interesting’ and ‘expensive’ do not always need to go hand in hand. I also think that quirky as short trousers are, they will never become a serious alternative. I appreciate that ‘new’ fashions are very rarely well received when the curtain goes up. Virtually all major changes in fashion have been accompanied by responses of ‘it’ll never last’, tut-tuts of despair and in some cases (the top hat) persons fainting on the street. But there is a difference between shock-on-purpose and shock-for-purpose. I have a feeling that Browne’s items, lauded, sought after and highly priced, are not worth the fuss.


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Winston Chesterfield is an amateur composer, fashion blogger, trained lawyer and style aficionado. He lives in Westminster, London and blogs at www.levraiwinston.com.

Comments

  1. Turling says:

    Very well put, indeed.

  2. Richard says:

    I agree with you completely about Thom’s personal label. However, I do like his Black Fleece collection for Brooks. I recently purchased a tattersall sport coat for $388. The jacket is well worth the price, but it is not worth the $2,100 it was priced a year ago. In addition, the Black Fleece sport coats now tend to come with unfinished sleeves, and I find them not to be short as they are pictured on the models. But as far as him (Browne) being some saviour to men’s fashion, I think not.

  3. Aaron says:

    TB’s line, while well-made, is a perfect example of a Veblen good. Instead of demand/supply dynamics dictating price, a high price incites high demand.

    However, in these decidedly more austere times, it will be interesting to see how TB holds up.

  4. Nicola Linza says:

    Winston,
    This is a bit of a sensitive issue. I want to address this properly and completely. You truly are passionate about fashion and I feel have a great personal talent. I believe you understand it wholeheartedly. I want you to think about what is at hand here in terms of menswear as it regards new styling and the Thom Browne fuss, think about it over time. The Thom Browne affair is about movement to a degree; you nailed part of that down with this line, “Some see Browne as a fad, a reaction to the lack of invention in menswear over the past 50 years that has led critics of fashion to rally and chorus that our designers have run out of ideas.” Nonetheless, Browne has opened up new forms; new ways of considering cuts, and frankly open discussion. It has made all of us who are interested re-evaluate our wardrobes. I am not one for most conceptual items but the inherent issue here is the concept of new forms or ways of thinking about menswear. The problem is that menswear must change, but it cannot abruptly change, hence this reaction around the world to Browne. It is too structured a discipline to be radically altered in such a rapid fashion (no pun intended.) I am however interested in new forms. I recall being in a show in Los Angeles in the 1980s that included the great Japanese designers in menswear at the time, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamomoto, Rei Kawakubo for Commes des Garcons. Those items were stark, architectural clothes that were new, intelligent, and very chic but at the time in a similar manner many first received them with a skeptical eye. The difference with those items was that although radically new – they were very clean and highly wearable – that is the huge difference they could be worn today. The Japanese items were workable and wearable in my view for a man from day one. Thom Browne’s work is so very radical yet to the point of a man risking being pointed at – and that alone may turn some away, but we have to remember many great established classics of today started out this exact way. It is true that much of Thom Browne’s work may not be broadly appropriate (and that is the key here – appropriate) for a number of situations. I do not think his items are meant to be versatile clothes in that way. Nevertheless, many conventional items of today also fall into being highly inappropriate (shorts at funeral being one example.) In certain circles, I think that his items can be worn with great style and panache (it would take a severe level of confidence to pull off.) I say I give any man credit that has the balls to wear Thom Browne and walk down Madison Avenue (that level of confidence deserves respect.) And that is why Browne is therefore a bright point on the menswear map, and remains an enigma to many. The pictures you have posted for this piece are clear representation of the fact that this is really a vast experiment. I personally think some of his creativity may need to be tamed for translation; but that stated do not just reflect on what you see on the runway, understand that the runway shows are at times overall concepts for the press and pubic to consider – not literal translations to be worn on the street. One look at the pictures above proves that fact, a bit too circus yes, but that shock and awe value I am sure is intentional. He is breaking ground on issues of fabrication and cut. The circus atmosphere I believe is meant to entertain new ideas. I see items I could wear from this collection, but most of it is a bit much, even for me. Yet the structures we see may well translate into future forms at which point he will be considered a genius. We have to keep that in mind.
    Regards, Nicola

  5. James Dunning says:

    Winston-

    While I commend you for your effort made in the direction of a thorough analysis of Thom Browne’s work, the supporting evidence you provide for your conclusion proves to be lacking. Mr. Nicola Linza in his comment prior to my own points out quite well the importance of the discussion of new forms and ideas that Thom Browne’s collections have sparked, I will not further comment upon this however, this is very likely the most monumental and important aspect of Mr. Browne’s accoplishments to date.

    Separately, I would like to point out two inconsistencies in your article. First, your comparison of a Thom Browne cashmere sweater to that of Ralph Lauren sweater. Your point of comparison includes the assertion that you can see no difference in quality between the two articles, and thus cannot justify the vast price difference between the two sweaters. However, if you were to approach any person who knew of the quality of construction and materials used in these two sweaters I am positive that they would find the two sweaters in completely different leagues of quality. Furthermore, Ralph Lauren has created a global multi-billion dollar brand on the mass market of “luxury” goods, and at his level of commercial success Ralph Lauren cannot possibly devote the amount of attention to detail and quality when his interest lies not in design but clearly in making the largest profit.

    Secondly, in your article you point out the inability of Thom Browne’s collections to appeal to the masses, as a comparison to the avant-garde art exhibited in the Tate Modern. Another comment prior to mine references the Black Fleece for Brooks Brothers line as collection from which he has purchased for himself. Thom’s idea’s, in a simplified and less revolutionary form, have proven to be marketable and interesting to the masses through his collaboration with Brooks Brothers. Mr. Browne’s collection, Black Fleece, was so successful commercially that Brooks Brothers is in the process of opening for Black Fleece its first stand alone boutique in the West Village in New York, and critically as Thom Browne and Brooks Brothers won the 2007 DNR Menswear Collaboration of the Year Award. However, as I have previously stated, the importance of Thom Browne does not lie in the wearability of his clothing, but in the approach and execution of his ideas, and the discussion that they ignite. All the best.

    Cheers,
    James

  6. I want the hat they are wearing lol