The Dapper Mr. Browne

(Photo: Joseph Maida)

He lives a quiet life,” says menswear designer Thom Browne. He’s describing his muse, who is imaginary but fully realized. “He kind of does his thing and he has his life, and ­everything is very understated. His house is very lived in, but in a good way. It’s not interior-decorated or anything like that, but it is decorated. He’s health-conscious, but not too. He eats well, but he’s not preoccupied: He will have cream and butter, and he will drink. And he’s nice.”

Browne, who won this year’s Council of Fashion Designers of America award for menswear designer of the year (an honor that in recent years has gone to Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Helmut Lang, and John Varvatos), is sitting on a leather sofa at Soho House, a block from his studio. He’s wearing a gray tropical-weight wool suit that looks like it’s been tossed in the dryer. There are about four inches of ankle visible on each leg, and he’s not wearing socks. The jacket is teeny-tiny, too, and his narrow gray tie is tucked neatly into his trousers and secured to his shirt placket with a flat horizontal clip. The buttons on his button-down collar are undone, and everything is narrow, narrow, narrow. His features are symmetrical, his hair buzzed flat; the effect is equal parts fifties, military, and midwestern.

But in a world populated by men who seem incapable of moving on from the baggy T-shirts and jeans of their adolescent wardrobe, Browne’s strictness feels entirely fresh. He has no formal ­fashion-design training; still, in the five years since he started his line, he’s become a force in advancing the geek-chic, too-tight, hip-to-be-square aesthetic that is popping up everywhere from Wes Anderson movies to the runways of Milan. And he’s managed to do something traditional menswear manufacturers were starting to give up on: He made the suit cool again. Even the behemoth Brooks Brothers is starting to show narrower cuts.

“Thom’s suit is the new expression of the suit,” says Tommy Fazio, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “He’s ­really influencing everyone. I see his shape echoed throughout the market. But no one does it like Thom. And in the store it’s gotten to the point where guys just come in and say, ‘Where’s the Thom Browne?’ You hear it as much as ‘Where’s the ladies’ room?’ these days.”

Browne went to Notre Dame as an undergraduate, where he got a business degree. Post-college, he moved to Los Angeles to try acting, and got some work, commercials mostly. But he was far more interested in the new hobby he and his friend Johnson Hartig (now co-designer of the trend-setting Libertine label) had begun, playing around with vintage clothes. Browne would bring home old suits and tuxes and cut them down, down, down. He wore them around L.A., a city where “fashion” is often confined to the wash of one’s jeans. “I feel like jeans and a T-shirt have become Establishment,” he says. “Everyone’s dressed down. So actually putting on a jacket is the anti-­Establishment stance.” It’s a fetishized, black-and-white-movie masculinity Browne has for sale, one in which male pedicures and Jamba Juice have no place at all. Which is not to suggest that Browne’s masculinity is not similarly fussy: It’s a different package, but it’s as much for the vain and image-conscious guy as a pair of carefully distressed, very expensive organic-cotton jeans by Rogan.

Once he realized that acting was not going to happen, Browne sold his car and moved to New York in 1997. A friend helped him get a job selling in Giorgio Armani’s showroom. From there, he moved to Club Monaco, owned by Polo Ralph Lauren. Lauren picked up on Browne’s nascent creative mettle and put him to work in Club Monaco’s design and merchandising departments.

He left Club Monaco in 2001 to launch the Thom Browne label, on the hunch that “business casual” had left men looking cruddy enough that a sharply tailored suit might suddenly appeal to the hip and aesthetically inclined. He couldn’t afford to manufacture a full collection, so he made five suits for himself and began wearing them around town. He begged friends to buy from him. Browne works out his ideas with the help of an old Italian menswear tailor—whose name he refuses to divulge for fear of poaching. “He’s a godsend,” Browne says. “He’s been doing this for 60 years, so he knows how to construct on the body. Sometimes I throw him things, like really short trousers. He kind of smiles because he knows why I want to try it. And he never fights me. A lot of tailors would say, ‘What are you doing this for?’ ”

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Influences: Wyclef Jean

(Photo: MJ Kim/Getty Images for MTV)

Once again, you’ve kind of raked in the collaborators here.
This album means so much to me—it’s like Bob Marley’s Exodus or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I was so excited about everybody that came and worked on the album. For me, it’s like a cast: I’m Gershwin, and this is my Porgy and Bess.

You’ve got Norah Jones, T.I., Paul Simon…
T.I. co-executived on the album, and it was good to have the new blood of the new generation. And to have Paul Simon on the same record was the whole idea—putting everyone together. Paul Simon is genius; I was in awe being in the studio with him.

You’ve collaborated with so many artists over the years. Has anyone left a particularly lasting impression?
Shakira was incredible. She was like, “The song’s not a hit until it makes my hips move!” As a young guitarist, I was in awe of Carlos Santana. Mary J. Blige just goes in and knocks out the song in two takes.

The new album’s name is The Carnival II (Memoirs of an Immigrant). Tell me about your childhood in Haiti.
I was born in a small place called Lessere, outside of the city of Croix-des-Bouquets. All I can remember is hard rain falling, no clothes on, jumping around in the rain, singing. In the church, they played Nazarene music, which was like gospel music, but from the island. On the street, there were always the forbidden drums, and they’d warn you to be careful of the drums or the bogeyman would come and get you. I didn’t have any instruments at the time, so I would play sticks on rocks and just create songs and go crazy.

How did your life change when you moved to Brooklyn?
It was like day and night. The small village I was raised in didn’t have electricity—no light, no nothing. My parents came and got me when I was 9, and I can still remember what it was like to see those headlights. Landing at JFK for the first time, can you imagine? I looked out the window and couldn’t see nothing but lights. They were so glaring that I said to my brother, “Man, we’ve arrived in the city of diamonds. This place is so rich, it’s nothing but diamonds on the floor!”

Your father was a pastor. Did you have a very religious upbringing?
Definitely. My parents never knew I listened to hip-hop. When I first came to America, I was always sneaking out, going over to my friend’s house next door to listen to the music. Later on, I gave a crack fiend $3 for a CD player and it had one of those little radio transistors in it, so I would hide in the bathroom listening to 98.7 Kiss-FM. I loved Run-DMC because they really used to put me in a place and a time. I also listened to LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and of course KRS-One and Rakim.

How did your time with the Fugees influence the way you make music?
Khalis Bayyan from Kool & the Gang produced the first album, and I learned so much watching him in the studio. In the back of my mind I was thinking, I know I can do this, but I’m hearing it differently in my head.

What about books?
One of biggest books in my life is the Book of Exodus. You read that one?

No? It’s in the Bible! Well, that book shows that no matter what you’re going through, you can overcome it. A lot of times people sit around complaining, but the Book of Exodus shows us that if you want something to happen, you gotta go do it yourself. The Celestine Prophecy is similar.

Do you have a favorite movie?
My favorite movie is Black Orpheus. Do me a favor, okay? Please go see that. It’s very cinematic and raw. I think what makes a great movie is when you can feel the culture and the sun and the people and the vibe inside the lens. Another movie I love is Once Upon a Time in America. I fell in love with that movie because of the score. You can imagine—I’m a kid supposed to be watching the movie, and instead I’m listening to the score.

And guilty pleasures?
I’m a great porn collector. The best porn ever is Sweetest Taboo. You ever seen it? That’s a good one. I probably have over 5,000 pornos.

Really?! Where do you keep them all?
In my basement. I collected them through the years. I don’t lie about anything; I think if someone has a porn collection, they have a porn collection. I know people who say they don’t have a porn collection, but when they get up in hotels they run them bills wild! They might want to call me and I could rent them a few.

The Carnival II (Memoirs of an Immigrant) comes out December 4.

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After the Blood on the Tracks

(Photo: istockphoto)

W hen a 6 train killed a woman recently after she jumped onto the subway tracks to retrieve her bag, MTA motormen all over the city shuddered. The city’s subways strike about 90 people a year, and these incidents are a harrowing psychological hazard for the drivers. Recently there appears to have been a spike: During a twelve-day stretch last month, eight people were hit—nearly three times the usual number. Not every incident is fatal, but in subway parlance they are all known as 12-9’s, the radio code for Man Under.

Most 12-9’s never make the papers, like the one that happened as the A train rolled into the Aqueduct–North Conduit station at 6:43 a.m. one morning last August. “A woman jumped right in front of my train,” says motorman Jermaine Dennis, 37, who had been on the job for only two years. “Her body hit the running rail, and she flew underneath the platform.” He found her under the fourth car, still alive. “She was kind of in a daze,” he says. “I saw the blood running from her head.”

He never did learn her name. All he knows is that she was in her seventies, appeared dressed for work, and died that day in the hospital. “It was really tough sleeping,” he says. “I had visions of this woman in my head.”

When a motorman has a fatal 12-9, the MTA gives him three days off. Many workers have a difficult time coming back; some never do. Dennis stayed out for two and a half months. “I wasn’t really ready to come back,” he says. But he’d fallen behind on his mortgage and needed the paycheck. “It may sound crazy,” he says. “I was grieving for this woman.”

Joe James, 60, has had four 12 9’s—two in the last eighteen months. Last year, he spied a man in a hoodie on the tracks as he approached a station. “I thought he jumped down to pick something up,” James says. He blew his horn, but the man didn’t get out of the way; instead he turned his back to the train and crouched down, straddling a rail. The train killed him.

Nobody knows which motorman has had the most 12-9’s, but Kevin Harrington, a vice-president in the union, recalls having one fatal strike and “ten or eleven others.” There was the guy in the Bronx who tried to leap in front of his train, but took off a moment too late. “He hit the front of the train and bounced off,” Harrington says. And there was the woman dressed all in white lying between the tracks at Grand Central. Half a subway car rolled over her, but somehow she didn’t get hurt. Harrington and a supervisor got her off the tracks. Before they could find out who she was, she took off—only to jump in front of another train.

Every motorman reacts differently, but some find it easier to recover if the 12-9 was a suicide. It’s the cases in which a passenger fell on to the tracks by accident that are much harder. “The people that I’ve encountered who have had 12 9’s, it’s like they’re holding this thing inside,” says George Stamp, 55, who has been a motorman for twenty years.

Fifteen years ago, while driving the A train through East New York at 4:34 a.m., Stamp thought he saw a body. “All of a sudden it seems like a lady stood up in the middle of the roadbed and just disappeared,” he says. “I wasn’t too sure.” He stopped the train and walked back along the tracks, flashlight in hand. “When I got to the sixth car, I could see trickles of blood,” he says. “And when I got to the seventh car, there she was.”

He doesn’t know whether the death was an accident or suicide, but he did find out her name: Gladys Lu. She was 28. In the months that followed, he battled depression, endured flashbacks, and had trouble sleeping. Even today, when he drives the A train by the spot, just past the Euclid Avenue station, he always has the same thought: “It was right about here. I can still see Miss Lu.”

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