The most famous pair of legs in fashion don’t belong to a model. They’re Thom Browne’s. The 56-year-old designer, who made his name with the shrunken men’s suit, is rarely seen not sporting his own high-water pants that regularly recede into shorts — ankles and calves proudly on display. But his two-decade-old brand is much more than the limbs it’s liberated, expanding to womenswear in 2014 and since then dressing everyone from LeBron James and Christine Baranski to Pete Davidson and Michelle Obama.
He sold a 75 percent stake of his company to Zegna in 2018, and Browne’s name helped the Italian fashion house go public and see revenues climb 27 percent in 2021. His retail footprint recently hit 78 stores, including a location at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California. And his annual Met Gala contingent (including Lizzo, Oscar Isaac, Maisie Williams and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II with him on the red carpet this May) boasts as many A-listers as any of his peers. It doesn’t hurt that Browne’s longtime partner is Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The two share a home in Midtown Manhattan with their dog, Hector, an Instagram-famous dachshund whose likeness has been translated to a collection of handbags that fetch between $1,500 and $17,000 apiece. Speaking over Zoom from his New York office in early September, legs off camera, Browne discussed growing his business post-acquisition, the need for authenticity in celebrity partnerships and why it’s OK to dress up in Los Angeles.
What do you tell men who are insecure about showing their calves?
“Man up, and show your calves!” No, for me, it’s a personal thing. There’s nothing worse than seeing somebody uncomfortable in the way that they’re presenting themselves. You have to just do what feels right for you, to get a true sense of yourself in your own style and then go for it. If they want to try something new, try it.
Many men — Brad Pitt wearing a skirt to the Bullet Train premiere, for example — seem more eager to try new things these days. Does that make your job easier?
It’s great to see, and it’s really important for people to keep moving forward. In the 20 years that I’ve been doing this with my own collection, guys and girls are open to so much more. I’ve always wanted to challenge men and women without imposing anything on them. My job is to put things in front of people and at least give them the option to see something different.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, where did you get the rebellious spirit?
My parents. It’s not like they were overtly rebellious, but we were strong-willed. The most important thing for them was that we were all true to ourselves and that we did something and tried to do it well. For me, doing something well was trying to do something unlike anybody else. I am stubborn to a fault in wanting to do things my own way.
How has the Zegna acquisition impacted your life and business?
Size became more and more important. It was an easy decision for me, because now I have the resources to do so much more. It’s very different from what Zegna does and how they approach things, so we complement each other really well. I am a very competitive person, and I want to be a sizable and important business in the world of fashion — not only now, but in the next 100 years. I want it to become one of those collections that museums collect. And growing that type of business … of course you could do it on your own, but that’s not easy. Teaming up with an established heritage Italian family was very appealing to me. We are now in the position to really become important in the world of fashion.
A lot of fashion press have described your recent collections as more experimental and playful. Does the security of a parent company make that possible or riskier?
Both. I’ve always been provocative in my collections, but [CEO] Gildo [Zegna] has also seen that I’ve been responsible in regard to building the business.
The bigger you get, the more the business side can take over. What’s your least favorite part of the job?
Well, you get what you ask for. (Laughs.) The business is my name. It’s 24/7. It’s always on my mind. I never really take vacation.
When was your last real vacation?
Oh, maybe 25 years ago? We travel really well for work. It’s not such a hardship when we go to Paris and Milan for work every six weeks. I mix a little bit of staying in nice places when I’m working. If you talk to any designer who’s started their own business, they never get away from it. How can I expect everyone to be as passionate if I’m not there 100 percent behind it?
You’re ramping up retail, including a new San Francisco flagship, at a time when multiple industries are leery of brick-and-mortar. What’s the strategy?
There’s nothing better than somebody stepping into your world. There’s a conscious decision to not open up huge stores. They’re smaller, more intimate stores that look special. My first store didn’t feel like a retail store. It felt like a space that was put together so you felt the inspirations behind everything.
There are neighborhoods where brands clearly lose money on retail locations. Do you feel those are useful if they garner enough of the right attention for the company?
Probably 99-point-whatever percent of our stores do make money. The model we’ve adopted is smaller, interesting spaces. That makes it easier to make money.
You’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York. How would you articulate the difference between the two cities’ approaches to style?
If I had a dollar for everyone that asked me why I was always so dressed up in L.A., I would be rich. When I was living in L.A., I was doing nothing, which is very easy to do in L.A. But I didn’t dress any differently. I didn’t live differently. So for me, yes, L.A. is more casual, but the world is more casual.
About your time in L.A. — you did PA work, a little acting in the 1990s — what did you learn?
Move back to New York and get started. (Laughs.)
Does all the press around your showings at the Met Ball have a noticeable impact on business?
Indirectly, it’s huge. Directly, I’m probably not the one to ask. It starts from Andrew’s show. The most important thing is that people recognize the work that goes into the show. Everybody that comes with me and Andrew, I want them to have fun and recognize that they’re with us because they’re truly unique and I respect what they do in their worlds. That’s why I put effort into making sure that I’m showcasing them as true individuals.
Any thoughts on Jerry Seinfeld’s ad campaign for the brand Kith that got the internet talking this month?
I don’t know about it, but the most important thing is that there is an authentic relationship. People can read through something forced nowadays, and there’s nothing worse than that.
You’ve expanded into kids’ clothing and swimwear. What other arenas have your interest?
All of them. I feel like Madonna [in that interview] when she said, “I want to rule the world.” The world doesn’t need more stuff, so it’s important that we grow in authentic, interesting ways and not just for the sake of growing.
Whose taste, outside of your own, do you trust the most?
Probably my friends [jeweler] Sarah-Jane Wilde and [Libertine CEO] Johnson Hartig. But Andrew’s taste comes first.
Any advice for people not ready to ditch their pandemic-era casuals?
If that’s your thing, it’s fine. But it’s nice to get out and dress up once in a while. That’s why I think almost adopting a uniform for yourself makes sense. It simplifies your life and shows a confidence. I like people who think, not just the clothing they’re putting on.
Last question: Who do you most want to dress right now?
I never like to single that out, but I am stuck on Serena [Williams] right now.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.