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Thom Browne on Mad Men, Guy Style and the Rebelliousness of Suits

Best known for making suits cool again, Thom Browne has amassed a cult following with his eponymous New York-based label’s highly-recognizable slim-fitting men’s jackets and cropped dress pants. But with Browne now designing for Black Fleece, the Brooks Brothers’ offshoot whose second-ever retail store opened in San Francisco this month, and lending his hand in collaborations with Moncler Gamme Bleu, the designer’s modern take on mid-century silhouettes seems poised to go mainstream.

When we caught up with Browne, in town recently for Black Fleece grand opening festivities, we were not at all surprised to find him donning his signature look: gray suit, white shirt, tie clip and dress shoes. Read on for Browne’s take on suits as modern day rebel-wear, the frequent association of his clothing with Mad Men style and his advice for men seeking to define their own unique look.

When did you realize you wanted to make suits a part of your everyday look?

There really wasn’t a time, because ever since I can remember, I pretty much always had a jacket and trousers on. Even through school and after school when I was living in L.A., which was probably one of the most formative times in regards to actually making it cool again, because everybody looked at me like I had two heads when I wore a suit. And for me, I always felt like I wanted to show guys that [suits] could actually be something they could wear and look cool in.

Although suits are often thought to be the most traditional kind of clothing around, you’ve described them as rebellious. How so?

America has gotten so casual…jeans and t-shirts and khakis and t-shirts, that I thought dressing up was actually something really rebellious, because it just wasn’t done as much anymore.

Your clothes are often compared to those worn by characters in the show Mad Men, but your clothes came before the show.

Years before.

So how do you feel about those comparisons?

The show is styled so well, I mean it really is. I don’t know who does the costumes and the styling, but it is done really, really well. I mean, you feel like you are watching that time.

The comparisons, I don’t really listen to them that much because, really, my clothing, I’m not trying to recreate what was being done in the 50’s and early 60’s. It’s more the time and the spirit of that time that I was really referencing with my clothing. If you really look at my clothing, it’s so different…I mean, it’s tailored very differently. It’s more the sensibility that I wanted to get across, and the sensibility of things just being more effortless and easy and very clean. I think that’s something that is so, one, very timeless, always fashionable, but two, really masculine.

You also design women’s clothing, as part of the Black Fleece collection. How do you approach designing for women differently?

I don’t approach it differently. The only thing is that I do feel more free to do more. I do some pretty crazy things with my collection, but with women’s, women are just more open to new things. I don’t design thinking, is somebody going to like this or are they not going to like it? But I know the reality that, ultimately, [men] are more restricted in what they wear.

We noticed a ton of fur and fur tails adorning your fall 2010 collection. Where did that inspiration come from?

From old raccoon coats. You know those old stadium coats that guys used to wear? They were either longhaired beaver or they were raccoon coats, and I’d done beaver in the past, so I wanted to use raccoon, but I didn’t want to use it in a typical way of just doing an old stadium coat. So I thought of just using the tails, which I thought was almost an homage to very old school women’s clothing.

With your own label, you seem to want to have fun with the clothes you create.

With my collection, I do want to make sure that I always make people think. It all starts with the classic gray suit, but I want to make sure that the classic gray suit every season seems new because of what I surround it by. And I do like to have fun. I like to make interesting things that I would want to see myself.

What advice do you have for the guys trying to define their own unique style?

The first step is really just figuring out what they feel really comfortable in. And also trying to wear clothing that really does fit. I think a lot of times clothing these days, especially off the rack, really doesn’t fit that well. Making sure that it’s tailored in a way that it does fit, and making sure that you really have a sense of your own style, and making sure that that comes through in what you wear. I think it just comes down to confidence…to be able to just be confident with how you want to look. If you are questioning which way to go, classic and simple is always the best way to go.

In addition to your own line, you have collaborations with Black Fleece and Moncler, among others. That’s a lot for one person to do. What would be find you doing in your rare moments of free time?

Resting.

What does resting mean to you?

Watching movies. And I do sports. I run, play tennis.

What do you think about San Francisco, and what else do you plan to do while you’re here?

Unfortunately, I have to leave tomorrow, but I’ve been here quite often, and it just seems like it’s a lot of walking. But there are really good antique stores here. I’m not a real clothing shopper, so I’m not walking in and out of the clothing stores. But there are some really good antique stores. A good friend of mine has a store, March.