Thom Browne Is in an L.A. State of Mind

Everyone has a so-L.A. moment, probably more than one. For Thom Browne, it was some time in the early 1990s while he was living here, a model/actor inching toward fashion design, when he spotted one of his idols in the bakery aisle of the Sunset Boulevard grocery store Chalet Gourmet.

“It was Liza Minnelli,” he said, and she was looking for advice about cake of all things. “I was so proud because I said, ‘The sweets are kind of good here, but there’s Michel Richard in Beverly Hills, it’s very good.'”

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Even then, the man had Champagne taste.

Browne is looking more relaxed than I’ve seen him in a while, in his trademark gray shorts suit sitting at an outdoor table at the Bel Air Hotel on a fragrant, sun-dappled late Monday afternoon, sipping a glass of Perrier-Jouet after landing at LAX two hours ago.

He’s in town for his first big L.A. event in nearly two decades, celebrating a new women’s collaboration with Saks Beverly Hills that includes an exclusive capsule of young, wearable tweedy sportswear pieces like pleated miniskirts, shrunken varsity jackets and summery slingbacks.

“The women’s is growing, but still there are people who either see the runway shows, or see the conceptual ideas that I do for celebrities and they almost don’t really think it’s real,” he said of female shoppers not feeling like Thom Browne is for them, perhaps, or at least not in the way that men do.

To bring them into the gray flannel fold, his fall 2024 women’s collection was one of his most commercial yet, with more accessible silhouettes, variations on wearable shirts and blouses, and accessories than before. He notes one particularly straightforward look — look 29 to be exact — a black-and-white tweed mini pleat skirt and short jacket, which could be in the closet of a modern day Cher Horowitz.

“I’ve never put anything that understandable in any of my shows. Ever.” Browne said.

Looking very on-trend corp-core, Billie Eilish wore a version of one of his more understandable fall suits to sing her hit “What Was I Made For?” at the Oscars. Now Browne is looking to Hollywood to help educate female consumers about his brand’s wearability and range, just as he did for menswear, which had LeBron James, Dan Levy and other celebs helping to normalize men wearing his short pants and skirts.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 10: Billie Eilish performs onstage during the 96th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Billie Eilish wears Thom Browne to perform onstage during the 96th Annual Academy Awards.

Center stage at Saks in Beverly Hills, which just opened in the old Barneys New York building, he’s designed a whimsical colonnade and fountain installation incorporating a seersucker palm tree and some other runway props, alongside a showcase for his signature animal-shaped bags. He’ll be hosting a swanky dinner Thursday night with a guest list of new and old friends, including Janelle Monáe, Diane Keaton and others who have been repping him on the red carpet and will be dressed in his looks.

“It feels good to reengage with the stores because I haven’t really been involved with them for a long time, and especially with Saks and [fashion director] Roopal Patel, because she is one of my oldest friends,” Browne said. “And it is nice to do something in America because I’ve done so much overseas in Europe and in Asia, which has been great. But it’s nice to come back home.”

L.A. was home for Browne from 1992 to 1998. “I do feel like I spent my formative years in L.A…doing nothing really productive…I was so broke and so depressed because I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do…but I do look back on those years so, so fondly because they were so important to where I am now.”

At the time he lived at the sprawling Laurel Canyon hacienda of Paul Fortune, the famous interior designer of Michèle Lamy’s Les Deux Cafés, Sunset Tower and Tower Bar, among many other L.A. locales. His parties were legend, attracting Marisa Berenson, Lisa Love, Ione Skye, David Hockney, Richard Gere, everyone creative in Hollywood, and they were the ideal entree for Browne.

“It was like a revolving door, he was so generous with so many people and was an amazing host and entertainer,” he said of Fortune, who died in 2020.

Browne modeled and dabbled in acting (there’s a Motrin commercial out there to prove it), and name checks “Chinatown” as his favorite L.A. movie “for the noir of it all,” but his Hollywood career never took off. Not like it possibly could now, if he followed in the footsteps of Tom Ford into directing, or even Jonathan Anderson into costume designing.

He certainly seems primed; now at the top of the fashion game having sold 85 percent of his business to Zegna in 2018. Famous for his narrative runway shows depicting preppy funerals, stagings of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and more, Browne has already made four collection films.

They include the mesmerizing spring 2007 short “The Septemberists,” a 10-minute jewel box of a black-and-white starring skiing legend Lindsay Vonn for his fall 2021 women’s collection, and the 29-minute “Looking Forward to Tomorrow” depicting the loneliness of marathon training for his spring 2022 men’s collection.

Still, he insists he’s not interested in getting an agent, doesn’t have a script, and is generally wary of seeking the Hollywood spotlight in a formal capacity just yet, though one recent film that did spark his imagination about what a Thom Browne feature film could look like: Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest.”

“One of the things that really stuck out, which I feel kind of stupid saying, is I never appreciated the sound person,” Browne said of the 2023 film about domestic life going merrily along in the literal shadow of the horrors of the Holocaust, which won Oscars for Best Sound as well as for Best International Film.

“Also, you know how I like to draw things out with not much happening, it made me think of our long-distance runner film which was so under-appreciated!” he said of his tendency to take his time with storytelling.

Browne traces a lot of his cinematic gray man aesthetic back to L.A., where he became enamored of traditional menswear while shopping at vintage stores. (“Everyone gets rid of their tailored clothing when they move to L.A.,” he told me years ago). He moved to New York, however, because he didn’t want to get too settled into the easy lifestyle, he said. “I did not want to be 40 years old in L.A. and still not doing anything…because it’s very easy, it’s so seductive to just relax out here.”

So he took a job as a retail associate at Giorgio Armani in New York, selling everything, including his used Volvo station wagon, to get there, then worked at Club Monaco under Ralph Lauren before launching his own brand in 2001 with five suits.

But all these years later, two of his best friends from the L.A. days are still supporters and muses, he said, speaking about the Gothic glam model-turned-jewelry designer Sarah Jane Wilde and Libertine designer Johnson Hartig, who will both be at the dinner at Mr. Chow on Thursday night.

“She’s just truly her own person — the most generous with her time, and creative,” he said of Wilde, who wears Browne wonderfully, is a fixture at his shows and makes jewelry for his collections and VIPs when appropriate.

Browne’s been on the front row of nearly all of Hartig’s Libertine shows at New York Fashion Week. “He has the best taste, and what he’s accomplished with his brand, it’s been successful from Day One,” he said.

Now Browne moves between Paris, where he’ll show his next collection in June, and New York, where he’s chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and he and partner Andrew Bolton split their time between their 1920s Sutton Place home once owned by Anne Vanderbilt, and their Colonial-era home in the Hudson River Valley with an equally storied pedigree, Teviotdale.

But L.A. is always in the back of his mind.

“I do think that we will have a house out here one day,” he said, casting a glance at the lush Bel Air grounds, toward the hotel’s famed Swan Lake, a setting ripe for his imagination come to think of it. “The Hills somewhere…I love Trousdale Estates, it will be a travertine modern house…”

You can almost picture it now.

Launch Gallery: Inside Thom Browne's Exclusive Collection with Saks

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