thom browne: behind the designer elected chairman of the cfda


illustration by katelyn niester

After Tom Ford stepped down from his position as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, it was announced that on Jan. 1, 2023, Thom Browne will step into the role. Unanimously elected by the board of directors, Browne will serve a two-year term as the leader of one of the industry’s most important organizations, according to Vogue Business


When elected, Browne made this statement in testament to his appointment: “I also feel that it is important to give back to an industry that has supported me so well over the last 20 years. I am so proud to be an American designer… there is so much happening in American design today that the world needs to really see and recognize and truly appreciate.”


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Thom Browne studied economics at the University of Notre Dame, where he shortly thereafter began and ended his career in the finance industry. After nine short months as a consultant, Browne moved to Los Angeles, where he became fascinated by the art scene. According to an interview with Vogue France, Browne tried his hand at comedy and even added the “h” in Thom so he could get a membership card to the Screen Actors Guild when he found a love for film yet did not have a unique enough name. 


After his short stay in Hollywood, Browne moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion. With no prior experience or training in the industry, he began his career as a tailor and eventually became a salesman at Giorgio Armani. 


Browne started his design career as a designer for Club Monaco and eventually launched his own made-to-measure menswear in 2001. He grew his customer base by reconceptualizing the men’s suit, eventually trying his hand at womenswear and dressing first lady Michelle Obama for the presidential inauguration. 


Since then, Browne has grown an approximately $500 million company known for its redefinition of the color gray, its classic blue, red and white stripe and, of course, the Hector bag. Browne built his brand out of his passion to elevate the men’s tailored suit. There has been no other designer in fashion history to be able to take such a simple and seemingly mundane design like a gray suit and elevate it to such a level that Browne has. The New York Times stated, “over the span of two decades, the designer has transformed the traditional menswear staple into a radical and deeply contemporary look for all.” 


Inspired by ‘50s shrunken tailoring, Browne has redefined modernity so provocatively that every celebrity wants to wear his suits. From Pete Davidson to Gigi Hadid, Browne has dressed nearly every important celebrity and has done it perfectly. There’s a certain indefinable quality about how he can utilize grayscale and apply it to suiting that makes his designs so mind-twisting. 

His designs almost have a Mona Lisa effect; You find yourself dissecting his work and wondering why you find it so intriguing. As Kurt Soller, a writer from New York Times Magazine, perfectly stated, “Browne’s acolytes have defined themselves not by their gender, age or country of origin but by a life — and a look — of discipline.” 


This philosophy is perfectly displayed in his workspace. Located in Midtown Manhattan, there are three floors and a fifth of his 500 employees dress head to toe in the Thom Browne “uniform” as they work on designing new innovations. A sea of gray suiting with Browne as the mastermind running the system. 


However, Browne’s attention to discipline should not indicate that the designer doesn’t like to have fun. Quite the opposite, actually. Many of Browne’s designs are childlike and whimsical. Playing with different animals, toy shop themes and blown-up proportions, his shows are always theatrical. Browne stated in an interview with New York Times writer Kurt Soller, “we’re in fashion and it should be entertaining…I do things that are ridiculous, and sometimes I don’t know why they’re not laughing.” 


He pulls inspiration from Comme Des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo and Italian designer Giorgio Armani, and Browne’s influence can be seen in Balenciaga’s creative director Demna and Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele, who will be stepping down from his position. 


In 2006, Browne expanded his designs into womenswear, building the well-rounded company he runs today. Thom Browne inc. recently celebrated its 20th anniversary by launching a line in homage to his roots at Notre Dame. Over 76 collections later, Browne continues as the chief creative officer and has become known as the modern all-American designer taking fashion to new heights. 


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A fundamental reason why Browne has become such a well-liked designer is for the work he does outside of the office. He is intensely interested in fostering places for young creatives to be successful like himself in a career they didn’t know was possible. His most recent philanthropic endeavor was his election as the chairman of the CFDA. 


The CFDA is a non-profit trade organization founded in 1962 and is composed of more than 450 of America’s leading designers. The CFDA Foundation Inc. is the council’s organization that raises scholarship money to encourage young designers and help the rapidly growing industry flourish. When elected as Chairman, Thom Browne made his goals for his term clear when he stated, “It is the mission of the CFDA to support and encourage new voices and new designers to parlay their creativity into a unique and singular level of success.” 


As of Jan. 1, 2023, Browne will be tasked with planning out the New York Fashion Week calendars, appointing new initiatives under the CFDA’s philanthropic lens and assisting Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour with leading the Met Gala. Browne stated in an interview at CFDA Fashion Awards that “as designers, it is our responsibility to provoke, to educate, to entertain, to make laugh and to make cry, and most importantly, to make beautiful clothes and to succeed in nurturing the next generation of American design.” 


Browne will step into the shoes of his predecessor Tom Ford who made great improvements to the council’s works in diversity and inclusion. While those are big shoes to fill, there is no doubt that Browne is the man to fill them. Browne began his journey with the CFDA in 2005 when he was the runner-up for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. He was named menswear designer of the year in 2006, 2013 and 2015, and served on the Fashion Fund’s selection committee. Browne is deeply connected with Vogue as Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the MET Costume Institute, is his partner. Through this relationship, Browne has had opportunities to work with Anna Wintour prior to his appointment as chairman. 


Browne stated in a CFDA interview, “My most important message is that everyone should have the opportunity to thrive as a designer, but the core of this success has to start from pure creativity. It is our responsibility as designers to [ensure] the story [is] being told in an uncompromising creative way.” 


While there is no predicting exactly what Thom Browne will do with his upcoming reign as chairman, it is safe to say that he will leave a huge impact on the CFDA and the entire fashion industry.

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