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Thom Browne tells emerging designers that creativity is their most valuable asset

By Jackie Mallon


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Thom Browne tailoring

Speaking with Peter Arnold, Executive Director of Fashion Scholarship Fund, the designer advises fashion’s next generation to do it on their own terms. While mentors are invaluable, and one of Browne’s is former boss Ralph Lauren, it’s too easy to rely on how careers have been formed in the past and how others have achieved success. “I really wanted to do it my way,” he says. “You have to figure out your way of doing things.”

And no one can deny that he did. Browne’s clarity of vision, his out-of-the-box thinking, his must-see runway spectacles make him a role model of creativity within the US fashion industry. But he didn’t study fashion, instead swimming competitively at school, before studying Economics and Japanese, eventually becoming a struggling creative in LA. His first foray into fashion was the result of needing a job and hearing there was a vacancy at Giorgio Armani. He applied, and the rest is fashion history. His naiveté was, however, an asset: “My entrance into fashion was sometimes easier because I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

All these years of evolving the tailored suit, playing with proportions, incorporating vintage inspiration, to focus on appealing to a younger generation have presented endless challenges. Rewarding collaborations with brands as diverse as Moncler and Brooks Bros have financially bolstered his business, yet retail’s ups and downs have not left him unscathed. Career defining moments he remembers include his first collection being picked up by Parisian boutique Colette and Bergdorf Goodman, but the lows don’t get much lower than his 2009 bankruptcy. Although his company is now majority-owned by Ermenegildo Zegna Group, Browne feels beholden to no one and retains full control. The sacrifices are part of the process. “I could never do this again so I had to do everything to keep it going,” he says.

Browne doesn’t follow trends or chase the zeitgeist, or even pay too much attention to the market. “Know as little about what’s going on on the outside because it frees you up,” he says, a message that seems to fly in the face of fundamental fashion school teaching. “You’re crippled by the brilliant ideas that have already happened.” He doesn’t use mood boards, and requires no sketches for initial creative brainstorming. He talks through his ideas with his team of talented designers and patternmakers. “Then I just let it happen,” he says.

How Thom Brown builds his creative team

“Very rarely do I hire someone with too much experience,” says Browne. “I have a lot of people who started their career here.” He often hires those who have interned for him and have demonstrated that they are “open to just dive in.” Students and graduates will no doubt delight upon hearing this, but he adds the caveat that candidates must understand his approach and what his brand is all about. “If you don’t like a grey suit, I don’t know why you would come to me,” he says.

He believes all graduates should work for a brand first, learning on their dime to appreciate the value of hard work and see what the business entails, before even contemplating launching anything. Young designers must also advocate for themselves, speaking up regarding raises or promotions because most of the time the higher ups are not thinking of these matters. He does not think of these matters.

In portfolios, Browne likes to see interests that are outside of fashion as well as evidence of skills such as patternmaking and sewing. While he laments that there’s nothing more disappointing than a provocative idea that turns out to be practically taped together, he offers these final words for young creatives starting out: “Never lose that pure creativity. That is what is most valuable when I am looking at people.”

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry

Photo ThomBrowne.com

Fashion Education
Fashion Scholarship Fund
Thom Browne