On Tuesday evening, Thom Browne '88, wearing his signature gray suit with matching shorts and knee-high socks with four iconic white stripes, spoke to students packed into Jordan Auditorium in the Mendoza College of Business.
Browne, who graduated from the University with a degree in business 35 years ago, is the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) artist-in-residence, chair of the Council on Fashion Designers of America and a former GQ Designer of the Year. His work, which reimagines the traditional gray suit, has been praised for its innovative approach to design. His designs have been recognized by museums around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Kristen Collett-Schmitt, the associate dean for innovation and inclusion, began the evening by introducing Browne and Michael Hainey '86, the former deputy editor of GQ magazine who moderated the discussion.
“We join here tonight at the intersection of art and business, where creativity and entrepreneurship meet to celebrate and learn from the innovative work experience and expertise of one of the most talented fashion designers in the industry,” she said.
Before Browne and Hainey took the stage, a short video highlighting Browne’s creative work was played for the audience. The video featured clips of Browne’s runway shows, celebrities including LeBron James and Michelle Obama wearing his designs and the football game photo shoot held on South Quad held in the fall.
Browne said he likes to start these types of talks with some footage of his work because “there’s so many stories that go into those 20 years [of work].”
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1988, Browne got a job working at an accounting firm in New York. Then he moved to Los Angeles where he tried his hand at acting, and when that failed, he moved back to New York to work for Giorgio Armani and then as a designer for Ralph Lauren before starting his own business.
Browne said he is grateful he didn’t know what he wanted to do right after college because “I tried so many different things and I was open to meeting so many different people through that.”
He began his business in 2003 by making five gray suits at a tailor’s shop in New York City’s West Village. Browne said the color gray represents non-fashion, as he was someone who didn’t come from a traditional fashion or design schooling. In the beginning, he advertised his designs himself by walking the city streets, hoping people would ask where he got his suit.
“I wore them myself. That was how people saw [my work],” Browne said. “I had no business plan. I had no plan other than I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Brown said that to be successful, you have to be your own best advocate. He described himself as his own best salesman, designer and producer. In the beginning, being a fashion designer wasn’t super glamorous. It was a lot of hard work and in 2009, the company almost went bankrupt.
But, he said he loved his business so much and knew “that somebody eventually would get it,” so he continued to make his suits.
“If you create something that is truly authentic and truly your own, nobody can take that away from you or knock it off or steal it because nobody can be you,” Browne said.
Not only did Browne want to be a fashion designer but he also “wanted to do something that really meant something.” Through his fashion, he hopes to tell stories about the world and about things that are happening in the world. Fashion is about more than just making clothes or buying expensive clothes, he said.
Through his creativity, Browne hopes to challenge people’s perceptions of fashion and how they view the world around them.
“It’s important to make people think,” he said. “Why not take something that they think they understand and give it back to them in a way that they totally don’t understand?”
Even for people who may look at a piece of clothing and think “Who’s going to wear that?”
“I could care less if somebody wears it, [the] idea is just people seeing things differently,” Browne said.In 2018, Ermenegildo Zegna, an Italian fashion group known for its men’s suits, acquired an 85 percent stake in the company. Browne said he is working with the Zegna group to implement sustainable and ethical practices while also making the brand accessible to more people. In the future, Browne said he looks to continue his expansion into the visual and digital realms of the business of fashion.