For release Sunday, Feb. 10 () -

For release Sunday, Feb. 10 ()

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c.2013 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK "Do you know this man? Do you know who he is?" Julian Niccolini, the irrepressible co-owner and the host of the Four Seasons said one late January evening. Standing beside a corner banquette in the Grill Room the prime power seat in a restaurant that, fully 54 years after Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson designed it, has yielded none of its luster to time Niccolini put his hand on the shoulder of a shy, smallish man with a lantern jaw, a John Glenn crew cut and a suit that looked as though the laundry had shrunk it with him inside.

"This man is a king," Niccolini said, referring to Thom Browne, one of the most celebrated fashion designers few Americans had ever heard of until a week earlier.

It was then that Michelle Obama selected from an array of specially commissioned designer offerings a subtly checkered, navy silk coat and dress by Browne to wear to her husband's inauguration. And in that lightning-strike moment it seemed as if Browne an award-winning but largely cult figure had after more than a decade vaulted from influential semi-obscurity into the limelight and the U.S. mainstream.

"I wanted it to be this distinct American style that people around the world could look to," Browne said of Obama's dress. Duly humbled by the historic freight of the moment, Browne added, "What I thought was really great was that the leader of the country and his wife just looked so cool."

Cool is a word Browne uses a lot and is as good a term as any to define his aesthetic. His preferred form of cool is McLuhan-esque, emotionless, its iconography period-specific.

The period is the middle of the 20th century and the purest images of midcentury cool, Browne says, are those of Steve McQueen in "The Thomas Crown Affair," John F. Kennedy while still junior senator from Massachusetts, and Thomas Watson types in tie-clips and wing tips, toting Samsonite attache cases to their jobs running IBM.

''There was this distinct American style then that people around the world looked to," Browne said, sipping a 1996 vintage Dom Perignon from a tumbler. The taut conformity of that style, the aura of the machine efficiency characteristic of expansionist postwar America a period that coincides with the 47-year-old designer's childhood in Allentown, Pa. is what Browne likes to believe he has brought to fashion.

Certainly the menswear that made his reputation whittled-down suits, rejiggered Oxford cloth button-downs, bow ties, seersucker preppy shorts, letterman cardigans, brogues with Frankenstein soles, knitwear adorned with tennis-club chevrons and a welter of other skewed emblems of upper-class folkways were a rebuke to the late-20th-century slob-fest resulting from years of dreary casual Fridays and a sartorial lack of discipline.

What Obama's dress and the glowing reviews it garnered suggest is that the time is right for Browne's skills and his intuitions about this conservative cultural moment. One sure test will be reaction to his womenswear show this Monday, held at the height of New York Fashion Week.

Many designers were recommended to the first lady by her assistant and style adviser, Meredith Koop. Many created clothes for the big event. Only Browne's were chosen to represent a day whose symbolism underscored both the Obamas' transition from Beltway outliers to establishment fixtures and some unmistakable Camelot echoes in the current presidency.

Were it not that Browne's designs, as the fashion trade magazine DNR pointed out, are sometimes weird and fetishistic, "influenced by womenswear and unnamed, dark forces," they might be merely square. But Browne has taken a gray suit and covered it with gray rosettes, has put male models in skirts and has hemmed trousers to groin height in what one writer called the "I forgot my pants" effect. He has sent models onto runways in suits of ostrich feathers and accessorized them with tulle tutus or oversized fringe.

Perhaps better than anything, what is revealed in Obama's choice of Browne is her bracing willingness to approach design on its own terms, to risk wearing clothes by a designer known to dress men in gowns or see-through mackintoshes that seem swiped from a flasher's closet.

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''When people have too many choices, they make bad choices," said Browne, whose personal life seems edited to eliminate extraneous detail. He lives in a Greenwich Village apartment furnished so sparely that friends "joke that you could hose it down." In place of the lap lane yardage he logged as a competitive swimmer in high school and later at the University of Notre Dame, he religiously puts in daily treadmill miles. He is not a collector, he said, of furniture or books or art because "I'm not really into things." Even his emotional life is notably sedate, his off-the-clock hours spent quietly with his boyfriend, Andrew Bolton, a curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

''My dad was an attorney," said Browne, the middle child of seven raised in a strict Roman Catholic household. "The last thing he ever thought about was clothes, and yet somehow he always looked good."

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Browne deliberates a lot about clothes. That, in fact, is about all the whole of his process. The stereotypes of designers surrounded by bolts of fabric or mood boards or flighty assistants don't fit a man who, though he sketches competently, is not trained in fashion, cannot drape or sew, and who claims to have learned everything he knows about menswear from Rocco Ciccarelli, the septuagenarian tailor who owns the factory where his clothes are made, although surely he picked up a tip or two during stints in the 1990s working for Armani and Club Monaco.

''Other designers get cross-pollinated a lot," Michael Hainey, deputy editor of GQ, said in discussing Browne. "You know, suddenly everyone's showing orange this season because that designer's fabric person is researching the same fabric as three other people. Thom stands apart. He's always stood apart."

He is a game-changer, Hainey added, a designer whose aesthetic, like those of Coco Chanel or Alexander McQueen, is skewed so singularly that it takes some time for a viewer's eye to adjust.

''In the beginning, his vision suggested something extremely aggressive," said Tom Kalenderian, an executive vice president of Barneys New York, referring to an early period when Browne cut suits so tight and short that they made the wearer look, as a GQ writer noted, like Pee-wee Herman's employer.

''Today those models might seem tame," Kalenderian added. Sure enough, what once looked weird now seems oddly proportionate and correct. Except for Tom Ford, with his steroidal Hollywood riffs on traditional Savile Row tailoring, few menswear designers appear to have eluded Browne's influence.

''Thom likes to shock a bit," Kalenderian said. "But there's a value in the way some artists spend a lifetime pursuing a vision, and Thom is like that. His point of view is undiluted. And we in the fashion industry love that energy."

A measure of industry approval is the raft of accolades Browne has accumulated in a career of just over a decade. Named Men's Wear Designer of the Year in 2006 by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Designer of the Year in 2008 by GQ magazine, in 2012 he was presented with the National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The award's patron was the president's wife.

That Browne only made his first foray into designing womenswear in 2011 makes Obama's selection of a man known for stunts like three-legged suits somehow more daring, almost radical.

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''What I love most about what I do is putting images in front of people," Browne said during a casting call early last week. The brief stipulated tall women and, as a series of giantesses slunk in holding portfolios like armor, Browne sat behind a glass-topped desk, without a laptop, smartphone, camera, notebook or even a pen, looking on impassively.

"I know what I want when I see it," the designer said. He knows what he wants before it exists. Browne was dressed that day in a gray suit, a dark cardigan sweater banded with grosgrain ribbon, a rumpled white shirt, a narrow tie and brogues worn over the ankle socks he buys at runner's stores. An expanse of hairy leg stretched between trouser hem and shoe, an unsettling bit of erogenous peekaboo that is a Thom Browne signature.

''I like there to be something light or funny or ironic or provocative in the work, entertaining without being too intellectual," said the man who has shown clothes on models rising from coffins, has staged his shows as circuses or synchronized swimming spectacles or even a mock Amish barn-raising held inside a tennis club in the stylish 16th arrondissement in Paris.

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"Some people when they see my shows leave saying, 'Who would wear that?'" Browne said. In reality, his clothes can be as wearable and classical as Obama's dress. Yet somehow that is not entirely the point.

''I want to put concepts in front of people that make them laugh or smile or even hate what I do," he said. "I'm not interested in just putting clothes in stores."