It wasn't easy to steal the thunder from the European menswear designers this season: Raf Simons staged an exquisite 15th anniversary show that touched on themes from the last decade and a half of collections, Italian textile maker and clothing label Ermenegildo Zegna pulled out all the stops to mark its 100th year, and Dolce & Gabbana's runway show, celebrating its 20th year of menswear, included a surprise performance by Annie Lennox.
But in the penultimate time slot on the final day of the Paris fashion calendar, nearly an hour late, American designer Thom Browne made his Paris Fashion Week runway debut, made a lasting impression and made it clear that he is poised to be as big as his suits are small.
"This is Thom Browne in his prime," said Tim Bess, men's fashion trend analyst for the Doneger Group. "There's a lot more we're going to see from him, and look, I'm from New York, so I'm all about New York runway, but showing in Paris is a very good step in his career. It's the best way to get exposure to the international press."
Browne's Paris launch pad moment comes as his eponymous brand is about to mark its first decade. The native of Allentown, Pa., who once tried to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles before a stint as creative director for Club Monaco, started his made-to-measure suit business in 2001.
Shrunken suits, big profile
It wasn't long before his unwavering predilection for the shrunken suit silhouette — narrow lapels, short-cropped trousers and truncated sleeves that sell in stores like Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman starting at $3,500 — was making waves and changing the direction of menswear, a world in which change happens at a glacial pace. It also made him a darling of the fashion community, earning him the Council of Fashion Designers of America menswear award in 2006 and GQ's designer of the year award for 2008.
In September 2006, old-school clothier Brooks Bros. announced Browne would be the first-ever guest designer in that brand's nearly 200-year history. That men's and women's label, Black Fleece, hit Brooks Bros. stores for fall-winter 2007. And while it has hardly made him a household name, it raised his profile considerably and has grown to include three standalone retail stores ( New York City, San Francisco and Tokyo) and his and her Black Fleece fragrances.
In January 2009, Browne's collaboration with Italian skiwear brand Moncler (a company known for its ubiquitous puffy, down-filled nylon ski jackets) had its debut during Milan Men's Fashion Week, expanding his reach into active wear. Most recently, Browne collaborated on a line of men's jewelry for Harry Winston, bringing his signature aesthetic to pieces that include $33,000 cufflinks.
Bess thinks those projects are key to the growth of the core brand. "If he was just Thom Browne doing Thom Browne, it would be all great and fun and we'd go to fashion shows and that would be that," he said. "But collaborations with these heritage brands allow him to get his name out there. … The collaboration with Brooks Bros. was brilliant. I think that's actually made other designers reconsider what a collaboration could be. It was a real aha moment. He really gave Brooks Bros. its cool back."
That sentiment is echoed by the man who made it happen, Brooks Bros. Chairman and Chief Executive Claudio Del Vecchio (who ended up attending one of Browne's shows at the suggestion of Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour).
"We knew that our collaboration with Thom would make for a very good PR story," he said in a recent e-mail. "But we initially under-estimated the commercial appeal of the Black Fleece collection." Del Vecchio said the partnership has resulted in bringing a more fashion-forward customer through the retailer's doors. (Although Brooks Bros. does not release specific sales figures, a company spokesman called recent trade paper reports that Black Fleece is on track to generate $10 million in sales this year "fairly accurate.")
Able to get people talking
It's a marked change in trajectory compared with the state of Browne's company barely a year ago, when press reports suggested that it might consider filing for bankruptcy. Since that time, Japanese investor Cross Co., which owned a minority stake in the company, increased its ownership to 67%. This allowed the designer to further expand the brand. High on that priority list was relocating his famously over-the-top runway shows (which have included men in three-legged pants, feathered suits and bridal trains, among other things) to Paris.