Thom Browne and guests pose with the dog-headed man that’s part of the designer’s installation at Barneys New York. (Photo by The Washington Post)

Everyone laughed at Thom Browne’s short pants, but they’ve made him very rich

NEW YORK – As fashion week begins here and the industry turns its attention to spring 2019, the Barneys New York windows along Madison Avenue contain no clothes, no fancy housewares, no products at all. Instead, austere venetian blinds hang in the street-facing windows, clicked closed.

That’s it. That’s the display, morning, noon and night: windows that you can’t see into.

The absence of stuff is in celebration of Thom Browne, the contrarian American designer who over the life of his eponymous brand has refused to listen to conventional wisdom or, perhaps, even common sense – and has emerged victorious. His creative vision has remained undiluted. His brand’s point-of-view is remarkably clear. And the recent sale of a majority of his company for $500 million offers financial proof that consumers – men and millennials, in particular – may actually want something more than fancy sneakers and jeans.

Fourteen years ago, Browne shrunk the suit. Shoppers scratched their head in confusion, and observers laughed at Browne’s fans, with their trousers floating high above their (naked) ankles. Many presumed it was a silly fad. But Browne refused to back down. He is, he readily admits, stubborn.

Browne’s obsessive focus has given the menswear industry an entirely new silhouette that has been knocked off at every price point; it’s offered men a different way of thinking about tailoring. He’s made the business suit the epitome of edgy style.

Barneys honored Browne’s accomplishments at a Wednesday dinner that also kicked off a September-long collaboration with the designer that includes a capsule collection, housewares, made-to-measure offerings for both men and women, a surreal film celebrating the suit, a Thom Browne burger at its in-store restaurant and an Instagram-worthy installation featuring a dog-headed man.

In her toast to Browne, Daniella Vitale, Barneys chief executive, gave a nod to the designer’s magnificent stubbornness: As an executive at Gucci, she hired Browne to helm the men’s division. Gucci, to be clear, was a fashion leader. Two days before Browne was due to begin, he called to say he couldn’t do it. He’d decided to launch his own menswear line, which was a bit like announcing that you wouldn’t be taking that coaching job with the Yankees because you were starting your own baseball team.

Browne persevered through the 2008 recession which nearly put him out of business. He took on investors but retained control of the company. He mesmerized audiences with runway shows featuring ice rinks and English gardens, unicorns and mob funerals. He added womenswear to the company. He embroidered dresses with buttons and with mink. And he created a handbag modeled after his dog Hector, a miniature wire-haired dachshund.

As the American fashion industry became more infatuated with streetwear, athleisure and a million iterations of sneakers and Birkenstocks, Browne continued to tailor and embroider and propose fashion as something requiring energy and commitment. Other designers went in search of the perfect white T-shirt; Browne was on a quest for a perfect white oxford shirt. Seventh Avenue was devoted to luxury hoodies; Browne was optimizing the possibilities of a gray flannel suit.

In an industry in which every designer seems to be crafting some form of streetwear, Browne is blunt: “I don’t do streetwear,” he says. “If that’s what you want, don’t come to me.” He has, however, done his version of athletic wear. Around 2008, he says, he made track pants. Most likely they were cashmere.

Last month, he announced that he’d sold 85 percent of his company to Italy’s Zegna Group, known for its businessman suits, fabric mills and manufacturing facilities. In announcing the purchase, Ermenegildo Zegna said, “Thom’s visionary approach and his unique point of view have enabled him to build and nurture the most loyal clientele. On this strong footing, and thanks to a thriving women’s business and strong appeal with millennials, we believe that we can build long-term value for all of our stakeholders. “

Thom Browne is part of a business strategy to attract millennial consumers. This recognizes that the oldest millennials are closing in on their 40th birthday and perhaps are ready for a more sophisticated wardrobe. Perhaps they are ready to invest in clothes rather than indulge in fast fashion. And maybe, just maybe, not every millennial guy was all that enthusiastic about streetwear to begin with.

That stance frankly delights Vitale, who notes that fashion has to be prepared to offer customers something enticing and interesting once the allure of streetwear fades – and, make no mistake, she says, it will fade because that’s the nature of fashion. What Browne offers is tailoring and formality and whimsy. His clothes are rooted in the American classics of the 1950s but with modern fabrics. He embraces the idea of fashion, not as a way to be weird or unnerving but as a way to make his clothes contemporary rather than vintage. And the humor he brings to his clothes is charming rather than sarcastic, light-hearted rather than biting. He balances rigor with impishness.

As designers unveil their spring 2019 collections, an underlying question is what exactly does a designer like Browne represent? Has he etched out a path that others can follow? Or is his apparent success a bit of a lightening strike of both hard work and luck?

At dinner, the room was full of guests dressed in Browne’s many shades of gray. If fashion is entertainment, they looked like characters from literary fiction rather than reality TV. The actress Danai Gurira of “Black Panther” fame wore a Thom Browne jacket covered with gray flannel flowers. When Browne worried that she was hot in the steamy evening weather, Gurira noted that she has a tendency to get cold in air conditioning and well, that was the polite thing to say to the designer, wasn’t it?

Browne’s work oozes a kind of reserved civility that seems an antidote to the times. He aims for ideas and looks that will survive the decades. And frankly, the fashion equivalent of shrill yelling and impudent stomping is more irritating than invigorating right now. Browne won’t present his spring 2019 collection until the end of the month in Paris. But he is the first out of the fashion gate offering a reminder that fashion doesn’t need to add to the cultural cacophany. It needs to think long-term. Gentlemanly. It needs to turn down the volume.

Tom Ford seconded that opinion with his spring 2019 show at the Park Avenue Armory. It was the first big show of the season. And in his show notes he remarked that he was reacting in opposition to his fall collection that was full of glitz and sparkle and unabashed raunchiness.

“I became a fashion designer because I wanted to make men and women feel more beautiful and to empower them with a feeling of confidence. A feeling of knowing that they looked their best and could then present their best selves to the world,” he wrote. “I wanted to make clothes that were flattering. That make one look taller and slimmer and more beautiful or more handsome.”

He also noted that ‘given the harshness of the world, a softer color palette seemed right to me this season.” So his collection is filled with shades of blush, peach and pale blue.

Fashion at its best is a reaction to culture. It siphons off the crucial elements. Distills it to its essence. Designers can choose to exacerbate existing discord or try to offer a salve, something to shift the mood. Ford used color this season.

The coming week will reveal how the American fashion industry as a whole will answer the call. Will it think long-term and focus on building something that will last? Will it bet on the reality that every generation grows up and eventually wants something more sophisticated and more lasting for itself? Will it commit to a vision that challenges consumers instead of kow-towing to them?

Just how many designers with revelatory ideas are out there on Seventh Avenue, in Brooklyn or on the Lower East Side? And how stubborn are they willing to be?

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