Thom Browne returns to Soho House New York

Thom Brown returns to Soho House New York | Soho House

Fresh from his debut couture collection in Paris and celebrating 20 years of being a Soho House member, the fashion designer is riding high

Thursday 12 October 2023   By Teo van den Broeke   Photography by Christopher Sturman   Assisted by Evan Mann, Bryan M Sargent   Additional photography by Getty Images, Juan Veloz   Grooming by Peter Gray at Home Agency   Hair by Mirna Jose   Makeup by Mark Edio   Photography direction by Juliette Clarke   On-set production by Abigail Hirsch   Thom Browne was photographed at Soho House New York

Soho House New York celebrates 20 years in business this autumn, and prior to my interview with American designer Thom Browne I’m informed that he was one of the earliest members of the club, our first in North America. Browne, who I’m speaking to over Zoom – he in his New York office, me at 180 House in London – offers a wry smile when I bring it up; less, perhaps, for the memories the question conjures and more due to the fact that I’m being unchivalrous by showing his age. 

‘I’ve had a connection to Soho House ever since I was down on Little West 12th Street and it opened in the Meatpacking area. I was one of the founding members,’ he reminisces. ‘I used to go there every day after work for a drink. The bartenders would ask me why I never stayed ’til other people came. I would visit at six and probably leave around eight when most people were actually arriving. I loved it that way.’ He smiles. 

‘I remember the day that Soho House New York opened in 2003. It was an important time. There was a different feel to the city. Soho House opening was the start of a creative time and it was really special.’

Browne was 38 in 2003, the same year he opened his first store. Read that again. Thom Browne – the man who recently sold 85% of his eponymous label to the Ermenegildo Zegna group with a $500m valuation; the man who spent a successful decade as the creative director of Moncler Gamme Bleu; the man who makes other men look surreally cool by dressing them in toy soldier suits and kilts; the man who is winning this year’s Soho House Fashion Designer of the Year Award – was fast approaching middle age before he achieved anything remotely resembling success. 

In fact, Browne didn’t even know he wanted to work in fashion until he was well into his thirties when, without a dime to his name, he flew home to New York from Los Angeles to take a job as a retail sales associate in 1997. Now 57, Browne’s silver hair is cropped close to his head and he’s sporting his uniform of a white shirt and tie with a grey blazer. He’s sitting close to the camera, so I can’t see whether he’s wearing his trademark kilt or not. 

Thom Brown returns to Soho House New York | Soho House

Top: Browne in the main bar of Soho House New York
Above: the fashion designer soaks up the sun on the rooftop


‘I was broke in LA,’ he says of that time. ‘I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I needed to get back to New York in order for things to start happening. I didn’t want to be 40 and still wondering what to do with my life. So I applied for a job and it just happened to be in fashion. That’s how it started. It happened to be at Giorgio Armani.’

Browne’s choice of springboard brand was portentous. Giorgio Armani is, after all, one of the most successful labels in the history of fashion. Running for more than 50 years and still independently owned, the Armani group’s profits are tracking 18% up, year-on-year, and Mr Armani’s personal fortune is estimated at around £8.5bn. All this from selling the same navy and grey suits season after season. Consistency has been Giorgio Armani’s meal ticket, and it’s one Browne has both borrowed and put to good use during his own two-plus decades in the industry. 

Browne founded his brand in 2001 after leaving Armani to spend a few years leading the creative development department at Club Monaco, which was then owned by Ralph Lauren. Under his own name, he designed five suits and went on to sell them from the made-to-measure shop he opened in 2003 in New York’s West Village. In 2005, David Bowie wore a charcoal Thom Browne two-piece to perform at Fashion Rocks. That same year, the designer showed his first ready-to-wear collection, for SS06, at New York Fashion Week.

The collection – a mini symphony of truncated grey suits finished with shorts and cropped sleeves – was to become the blueprint of all Browne offerings to follow. ‘Browne’s new clothes are about more than just tradition,’ wrote fashion journalist Tim Blanks at the time. ‘He likes awkwardness (it undercuts the boringness of perfection), which is why his signature outfit is that shorts suit, proportioned like a boy’s school uniform.’

Roll to now and I’m meeting Browne fresh off the plane from showing his first ever couture collection in Paris. It was a riot of creativity, inspired by the Visage track ‘Fade To Grey’: voluminous boucle coats with immaculately crafted zeppelin sleeves, densely draped silk gowns and mixed tweed trenches with hand-embroidered grey and gold bullion thread. Vogue Runway called it ‘dramatic’, Diane Keaton dubbed it ‘amazing’ and WWD’s verdict was ‘theatrical’. 

‘Close your ears, put on your blinders, be true to yourself and just try to create something that you know is truly your own’

Before the more playful pieces hit the runway, the collection opened with a series of classic Thom Browne suits finished with kilts. They could have been taken directly from his inaugural collection, shown almost 20 years before. It’s likely that the audience wouldn’t have known any different if they had been. 

Such is the intoxicating simplicity of Browne’s vision: behind the freewheeling creativity and showmanship, the core identity of the brand remains pristine, like the nucleus of a rapidly reproducing cell. Head into a Thom Browne shop and you’ll be met by rails of serviceable tailoring finished with tricolour tabs; perfectly cut flannel and plaid vestiges of Browne’s unique and unexpected world. Easy to wear, expensive to buy.

‘Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren are the best ever at creating their own worlds. I took that from them,’ Browne tells me evenly, his sentences as cropped as his sleeves. ‘They showed me the power of building your own universe and creating something that means something to people. It’s important to stay focused and make sure they see it in the most pure and clear way so that it can sustain itself. In my case, it’s that one grey suit where it all starts, every collection, and we’ve created a sizeable business from that one idea.’

So, to the sizeable (and serious) business of haute couture. The stuff fashion dreams are made of, where gowns come furnished with £100,000 price tags, each handmade garment is limited to one or two pieces in total and designers who show need to be invited and approved by Paris’s elite Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Yves Saint Laurent was a couturier, as was Karl Lagerfeld. The vast majority of ready-to-wear designers are not couturiers. 

‘I had been approached and asked by the Fédération for a couple of years to consider doing couture,’ says Browne, cool as a concombre. ‘It was exactly how I wanted the collection to be. It’s exactly how I wanted people to see it. It was nice to challenge ourselves to do a collection worthy of being shown that week. But I think we all realise that most of my collections are at that level. So it was nice to be able to get new appreciation for the clothes I already create.’

Thom Brown returns to Soho House New York | Soho House

Above: Browne relaxes on the club floor


It’s not a coincidence that Browne’s first foray into couture has coincided with his brand’s acquisition by heritage Italian tailoring company Ermenegildo Zegna. ‘We share the same passion for excellence and impeccable, modern tailoring,’ the brand’s CEO Gildo Zegna said in a statement at the time of the purchase in 2018. ‘Thom’s visionary approach and his unique point of view have enabled him to build and nurture the most loyal clientele.’ The Zegna group also purchased the apparel arm of the Tom Ford business last year, asserting its position as the preeminent high-fashion tailoring conglomerate – on track to give the likes of Kering and LVMH a run for their money.  

In the deal, Browne remained as chief creative officer and the only other majority shareholder. When I posit that the injection of cash must have come in helpful in the pursuit of his couture dream, Browne is sanguine. ‘Gildo Zegna appreciates what I do and I appreciate what he does, and it’s a really good relationship.’ He pauses. ‘They know why I do things in a certain way. I’m very respectful of the relationship and making sure that it’s, you know, as valuable as it needs to be for them.’

Browne’s broad creative vision sits in marked contrast to the monastic rigour with which he cultivates his own image.

From the military hairdo to the draconian cut of his suits, it’s always surprising to witness Browne’s operatic approach to putting on a show. ‘Thom Browne stands for pure creativity, for quality; for making sure you want to be your own person and you’re confident to be yourself,’ Browne says. ‘I feel like I’m doing exactly what I was doing at the beginning, but I’ve matured and I have the resources to do things differently and bigger.’

When Black Lives Matter took hold of the public consciousness, many major brands were quick to react, posting black squares without doing the due diligence on their own inclusivity practices, and hiring more Black models without examining the faces populating their boardrooms. Browne, on the other hand, took a long-term approach: ‘I understand the times. And I want to be respectful and relevant in my own way,’ he says. 

So in 2022, when Browne was appointed as the new chair of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), succeeding Tom Ford, he made it clear that the promotion of diversity in the US fashion industry would be a key tenet of his two-year tenure. ‘It is the mission of the CFDA to support and encourage new voices and new designers to parlay their creativity into a unique and singular level of success,’ he said in a statement released at the time. 

Thom Brown returns to Soho House New York | Soho House
Thom Brown returns to Soho House New York | Soho House

‘If you’re doing something interesting, you have to expect that it’s going to take a while for people to understand’

Above: one of the bedrooms in Soho House New York; enjoying the sights of the city


A large portion of Browne’s success lies in his alchemic ability to build community around his label, like an immaculately tailored pied piper summoning the tasteful and monied (and those desperate to look tasteful and monied) to consume his vision. Naturally, all Thom Browne employees are required to wear Thom Browne suits when they’re on duty, but he’s also gathered a band of celebrity followers who attend his shows and wear his clothes with cultish fervour. Cardi B arrived at his Couture show with a clock handbag, Diane Keaton is a perennial Thom Browne fan and LeBron James is a regular at his menswear outings.

This idea of building community around a brand is relatively new. Precipitated by the rise of social media, by the mid-2000s it was no longer enough for big labels to put on a show, invite a few editors to sit front row and expect sales to fly. In 2023, successful brands exist like religious orders, with doggedly loyal celebrity devotees attracted by a charismatic creative director, an inclusive omnichannel marketing strategy and an ever-changing array of shiny new products which exemplify the brand and keep a steady flow of cash coming in. It’s a strategy the Zegna group has struggled to implement thus far, and one that Gildo Zegna is almost certainly hoping Browne will show him how to achieve. 

‘Our celebrity relationships are never forced,’ Browne tells me firmly. ‘All our relationships are true relationships. Everybody you see connected to the brand is usually a customer or friend beforehand, and then it evolves. The most important thing is that it feels real.’ Is there anyone who Browne feels particularly excited to see wearing his clothes? ‘I’m a huge sports person, so athletes are always inspiring to me.’ He cites champion alpine skier Lindsey Vonn as an example. She is, Browne notes, ‘a good friend, and I love seeing her in my clothes. I grew up watching her and being a fan of that level of athlete. But beyond celebrity, whenever I see people wearing my clothes in the street, I kind of want to go and say hello to them.’

There’s little question that New York, like London, has changed considerably since Browne founded his business. With rent on the up and the basic costs of living skyrocketing, I’m eager to learn what advice he has for young creatives hoping to tread a similar path. 

‘Close your ears, put on your blinders, be true to yourself and just try to create something you know is truly your own,’ he says emphatically. ‘Don’t listen to all the voices trying to tell you differently. If you’re doing something interesting, you have to expect that it’s going to take a while for people to understand. You have to love what you do more than anything else in the world.’ Once again, he pauses. ‘You should want to do this for the rest of your life. Don’t rush; you have a whole lifetime ahead of you. You can create the most amazing experience for yourself.’

Thom Browne is a member of Soho House New York. He wears his own clothes throughout.



Thom Brown returns to Soho House New York | Soho House