Thom Browne tells stories with his clothes. He says he no longer designs in menswear and womenswear. Like a storybook, his sartorial creation is to be consumed by both genders, old and young. It’s the reflection of the world we’re living in. At a V&A talk, we learn more about his design philosophy and the thoughts that go into fashion bookmaking at the launch of his monograph, Thom Browne.

Thom Browne celebrates 20th anniversary with a book

We don’t know much about Thom Browne the fashion designer save for one item of his that made a lot of splash in pop culture recently: the chef uniform that Carmen Berzatto that gifted to his sous chef, Sydney Adamu, in the hit drama series, The Bear (“Yes, chef!”).

Our Creative Director, however, is a designer and thus a fan of this influential man. She gave us a low down on the style. Blazers too tight and trousers too short? Three stripes that even Adidas couldn’t claim as theirs? Suits paired with shorts? Great-looking kilts of varying sizes? Looks great on an urban cyclist, or someone coming out of the tube station? That’s the Thom Browne look. Or idiosyncrasy. It has entered the fashion vocabulary.

The famous five minutes scene of chaos in The Bear, the cult comedy series by FX, available on Disney+. In the heat of the moment, with Carmen Barzetto trapped in the walk-in fridge, Sydney Adamu the sous chef looks cool in a Thom Browne uniform. Video: ©The Bear

The American designer is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his fashion house with a monograph published by Phaidon. It’s called Thom Browne. With a full stop. We attended his talk at Victoria & Albert Museum, London, on 9 October 2023, to learn more about his creative process. The last time Browne the design artefact was showcased at a major V&A exhibition was in 2007, in a show called New York Fashion Now.

He told us that he tells stories with his clothes. What a story he told us that night. Browne wore his signature grey suit with a pair of shorts. He looked like a happy, silvery schoolboy. The moderator, fashion writer Charlie Potter, didn’t have trousers on, except for a pair of boxer shorts – or shorts – paired with white shirt with frills and a fetching red tailcoat. They looked like they were having a lot of fun.

The Thom Browne vision

The book is curated and co-written by Andrew Bolton, a curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, US. The cover, grey and matte, has a feel of encyclopaedia or dictionary. Images of modelled clothes and shows are displayed in portrait and landscape as spreads, and in gatefolds in four, six and eight pages.

For that ‘gifting’ feel, the hardback comes with a clamshell box. The tri-coloured ribbon used as a chapter marker makes the monograph unmistakably Thom Browne.

It took time for people to see what Browne saw in his design. The challenge was that he designed with a vision in mind, not with the market demand. It paid off later, but the early days, Brown said, weren’t easy.

The book of looks and stories

Browne took us through the pages of the book, explaining the rationale behind each collection and ideas that evolved over time. He began his fashion journey when casual dressing was the norm. Browne wanted something tailored. Something that looks like it doesn’t fit them. “I want an image associated with Thom Browne,” he said.

As Potter took us through slides and slides of fashion shows featuring the mundane and repetitive office environment, Browne commented that there’s individuality in a uniform environment where workwear is concerned. “Tailoring can be done in an interesting way,” he mused as he scanned the slides.

Animal motifs such as whales, lobsters, crabs and birds reflect the nature in the North American coastal areas. Image: Story of Books

During the talk, he schooled us on the North American East Coast material culture. He explained the significance of motifs such as sea animals – whales, birds and lobsters – and countryside animals such as deers, rabbits and bears. He told us the story of how his mother dipped shoes in bronze for him and his siblings (“It’s an American thing”). That memory inspired his silver shoes collection.

Potter talked us through a photo of a fashion show that featured Thom Browne long coats in varying degrees of degradation. It’s Browne’s comment on sustainability. Browne said he wants his clothes to be so well-made they get worn by different people at different times. Clothing is a way in which the wearer tells a story, he told us.

Browne wants his clothes to be so well-made they get worn by different people at different times. Clothing is a way in which the wearer tells a story.

If it’s good for a man, it’s good enough for a woman. And vice versa

The book ends with his latest collection. Looking at the images, Browne said, “I don’t really think in mens and womens anymore.” The future of his collection is one that appeals to both men and women. Same suit, same dress, same trousers, same kilt.

Thom Browne’s haute couture collection for Fall Winter 2023/2024 plays with various shades of grey.

At this point, Browne designs clothes that can be worn by both. “You should be able to do whatever you want,” he said to the audience. “It’s not a trend. It’s the reflection of the transitioning into the world that we live in.”

Like a storybook, Browne’s design puts the mirror up to society. There is a parallel, we observe. Lately, we covered romance novels written to appeal to both men and women, and seinen publications and their onscreen adaptations that are followed not just by young, male adults but also by mature female readers.

The blurred lines have always been there. Look at South Asia or Southeast Asia, for example. The long skirt, the sarong, is for both men and women. The kilt also looks so amazing on men. The cultural reference has always been there. A long time ago, long skirts weren’t a highly marked design object in Western menswear. But hopefully that will change. Nowadays, we’re likely to be more truthful to ourselves where gender identity is concerned. There is hope.

About the monograph

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Editor, Story Of Books. Co-founder, GLUE Studio. A writer since 1995.