[Emma McClendon] Good evening. Welcome to The Museum at FIT’s Fashion Culture Special Program series. Tonight it is our sincerest pleasure to welcome Thom Brown in conversation with Stefano Tonchi. Thom Brown received the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year award in 2006, 2013, and 2016. He also received the GQ designer of the year award in 2008 and the Cooper Hewitt national design award in 2012. He began his business in 2001 and introduced his ready to wear collection in 2003. His traditionally based hand made suits have been recognized by museums around the world including the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Fashion Museum in Bath. Stefano Tonchi has been editor in chief of W magazine since March 2010. Under his direction, W has been a finalist 11 times for the prestigious ASME awards and has received 20 medals from the Society of Publication Designers. Prior to W, Mr. Tonchi was the creator and editor in chief of T, the New York Times Style magazine. From 1998 to 2003, Mr. Tonchi was the fashion creative director for Esquire. He is co-author of Uniform, Order, and Disorder among other publications. Please join me in welcoming Thom Browne and and Stefano Tonchi.
[applause] [Browne] Thank you. [Tonchi] Thank you. Oh, the lighting. The lights are great actually because I can not see you. That makes me feel much more comfortable. Thank you for being with us tonight. I don”t know how you voted and what you did and how you spent the night but [Browne] We all look really tired. [Tonchi] Yes, exactly and there is a reason we were up. I suppose many of us are fairing through the night but here we are. I think there is no better subject to start the new political age than uniforms, and power of uniforms, and the meaning of uniforms.
I will start with something personal. I mean sure, I think you have all seen the exhibition that is next door. Uniformity where you can see kind of the importance of uniforms and the history of dressing. The evolution and the application of uniforms in so many different fields of dressing. I think we all know in this room how important they are and what the history be behind each one of them. So I wanted to start with something kind of personal because lets try to have kind of a good time and a personal time. I have known Thom for many, many years and I think from any of my memories and I am talking about really fifteen years or more. I remember him wearing his own uniform, a uniform that he created for himself.
A button down shirt with a grey tie and a suit that is maybe a little lighter. A lighter tone of grey in the summer and a little darker and heavier in the winter but it is his uniform. Uniforms are usually say are a fashion in a capsule. What I mean is that they are used to signify what group do we belong to and who we want to be apart from. My question for Thom is like how did you come to this uniform and who do you identify yourself with? [Browne] I mean for me the conversation really comes down to I think its both uniforms and uniformity. For me the initial uniform was basically just my designing something that I wanted for myself. The idea of uniformity for me was there is something that is an idea that I feel speaks to power and individuality and I think that surprises some people when you say individuality and you think uniforms but I think there is a true individuality when it comes to somebody that can adopt a uniform for themselves that really makes them a real, true individual as long as it is really personal to them and it is very real.
And that is what my uniform as been from the beginning It is something that I have always wanted myself and it is what I think that people saw after awhile that it was real. It wasn’t something that I had thought up and thought “oh I am going to do this because I wanted to make a uniform for myself.” It was very genuine, it was very simply something I just wanted for myself and also to it was something that for me personally, simplied the act of getting dressed in the morning. I could get dressed in the dark, it is very easy.
[Tonchi] We are all very curious to know what your wardrobe looks like. Is it like an American cycle like white shirts, grey ties [audience laughs] [Browne] Yeah, it is not that unified. But it is very… I like one thing and I do really like that aesthetic and I like the idea of it. But more importantly than just the uniform, I think me being in the world of fashion You know I really didn’t think of myself as entering the world of fashion at the beginning I just wanted to make really well made clothing and reintroduce tailored clothing to guys and to girls in a way that was one, really well made because I think sometimes the most really fashionable things are something that is beautifully made but also two, that played with proportions so that you saw something that was very classic but you saw it done in a way that I wanted to show people. And I think that there was something really strong about the message of it being a very singular story.
[Tonchi] Yeah I think the thought about making it something that has a lot of meaning for you but also can talk to people and communicate some sense of belonging is so important. I mean we are clearly talking about modern uniforms; civil uniforms. This uniform they somehow made, that is a great suit that became part of the male wardrobe in the nineteenth century. Men were very colorful and their wardrobe was much similar to the female wardrobe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century but later became this uniform. like for a dark suit that is somehow connected to the military uniform that is really probably the beginning of the modern male dressing for sure. If you have looked at the history of uniforms through your work I mean behind us we have images that show a lot of the evolution coming from military uniforms as a prototype and as a starting point. [audience commentary inaudible] [Tonchi] Ok, sorry. I will do my best. So I was talking about…should I repeat or? I was just talking about how military uniforms are the roots of any type of civil uniform that we wear today.
Clearly when we were talking about Thom’s uniform we were talking about a civil uniform more than a military uniform. But still, military uniform has been very important in the evolution of the point and the things that Thom has been presenting. [Browne] Yeah I mean, for me through different collections I have explored the idea of more military type uniforms but for me, the idea of…then a lot of people have explored military uniforms… and for me the idea of uniformity and taking I guess a more non-military form idea and making it a uniform idea is a lot more interesting in the way I approach a lot of my other collections. or it is really sometimes the collections don’t speak to uniforms at all but the idea of the way that the collections are designed are in a very organized, very uniform way. so it is not only [Tonchi] And presented in a very or more military formation. [Browne] Like even in this show you see here, I mean of course there is forty different plaid fabrics and based on the classic ideas of what my clothing has been based around but there was such a uniform and such a strong individual story that went into that collection and the way that it started and of course there are some not uniform ideas to make that uniform more interesting.
[Tonchi] So in a certain way you can think that kind of creativity that you put in every single piece of your collection but presenting in a very uniform way. You are in a very military way. [Browne] Yeah I think that even to my last point, the way that we all work in the office I think it is a very personal way for me of working in a very uniform way.
There is something I like, I swam growing up so there was a lot of discipline in my life when I was a kid in regards to my life being very organized and I think there is something very comforting for me in regards to working that way and even the collections are designed, they are really designed from head-to-toe at the beginning and I feel like that uniformity is very important because I know that the story that I am telling will be exactly the story I want people to see.
Because of how militant I am…in the way of working. [Tonchi] How focused. [Browne] I am not as boring as it sounds but it [laughs] but it keeps it easier. [Tonchi] Well I mean I think you always leave space to imagination and also interpretation. You know, I mean often it shows of yours and different people have completed different read of what you want to say. [Browne] Yeah, well even in that I do love when people do interpret the shows in different ways and I think that that is very interesting to me. I think it is nice to put ideas in front of people and for people to have different experiences and I think that that is one of the most important things that I like to express in the shows.
[Tonchi] Talking about the shows and talking about the clothes, talking about menswear, uniforms I mean there is something that is typical of uniforms but is also typical of any of the fashion garments that we look at and for sure many of the clothes that you design is need for theatre and in need for function. On one side, that is what uniforms wear in like in history when you think of the king of Prussia and German uniforms and that need for scaring people, for creating drama you know I think about the hat, the feathers, and the bright colors or dark colors and on the other side, you have the functionality of uniforms that were the first form of ready-to-wear I mean, also they had to respond to different kinds of weather conditions, different situations, different movement, different bodies.
So when you build clothes I think you want one and the other in a certain way and in that sense you are building uniforms, you are building clothes that in a certain way have to talk to you and create emotions. And on the other side, have to be functional. [Browne] Yeah. [Tonchi] How do you play these two? [Browne] Well I think the most important thing is to approach it, I kinda think that everybody approaches it differently I definitely approach my collections from a more provocative point of view.
I do like to make people think and I like to tell a story and I like to entertain and you know some collections are more provocative than others but the most important thing for me is that people see things in a different way and it makes people think and you know some people hate them, some people like them and I think I would rather those different opinions as opposed to somebody just liking them. I think the most important thing to in regards to as provocative as you get is the function and the way that something is made and I think that I would never put something in a collection in front of people as provocative as the idea is I would never just jury rig something together for shop value. You know I have done things in my collections. I have done three-legged trousers and things like that and you know it was as seriously thought out as a classic pair of trousers. So I think it is really important when you want to especially in regards to being theatrical or being provocative.
I think that it does have to be followed through with some type of function. [Tonchi] Yeah because I have in mind so many shows where your clothes had incredible theatre presence . You know, I remember one in Paris where they were incredible uniforms really. The construction was so strong and so important that it was almost difficult for the movement. [Browne] Yeah. Well between the fabric and the…yeah. [Tonchi] So sometimes you do in sue that they are, you know? A little bit… [Browne] Well yeah, but I mean I also approach these shows to, from truly a design and provocation end. Of course you have some people that are like “who would wear that” or you know, “how many will you sell” and that is not always the point. It is really… [Tonchi] Yeah, I agree. [Browne] If you were to see in the showroom there are versions of that that are more wearable and you know, express the idea that you see but that piece is literally not always the one that is going to sell but we do surprisingly sell most of them.
[inaudible] [Tonchi] And how do you feel innovation and technology is taking an important role in your work? I mean especially working with in your collaboration with Moncler, there is a lot of technical developments that you do with them and sometimes I know that Remo, that is the owner of the company, and he always talks about your imagination and pushing the boundaries of what can be done. [Browne] I think that you know you always have to look for what is happening next and how you can push. Especially when you base a collection in classic ideas. You have to make sure that you do introduce them or reintroduce them in ways that are relevant because there is nothing worse than doing something that is classic and it is still classic and you know there is no reason for people to see it over again.
So I think every collection there is, in different ways whether it is fabric or whether it is different shapes or even the way that the collection is shown is important to make it seem like you are thinking about keeping things moving. [Tonchi] Mhm. Do you think that innovation comes more from the fabric, from the research of fabric and yarns or more from researching forums? I mean what interest you more deeply these days in particular to I don’t know, I am very fascinated by the fact that Nike is saying that everything will be knitted in the future and they will be more… [Browne] They will be more what? [Tonchi] Knitted, from shoes to garments. Every new garment that they are putting out is basically knitted. [Browne] Yeah I think I couldn’t say that one thing is more interesting than the other. I think all of it is in, you know, we work with so many good people that introduce different ideas in regards to everything. I think that is what makes every collection you know as interesting as the last.
I think sometimes at the end of one collection you always think like “what am I going to do now?” And it seems like there is always new things happening that are introduced that can change even the most basic idea into something really interesting. [Tonchi] Well I mean looking at your work and this is a very personal opinion, I think you have shown innovation can come just from the change of proportions. I mean the first discovery that I had of your work was just very per say, traditional suit but those proportions of that suit would change erratically and actually that little change of proportion, you know the shortening of the jacket, the pants, the waist point, and all of that really changed the history of menswear for the last ten years. I mean I have to give credit to Thom for changing the shape of menswear in the last ten-fifteen years.
And really I mean holding that point for all your career I think. I want to talk about something else for a minute, actually the show that is across the street Uniformity and in one of the notes they are to say that uniforms are the opposite of couture. Somehow and like really uniforms are the opposite of couture because they are the first application of ready-to-wear. It is the place where we look for kind of where sizing happens and like where savings in fabrics and mass production happens through history. So in your work you have been always kind of walking on the line between couture and something that is more like ____ or like ready-to-wear. Can you talk a little bit about this line? [Browne] Yeah I think it could be simply said that I really approach very uniform ideas from a, and I would never give myself credit to say at the couture level but at the best level that I can really achieve.
And I think that is what makes that uniform idea more interesting because it is very important to me on the level of quality of how the collections are put together and like I said it is basically that. [Tonchi] Well it is like that idea of uniform doesn’t become uniformity because each piece very often, especially in your runway collection becomes unique because there is so much work, it is really like a couture piece. I mean think about the embroidery and the work on the fabrics. [Browne] Yeah so it is really more the idea of because the first menswear week here in New York I did a show really bringing back the idea of just the best handmade tailoring that you can make here in New York. And it was all thirty of the exact same suit but there were all you know thirty different fabrics and so it was a very uniform idea but it was at the level of the best hand tailoring in the world.
So it is speaking to that, it is speaking to a very uniform idea at the best level. [Tonchi] I love that definition of uniform couture. [laughs] [Browne] It is really more the mentality than it is what the actual garment is. [Tonchi] So you started your women’s collection, when was it [Browne] Well I have been doing womens really from when I was down under the West 12th Street. So I have been doing the tailoring for womens from really the beginning but the first true collection was maybe four years ago? Yeah. [Tonchi] And do you find working on women very different in terms of like how men do like to buy the same thing over and over especially if they find kind of security with that kind of fit and they get very kind of upset if they can not find that fit anymore. If something changes in their favorite shoes or in their favorite toothpaste for that matter. So women are much more adventurous and I think that changes part of the way of thinking in a certain way, absolutely.
How do you approach womenswear in a different way from menswear? [Browne] I approach women’s the exact same way as men’s but it is certainly a different audience and I think that everybody that works with me I am sure could tell you a story. I think there is such power in that uniform idea for girls as well. Actually I think that it is more powerful for you know, in the women’s world and I think because there is so much out there for girls and I think there is so much choice, and I think there is so much reason for them to be able to try different things, and I think the idea of adopting a uniform in regards to the women’s world, I think there is something so powerful because I think there is something so powerful about somebody that looks like they have found their really true, sense of their own style and they stick to it day-to-day.
As opposed to them thinking they may want to change and Monday they may want to look like this, or Tuesday [drifts off] I mean I couldn’t imagine doing that myself and I do understand that [Tonchi] but boys do it too [Browne] Yeah, I know boys do. So it is a very personal thing and it is a very personal approach too and I think it is something that I have a lot of conversations with women in the women’s world but I think the best collection in the world and the best designers that have been designing in the last one hundred years you know what they have done, you have an image in your head of what they stood for and I think that is the true sense of a uniform idea.
It wasn’t that they were wearing the same thing every day but like you know when you think of Chanel you have an image in your head of Chanel and when you think of Muche, you have an image of what that is. Armani, you have an image in your head. [Tonchi] Sensibility, yeah. [Browne] So it is like it is more that sense of… [Tonchi] It is not necessarily the clothes. [Browne] Yeah, it is more establishing a uniform aesthetic. [Tonchi] And do you think that those clothes are merging between men and women as we see more and more clothing that is not exactly unisex but dual gender in terms of things that pass from his wardrobe to her wardrobe and so on? [Browne] I think so.
I think, well for one, I love tailoring on women so I think there is something really beautiful about the two collections. [Tonchi] Well I mean you clearly have not been afraid in many of your men’s collections. You use a lot of the women’s vocabulary I think in terms of the cut, or in terms of color, or in terms of like prints and things like that. So you see a certain kind of fluidity. [Browne] Yeah. I really do I think it really speaks to real confidence and true indiviuality because it has nothing to do with a trend. It has nothing to do with anything other than somebody having a true sense of themselves and true sense of sometimes having more interesting things to think about other than clothes.
[Tonchi] Mhm. So you feel, I mean do you have a sense of comfort or a panic when you see like one of these sci fiction movies where everybody is wearing the same leotard? [Browne] laughs. [Tonchi] What is your reaction? [Browne] I love like those type of ideas so I think it is the movies though. No, I mean I have done shows that basically could be you know that type of movie so I love the idea of you know, multiplication and… [Tonchi] But in a very couture way. [Browne] In a very well-made way. But the last time we were in…the last time, I was only in Saint Petersburg once but the one time we were there, we have an interesting story.
We got off the plane and we were standing waiting for our luggage and there were twenty of the exact same bag that came off the belt and I said somebody has to take a picture of this because it is the coolest thing I have ever seen. There is something very personal and it is something that I love, the idea of that aesthetic. [Tonchi] Going back for a minute to a kind of military and military influences … well the Diana Vreeland said that uniforms are the sportswear of the twentieth century, alright? [Browne] Who said that? Diana Vreeland.
[Browne] Oh. [Tonchi] I think that more than ever, I mean that kind of military uniform inspiration is everywhere in fashion. You have never seen so many like peacoats, like trench coats, and army pants and lots of things you don’t do by the way. [Browne] Yeah. [Tonchi] Even if you have a little fascination with camouflage or you have had some. So why are we still so fascinated by this wardrobe? Is it the power of memory, is it the power of film icon? [Browne] I think it is familiar and I think there is something very comforting for people in something that is familiar and I think it is as simple as that. I mean I have used those references a lot in collections too but I also want to make sure that its not something that looks so literal to that reference.
But I think there is a familiarity that is comforting to people and I think that is especially important when if you are going to put some type of provocative idea in front of people, you do have to ground it in something. [Tonchi] Mhm. [Browne] That they understand and I think that the military reference, whether it be the fabric of the camoflage or you know [Tonchi] The shapes. [Browne] or some other type of shape. I think people will understand why you are doing it as provocative as it is and it may not be for them but there is comforting in that familiarity.
And understanding too. [Tonchi] Yeah I mean for sure it is one of those subjects, there is themes that you can not escape. There is not a collection, menswear or womenswear, where they are not very clear reference to military kind of code and fabrics and containers. Yeah I mean sure, I think there is this idea of comfort the idea of something that is tradition but you can play with… [Browne] Well also I think to your point of unisex too. I think it does play very well for both men and woman. [Tonchi] Yeah, and you can mix it with anything and suddenly it becomes laid back and except the…yeah.
Which one, I mean we were going through your fashion shows, which one of your fashion shows has left a strong memory in this many years of shows? I mean do you have one show that you cannot forget? Or one that you want to forget? [audience laughs] [Browne] No, I can’t say there is one. You know, I have always loved my shows and I sometimes think I love my shows more than anybody else which I think is important because I feel I would never want to put something in front of somebody that I wasn’t in love with myself and I think that is important but in regards to one being better, I mean it’s like asking a parent who’s your favorite child. [Tonchi laughs] [Browne] The show in Pitti (Uomo) that of course I think was important because it was the first show in Europe which introduced what I did to Europe. [Tonchi] It was an incredible location I think. [Browne] Yeah the location, everything just came together really well.
But I think every show, they are very individual and they are a different story but they all are based on really where it started and they are based on that classic idea where its that grey suit that started ten-thirteen years ago. [Tonchi] Yes. Good. I think that we can open the room to some questions if we want to. [Browne] We can’t see you so I don’t know how we are going [laughs] [laughs] Ok guys, any questions? [audience question and commentary inaudible] [Browne] It is really important. We definitely don’t approach it from a small, medium, large. It all depends on how you approach it. I mean different people will approach it differently but I know how I approach the proportion and the sizing is a lot more individual than small, medium, large. So I don’t know if I answered your question, but yeah. [audience question and commentary inaudible] [Browne] Sorry so I can’t, I didn’t hear [audience question and commentary inaudible] [Browne] Um… [audience question and commentary inaudible] [Browne] The question was what is my market positioning and who is my competitor? [audience laughs] [Browne laughs] You know of course it is important to think of those type of things but I have to be honest, I really feel like…
[Tonchi] He is a designer, it is not like the CEO of the company. [Browne] I mean I am very conscious of you know the positioning is I do tailored based clothing for men and women that are playing with proportion and provocative ideas so I guess that’s my positioning? And competitors, I never think of competing with anybody. I think that everybody should just stay true to themselves and I think the worst thing you can start doing is competing with somebody else. [Tonchi] I have some questions here from the audience. Ok, this I think is a nice one. [Browne laughs] [Tonchi] What is the greatest change you think fashion needs to see today? [Browne] I think probably the most important thing is that designs approach more individualistic individually as opposed to I think there is to much of the same out there and I think there needs to be some more unique approaches to design.
[Tonchi] Well I think I could echo you in that. Saying that I think somehow we need to reduce the quantity of fashion that we produce because that could make the thing produced more valuable, more special, more unique, more also time sensitive in a certain way. You know, what happens when you really want something that is always available? You really don’t want it anymore somehow and that is what is happening. I mean now you just go online and somewhere, somehow they will find anything your size and that kind of destroys the desire I think. I mean make things more desirable, that is really what I think has to change in a certain way. We produce to much, there is to much out there and I think it is about limiting the production and making things that can have more value, less I would say fast fashion and more meaningful fashion. [Browne] Yeah, quality. Just the attention to quality.
[Tonchi] Another question that always comes in and is who are your favorite designers? [laughs] [Browne] You could ask a lot but more me I respect anybody that really approaches their collections and their designs in truly their own way and that is the most inspiring to me is somebody that is very true to themselves and just approaches it that way. [Tonchi] Do you see your work as art? Oh, that is open-ended… [Browne] That is for other people to say. I love designing collections and I love making clothing and you know that type of question I think is up for other people. More like Stefano or for Andrew to say. [Tonchi laughs] And this one I think is interesting, why the red, white, and blue as your _____? How did it come up actually? [Browne] It is one of those like simple, starting your own business stories that I was at ____ one day and looking for ____ to put in the sleeve in some of my jacket and I happened to like the red, white, and blue and it stuck.
[Browne and audience laugh in unison] [Browne] So there is no grand story, no political story, and there is no…yeah. It is just something that I found. [Tonchi] Something about vintage that I think is kind of interesting. Can you talk about your views on vintage or the idea of clothing with multiple lives. [Browne] Well I think, I have done a collection very recently on the idea of clothing that sometimes I think gets better and better with age and I think there is something really beautiful when you walk into a store and speaking to your point about what we need now more is clothing that can actually have more lives because I think for one, its importance from a sustainability point of view is that its important that we make things really well so that its something worth spending the money on and also two, it is something that you can have forever or if you don’t, that then somebody else can actually enjoy it.
[Tonchi] Another one here that comes up very often and is very practical actually. What made you decide to start your own brand? And what kind of advice would you have for a fashion student? And we can talk about that, as it is such a topic. [Browne] Well I think the most important thing, I really started because I was working at Club Monico and I was learning a lot in regards to the business but you know the level where it was wasn’t very personal to me and I started my own collection for very personal reasons, was I wanted to do tailored clothing at the best level that I could find and so in regards to, that is how I started and for anybody else, I think the most important thing is to just be really true to yourself because it is so easy for people to give you advice and for them to make you second guess what you are doing but I think if you do something that is so true to who you are and what you want to put in front of people, it is never going to happen overnight and if you are in the business to make money or to be famous then you are in the wrong business I think it is important to just really love making clothing and putting interesting ideas in front of people at a level that the quality is as good as you can get.
[Tonchi] I think that you were working somewhere and you were making your kind of experience. I think it is very important for a student to work in a studio and to kind of learn a little bit from the inside. I think there is a little bit to much of a rush to go on your own and to start your own company and fall into this kind of vortex of experiences and trying to be commercial because you have to ___ or you can put together the next collection. I think there is a value in education in schools as in ___ and places and also trying different experiences in different places. I mean you want to work maybe, you know, for some years in a great tailoring house and then for a few years in a great knitwear factory or like learn how to make great shoes so you have a little bit of a knowledge and then you can decide where you really want to be and what you really want to do. I think especially here in this country, I have seen like this kind of ___ like a race against age and I don’t think its paying off somehow because it takes time to build your brand and it takes time to have your identity build and I think that is what Thom has been talking about.
When you go on your own you have to be really, really strong and resilient and stay faithful to what you believe in and not bend to many suggestions and many commercial like will try to push to the left, to the right and that would bring you like very far from where you wanted to be so I think working with mature people and learning and a little bit of humility I think can pay off in the long run. I don’t know, there are so many questions here. [Browne laughs] [Tonchi] And I think we will take… [Emma McClendon] We are actually out of time, unfortunately. I am sorry to cut off all this but it has been such a pleasure and I really hope that all of you will join me in welcoming so much… [Tonchi] and again, thank you for being with us and taking our mind away from everything else [audience applauds] [Browne] Thank you.
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