Commentary

Iconic Ermenegildo Zegna Group Dons Iconoclastic Thom Browne

Ermenegildo Zegna Group, the Milan-based purveyor of traditional, high-end menswear since 1910, is spending $500 million to acquire 85% of New York-based Thom Browne Inc., whose fashion sense has been calculated to turn heads since it launched in in the early aughts of this century. 

“Thom Browne, a onetime actor who founded his business with five suits and a small appointment-only shop in 2001, will hold the outstanding 15% stake. He will also continue in his current role as the brand’s chief creative officer, the Zegna statement said, while Rodrigo Bazan will remain chief executive officer,” write Elizabeth Paton and Vanessa Friedman for the New York Times.

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“The brand is currently offered in over 300 leading department store and specialty boutique doors across 40 countries and through 31 directly operated flagship stores in New York, London, Milan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and South Korea,” according to a bio of Browne on the company website.

Ermenegildo Zegna Group “is comprised of famed menswear giant Ermenegildo Zegna, diffusion line Z Zegna and womenswear label Agnona [and] is rooted in classic, Italian manufacturing and traditional design (mostly suits). Acquiring a majority stake in a company as modern as Thom Browne signals the family-owned company’s efforts to reach a younger customer who doesn't shop the way ‘older’ men do when it comes to tailoring,” writes Mario Abad for Forbes.

The deal “marks a brisk, successful exit for private equity firm Sandbridge Capital, which has held a majority stake in the brand since 2016,” according to a staff report in Business of Fashion. “Thom and I took great care in choosing a new partner who would continue to both honor and celebrate Thom’s uniquely visionary approach to marrying the highly conceptual with the beautifully commercial,” says Ken Suslow, founding managing partner at Sandbridge, in an email to BoF

“But more than just good news for Browne, this is great news for fashion on the whole. In a time when luxury retail is struggling to maintain its footing alongside direct-to-consumer models, buzzy streetwear drops, and the ever-expanding athleisure market, Zegna’s investment is a testament to the durability -- and bankability -- of a worthy creative vision,” writes Steff Yotka for Vogue.

“… Browne has done everything traditional wisdom would say you shouldn’t: He’s designed wacky clothes in cartoon proportions, dressed his male models in bulbous onesies or bridal skirts, put his women in zip-away sequin scuba dresses, and made a bag in the shape -- and texture -- of his dog Hector. He hasn’t advertised in magazines, nor has he licensed the brand name for cosmetics or fragrances, and he’s ditched any celebrities for deals (some official, some not) with the biggest athletes around the world,” Yotka adds.

Indeed, the New York Times’ story of the transaction carries a picture of players for the Cleveland Cavaliers wearing Thom Browne suits when the NBA. playoffs were taking place in April. 

“And they aren’t your average suits  -- they're custom, made-to-measure Super 120 twill suits with white Oxford shirts, four-bar cashmere cardigans, leather brogue boots and Mr. Thom bags,” Lindsay Weinberg wrote for the Hollywood Reporter at the time, revealing that ex-Cavs superstar LeBron James had shelled out for the outfits and “deserves the title of Most Valuable Fashionista (MVF).”

“The deal comes as social media and millennial consumers are rewriting luxury business strategy and what is fashionable,” writes Rachel Sanderson for Financial Times. “The acquisition is also the latest example of a trendsetting independent fashion brand being bought by a larger luxury group. Antwerp-based Dries Van Noten was bought by Puig and Italy’s Missoni sold a 41% stake to Italian state-backed, private equity company F2i this year.”

Lesley M.M. Blume wrote a profile of Browne for the Wall Street Journal in March that leads with a photo of him leaning against a spare wood desk dressed in a dark-blue jacket that looks like it was borrowed from a 12-year-old, light blue shorts and knee-high socks. When he first started wearing his designs around New York City “as his own best model,” the caption tells us, “People would ask, ‘why does it look like your clothing doesn’t fit you? Do you need a tailor?’”

Blume’s piece ends with Browne telling her: “I love to be provocative. I want people to love or hate something; I never want people just to like what I do. When I’m backstage at a show, and I look at the people [in the audience], everyone’s so deadpan. It’s like, ‘Come on, guys. Why aren’t you laughing? Why aren’t you crying?’”

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