Thom Browne takes over as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in a challenging, but also an auspicious time, when the American fashion community is brimming with next-gen niche talent just waiting for its big break.
“There’s a mentality of all engines turned on,” newly minted CFDA accessories designer of the year Raul Lopez, founder of Luar, told WWD at the annual CFDA Awards in November.
“It’s almost like the pandemic was a controlled forest fire and from that fire came all new growth,” Puppets & Puppets cofounder Carly Mark added of the explosion of designers representing myriad backgrounds and points of view, from post-emo to Goth to revenge dressing sexy.
How will Browne lead them? By joining them, at least in February, when he plans to show his men’s and women’s collections during New York Fashion Week. “I thought since I just started, it would be nice to stay in New York and fly the American flag in New York,” he said.
The 57-year-old designer succeeds Tom Ford, who ruffled a few feathers at the start of his term in 2019 when he showed his first runway collection as chairman in Los Angeles.
Diversity, equity and inclusion were key priorities for Ford, who renamed the New York Fashion Week show schedule the more inclusive “American Collections Calendar” in 2021, diversified the CFDA board and initiated new programs to provide access to jobs and mentorship. During the pandemic, he launched A Common Thread with Vogue, which distributed more than $5 million in relief aid to businesses.
Like Ford, Browne also has strong ties to the magazine’s editor in chief Anna Wintour: His partner Andrew Bolton is the chief curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center.
Among his significant contributions to fashion, Browne has helped normalize men wearing skirts and short pants, with the help of celebrity fans like LeBron James and Dan Levy. He is also the rare New York designer working today who has a truly international profile; Italian luxury conglomerate Ermenegildo Zegna Group acquired his business in 2018, and he’s been a regular on the Paris Fashion Week calendar for years, except when he has shown in New York in recent seasons, to support Bolton’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition at the Met.
During his enviable fashion career, he’s managed to distill a zany sartorial vision into a commercial empire with 2021 sales of 264 million euros, and secure collaborations with Brooks Brothers, Samsung, Moncler and Supreme, among others.
So his biggest contribution could be in urging American fashion to go even bolder and embrace the weird.
“I can bring my experience of how I dealt with the last 20 years and the most important thing for me is that it all starts from creativity,” Browne said when asked what his approach will be at the CFDA. “I think here in America, sometimes we get pushed into commercializing things too quickly and that’s at the expense of creativity. I’ve been able to balance the two fairly well, so I’m going to fight the fight for creativity first, and with that commercial success will come.”
Some of his former employees have taken that advice to heart. “They are like my kids…and I hope what they learned from me is to make sure they are true to themselves and create their own point of view that will live on its own,” Browne said of Daniel Roseberry at Schiaparelli in Paris and Jackson Wiederhoeft, who recently launched his own namesake line in Brooklyn, New York. “And to make sure the quality is good.”
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