The Man in the Browne Flannel Suit

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By Robin Givhan
Friday, March 23, 2007

NEW YORK Designer Thom Browne, famous for the high-water trousers in his signature line, was hired last year to create Black Fleece, a small specialty collection for Brooks Brothers. He debuted it this week in the men's club atmosphere of the company's Madison Avenue flagship. There were no hairy ankles on display.

One can only imagine the personal aesthetic negotiations that must have taken place for Browne to trade in his signature cropped pant legs for those that graze the top of the shoes. Black Fleece is evidence that compromise can be a fine alternative to unwavering extremes.

This type of "guest designer" project has become common within the fashion industry when a brand with a lot of history and a good bit of dust on it wants to freshen up and get a burst of buzz. Browne rose to prominence within the fashion industry because of his distinctive menswear proportions. In addition to his too-short pants, he also cuts close-fitting jackets that look a bit too small. In 2006, Browne was honored as menswear designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

At first glance, it's difficult to see how someone who envisions men going through their workday wearing a suit that looks like it was borrowed from a 12-year-old boy would find any common ground with a brand established in 1818 and that is known for keeping sartorially conservative men reliably attired. Brooks Brothers is the brand of presidents, of Washington power brokers and of men who do not want to think too long and hard about their clothes. Most emphatically, Brooks Brothers customers are not the sort who wear anything purely for the sake of fashion.

Browne's signature collection is a niche brand for men who think quite deeply about such matters.

He embraced the cliche of the Brooks Brothers man in the gray flannel suit and transformed him into a gentleman who not only is comfortable with his controlled and reserved ways but also revels in them. Browne's radical proportions have been rendered more centrist thanks to the influence of Brooks Brothers' resolutely establishment point of view. And Brooks Brothers' stolid traditionalism has been given a jolt of swaggering confidence by Browne.

In the Black Fleece collection, which also includes Browne's first ready-to-wear attempt at womenswear, there were enough bold strokes to leave the typical Brooks Brothers shopper wide-eyed and stammering, but not so many that he would fall over in a horrified faint.

Browne is a designer who has never seen a shade of gray that he did not find inspiring, and so the collection's palette is rooted in that boardroom shade. The menswear has a formal air -- clothes for a man who considers barrel cuffs the equivalent of dressing down.

There are evening capes lined in fur, for instance. The suits are cut close to the body, but in a way that is flattering rather than suffocating.

While the men's trousers are full length, the women's are cropped. (It would not be a Browne collection if someone didn't show a bit of ankle.) Often when menswear designers turn their attention to women's clothes, they ignore everything that garnered praise from the gentlemen. Menswear designers who are renowned for their elegant tailoring inexplicably create clothes for women that make them look like they're on the clock at Hooters.

That is not the case with Browne. Both his men and his women look as though they could be working for the same white shoe law firm.

Brooks Brothers has been in a rebuilding and rejuvenation phase since 2002, when Claudio del Vecchio bought the company and assumed the positions of chairman and chief executive. The company had languished from putting too much emphasis on business casual attire. In the earliest days of his tenure, del Vecchio noted that he wanted Brooks Brothers to once again be "the best place for businessmen to shop."

Del Vecchio, who is Italian, also understood that Brooks Brothers represented a traditional, Ivy League style that was more admired outside the United States than inside. The project with Browne exploits that history. The men of Washington are maligned for their attire, not because they refuse to dress in the knife-sharp, adventurous silhouettes of a Hedi Slimane or the colorful playfulness of Paul Smith, but because they don't wear their clothes with either gusto or confidence. Their sartorial crime is not an unwillingness to engage in Fashion but a refusal to take pride in their appearance.

Browne emphasizes the panache in even the most conservative elements of American style. Two of the most interesting pieces in the collection, which del Vecchio describes as the company's version of "couture" since the opening price for a suit is $4,000, are an overcoat with a back belt that sits high on the torso and a trench coat.

Undoubtedly every man has a trench coat. But the one Browne created for Brooks Brothers is different in subtle but noticeable ways. (After all, with menswear, everything is in the details.) Instead of being the usual nondescript shade of taupe that too often looks bland, ashy and rumpled, Browne's trench is a warm hue somewhere between butterscotch and caramel. It has a crisp appearance. The color looks like it was selected after some thought. The lines of the coat look purposeful.

The result is a man who looks like he considered his attire instead of one who looks like he just stumbled upon it.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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