Like great artists throughout history, Thom Browne has focused on taking something ordinary or mundane and making others see it in a different way.
In Browne’s case, that object is the classic gray suit, and his reimagining of it has formed the foundation for a world-renowned fashion empire.
Browne, a Notre Dame graduate from the class of 1988, returned to the University this week as an artist-in-residence at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. And on Tuesday evening, he spoke to an audience of more than 200 people in Washington Hall, encouraging today’s Notre Dame students to follow their dreams — and to be open to seeing things from a new perspective.
“Fashion is a key dimension to how we experience our lives in public spaces, and there is no designer alive today who has given more thought to the question of how the uniforms that we don also transform us as individuals than Thom Browne,” said NDIAS director Meghan Sullivan at the event. “As he has radically changed how we perceive the gray suit, Thom has helped us see in new proportions the pride and creativity that’s bubbling right under the surface of something seemingly commonplace. He has changed the conversation about how individuals can thrive within the constraints of the public expectations put on us.”
The event, “The Making of Thom Browne,” featured a conversation between Browne and Michael Hainey, an alumnus from the class of 1986. Hainey, deputy editor of Air Mail and former deputy editor of GQ Magazine, is the author of the New York Times-bestselling memoir “After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story.”
In introducing Browne and Hainey, John McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost, said the University is privileged to welcome back two such accomplished alumni.
“A great research university must have a strategy for enhancing the arts, including signature academic programs as we do at Notre Dame … as well as a vibrant life of the arts outside the classroom,” McGreevy said. “These programs and these events help our students to see the role of writing and art in their lives and to awaken the creative spirit in them, no matter what their major is.
“We think, students, that the next Thom Browne or Michael Hainey is sitting in the audience right now, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to hear Thom and Michael describe how they made the journey from Notre Dame to their amazing careers.”
A former GQ Designer of the Year and three-time winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Menswear Designer of the Year Award, Browne has designed for a wide range of celebrities and public figures, including LeBron James, David Bowie and Michelle Obama.
Although his designs have been recognized by top museums around the world including the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, Browne told the audience that when he graduated from Notre Dame he had no idea he would one day become a fashion designer.
“When I was a student here, I had no clue what my plan was, what I wanted to do, and, you know, you don’t have to know what your plan is right now,” Browne said. “But 34 years later it can happen. Always keep your mind open to be able to experience life because, really, I think life is just an amazing teacher.”
During the discussion, Browne traced the arc of his career — from stints in consulting and acting to his first jobs in the design industry with Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren’s Club Monaco. From there, he set out on his own, starting by selling his suits out of his New York City apartment before officially launching his brand in 2003.
“If you really want it to happen, you have to make sure that you are passionate enough about it and that you love it more than anyone else in the world,” Browne said. “And for me, it was that.”
It took several years for the fashion world to begin to take notice of Browne, and there were times in those early years when he nearly lost the fledgling company. Hainey asked Browne what he learned about himself during that time.
“I’m stubborn,” Browne answered. “I learned that, you know, I had to do the work. And I didn’t really think past just making it happen. One thing that I learned from my parents is that you have to really work hard, and just make sure you do something that’s important, something you love, and try to do it really well.”
Browne, who will become the next chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in January, said that even after 20 years he still feels he has much more work to do in creating designs that challenge preconceptions and provoke conversation.
“I do want to create something that hopefully transcends fashion in a way and isn’t just about the clothes,” he said. “The clothing, the collection, and how it’s made is really important, but I want it to be more than just about fashion … I want it to almost be a piece of living art. And when you see that on the street, there’s so much more to what you’re seeing than just somebody in a piece of gray tailoring.”
Addressing the students in the audience, Browne emphasized the importance of education and hard work — and told them he believed they can do anything.
“I think the great thing about Notre Dame is that you’re all in such an amazing place and you feel like everybody cares for you here,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any limits to what you want to do because if I can do it, you can do it.”
Browne will return to campus in the spring semester to continue the conversation with Hainey and to engage with students in a one-credit course, “Strong Suits: The Art, Philosophy, and Business of Thom Browne,” co-taught by Sullivan and Michael Schreffler, associate dean for the arts and professor in the Department of Art, Art History and Design.