Wed, May 28, 2008 - Page 13 News List

The measure of the men

Comparing Thom Browne and Tom Ford's suits offers a chance to see how masculinity looks from the very different vantage points of two of America's more talented designers

By Guy Trebay  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The Tom Ford man, above, is an Anglicized gloss on Hollywood style, while Thom Browne's designs, top, evoke the hipness of eternal adolescence.

PHOTO : NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Even if you spend a lot of time around fashion and the endearing nut jobs who create it, this question comes up every so often: Who is that person?

By that person, one is referring to an imaginary consumer, a man who designers have decided should wear skintight flood pants and a Pee-wee Herman jacket barely grazing his behind.

Who exactly is the boy/man fashion is crazy about lately, the guy wearing tennis shorts or onesies or the sort of jacket an Etonian whom I know claims was called a bum-freezer when he was at school?

Who, in other words, is the Thom Browne man?

For the benefit of those who have just awakened from a lengthy disco nap, Thom Browne is a onetime actor, a former design director for Club Monaco and an award-winning designer who — distressed by the disheveled mess that was men’s wear in the aftermath of business casual — took a pronounced taste for a geek version of the 1960s “Mad Men” style, and also a pair of scissors, to the traditional suit.

Having decided that the American male uniform of jeans and a T-shirt had lapsed into a form of dreary establishment dressing, Browne set about reviving the suit, a costume that once defined the establishment.

Slashing away with abandon, he arrived at a silhouette that was lean and shrunken, with trousers lopped off well north of the ankle, jacket skirts like peplums and sleeves snug enough to cut off the flow of blood.

In Thom Browne’s universe, trousers and suit coats and lapels and ties, and even tie clips, are skinny. In Thom Browne’s world, one can actually wear a tie clip without appearing to idolize Don Knotts. Thom Browne thinks that tie clips are cool, and so apparently did the jury of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which two years ago named him men’s wear designer of the year.

Eternal Adolescence

It is not just the council folks who signed on to the Thom Browne cult, however. He tends to inspire excitement among department store buyers and editors, particularly Anna Wintour, who is credited with having brokered a job for Browne at Brooks Brothers when the venerable clothier went looking for someone to infuse its dowdy image with verve.

“What Thom Browne has done is make our eye adjust to a shorter, smaller silhouette,” said Tommy Fazio, the men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, where members of the Thom Browne sect go for their seasonal hit, at least those unafraid to pay US$4,000 for a suit. “Other designers followed,” Fazio said, an observation correct as far as it goes. (Viktor & Rolf; Christopher Bailey; Ennio Capasa at Costume National; and Miuccia Prada leap to mind as designers who have showed kiddie-size men’s clothes for years.)

It is certainly true that many US designers fell under the influence of Browne and his singular ideas about masculine presentation. Or most of them did, anyway. The signal exception is another talented Tom named Ford.

If Thom Browne has come to represent sartorial arrested development, the proponent of a kind of masculinity that suggests one is never sexier than when being carded, Tom Ford is a throwback to a different manliness. In one of those funny confluences that retailers like Bergdorf Goodman are seemingly built to showcase, the two designers and their variant ideas of how men should dress now find themselves cheek by jowl.

Hollywood Style

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