Thom Browne and Andrew Bolton team up with Phaidon

Thom Browne and Andrew Bolton team up with Phaidon

Thom Browne and Andrew Bolton — fashion’s power couple — have teamed up for the first time

Thom Browne and Andrew Bolton photographed in New York. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Perhaps because fashion is a relentless business filled with jumbo egos, it rarely produces power couples. But if there is a Brangelina, an Amal and George, or Liz and Dick of the garment industry, it’s Thom Browne and Andrew Bolton.

Browne, 58, runs the eponymous brand that is almost singularly responsible for upending stereotypes around masculinity and suiting. His shrunken suits continue to shock and inspire people 20 years after they were first introduced, and a 2018 deal in which Zegna purchased a majority stake in his business valued it at half a billion dollars.

Bolton, 57, is the curator in chief of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, where exhibitions like 2011’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” and 2015’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” are some of the most visited in the museum’s history. With their attendant annual Met Gala, they bring conceptual fashion that previously would have been seen and understood by a niche group to audiences of millions.

“They’re fashion’s royal couple,” says journalist Alina Cho, a contributor to CBS News’s “Sunday Morning” who also hosts a conversation series at the Costume Institute. “And they don’t see themselves like that, which is a beautiful thing.”

Sitting around a small table on a brick patio that overlooks a yard shared with several neighbors, overlooking the East River, Browne, with his closely cropped collegiate football hair, and Bolton, with his Etonian flop, are like two mischievous lords of the manor. They reflect on their relationship in public rarely, and so they do so today with a playful discomfort. They spend “a lot!” of time together, Bolton says, laughing. And they wear Browne’s clothes almost exclusively (with sprinklings of Ralph Lauren “for basics,” says Bolton, and a piece or two of Gucci, though usually it resembles something Browne could have made).

Bolton has missed just one of Browne’s shows, though they rarely talk about fashion, except to chat about the usual goings-on at their respective offices. They don’t hash over the meaning of Browne’s shows, but instead have a code, Browne says: “If after a show, [Andrew] comes up and says ‘Wow,’” — then they know it’s bad. (He’s never said, “Wow.”)

They live in an impeccably renovated Georgian mansion on Sutton Place with their wire-haired dachshund named Hector, and count some of the city’s most exquisitely stylish women as friends.

Since they began dating in 2011, they have pretty much sat atop the world of fashion, although, Browne ponders, “Do we feel like we’re really in the world of fashion?” He looks to Bolton. “That is where we are and what we do. But I don’t know. We just don’t partake in the world of fashion. We just do what we do.”

They’re inseparable. And yet a Phaidon Press tome coming out Wednesday celebrating the 20th anniversary of Browne’s fashion line is their very first project together. Well — sort of.

“It’s Andrew’s book. It just happens to have my name on it,” insists Browne. “But when you work with Andrew, why would you even intervene? It’s 20 years through Andrew’s — you know, the most important curator in the world’s — eyes.” Anyway, Browne says, smiling, “Andrew said designers are the worst curators of their own work.”

Bolton says he didn’t want there to be “too much interpretation of the clothing,” instead presenting the images chronologically to reflect “the continuity of the worlds that have led visitors down the paths of imagination.”

Why didn’t they do a project together until now? “Because …” Browne ponders. “Because we didn’t!” They split into laughter. Bolton plans the Met exhibition, which is the Super Bowl of fashion, and Browne usually stages two shows a year — sometimes more, and he’s the chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which oversees New York’s fashion calendar and helps support American designers — so they’re usually “focused on our own thing,” Browne says.

Bolton and Browne’s is not a love story about how amorously things began — they met at a conference in 2005 — but about the careful cultivation of beauty that long-term romance allows. They seem to know well the talent that the other possesses, even as each expresses extraordinary humility about his own work. Browne calls Bolton “the most important person in fashion, because he has elevated fashion to the level of being in the Met”; Bolton calls Browne “the 19th century concept of pure artistic genius, where you take yourself out of the world.”

“Thom and Andrew are so entwined with each other they are in each other’s orbit every way — and are at their very happiest when they’re together,” Anna Wintour, Condé Nast’s chief content officer and Vogue’s global editorial director, writes in an email. She has known the couple for nearly two decades, working especially closely with Bolton on the Met Gala. “It’s so touching to see how much they love each other, yet that closeness is not only emotional but aesthetic and intellectual; they constantly spur each other on, entirely supportive of each other’s work and ambitions.”

Cho describes the couple as having “exquisite taste” that is “magic” for its lack of snobbery. Browne may have a noted admiration for Dom Pérignon 2013, but not because he’s pretentious. It’s just what he likes! While their house is imperiously appointed, it’s comfortable — “not a museum,” Cho says. “They’re happiest when they’re ordering in from ABCV, and they’re at the house with Hector.”

The mannered glitter is not a farce — they really do love magnificent things — but it’s coupled with kindness. Even simplicity.

(One source refused to speak on the record: Hector. When asked to reflect on Bolton and Browne’s relationship, the dog declined to comment, though hovered protectively over the tape recorder, and licked this reporter’s hands for some six minutes, possibly in an attempt to keep her from taking notes.)

Their careers have little in common, they say. Bolton, born in England, studied anthropology and began his career at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, before coming to the Met in 2002. Browne was born in Pennsylvania and studied economics at Notre Dame, then worked in design at Club Monaco and Ralph Lauren before launching his own line. They paint their approaches to work in gorgeous contrast, both describing Browne as “more instinctual” and Bolton as “more intellectual.”

“I appreciate, maybe, my work more because Andrew gives it so much more of an intellectual context, which I don’t put on it.”

“Thom is more instinctive,” Bolton says. “He’s like the boy in the bubble. He designs without influences, inspirations. It’s very much from the inner world.”

“And as a curator,” he continues, “you just can’t do that. You have a responsibility to reflect what’s going on in the world. You have a responsibility to speak to the zeitgeist and the past.”

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Bolton’s talent comes from steeping himself in knowledge; Browne’s from ignoring it. Is there an Arthur Miller-Marilyn Monroe dynamic at play? (“He does a good Marilyn impersonation!” Bolton says of Browne.) Resisting the pull of obvious references and historic accuracy is what keeps Browne’s work strange and novel; grounding what many see as frivolous in extensive research is what has made Bolton’s work so celebrated. “Andrew has to know. That’s his job,” says Browne. “I don’t have to know anything! Honestly, I don’t!” Boop-boop-a-doop! “I feel like it makes it easier to create something new.”

What do they have in common, other than a feverish appetite for Thom Browne suits? Maybe it’s that “we create exactly what we want people to see,” as Browne puts it.

But it also seems as though both are uniquely responsible for merging fashion into the cultural enterprise it is today, on the level of sports, movies or TV.

Browne has used the classic uniform of American masculinity not only to satirize its conceits but encourage men to push against its constraints, replacing the stereotypical gray suit with shrunken proportions and more recently, the trousers with skirts.

“There’s an irony in having one set of rules, a rigorous set of rules, [and] breaking rules but imposing a new set of rules on top of it,” Bolton says. It betrays the arbitrariness of how fashion and social norms develop — this sense that you must do this or wear that or say things in this way.

“The best fashion should provoke and challenge. The runway should be used for that purpose, I think — to challenge one’s expectations and challenge those normative conventions of beauty or normative conventions of masculinity and femininity,” says Bolton.

As for Bolton, three of the exhibitions he has organized are among the 10 most visited in the history of the museum. He has made the most extreme examples of fashion — from the extravagant excesses of the private world of couture to the provocations of designers borrowing from the traditions of other cultures and religions — are eagerly embraced by an enormous public.

Bolton saw the dynamic change with the McQueen show. At the time, “art journalists and in particular critics had still clung to that 19th-century hierarchy of the arts where fashion was at the bottom of the ladder, just below photography. They came to that idea, that hierarchy, as if Warhol and Duchamp never happened. I think the McQueen [show] changed that a bit.”

For a long time, fashion designers wanted to collaborate with artists to “legitimize their work, but now I think it’s the opposite,” Bolton said. “I think a lot of artists want to work with designers because of the power of fashion, in terms of its accessibility, its relatability. Fashion’s definitely getting the upper hand.”

Given the cultural phenomenon that the Met Gala has become, it seems clear that Bolton, working in tandem with Wintour, made this so. But he demurs. “I’m not creative. My job is simply to offer a platform to people like Thom.”

Browne looks disturbed. “No,” he says. “That’s not true at all.”

Bolton continues: “No really! When it comes down to—”

Browne interrupts. “No,” he says definitively. “No. Because he, creatively, has made fashion more interesting to the world.”

Each observes what the other is too modest to proclaim: Bolton can see the intellectual impact of what Browne has sneaked into these suits for all these years, and Browne can see the sweeping Hollywood-level impact of Bolton’s work at the Met.

Still, it’s funny for them to hear each other speak about the other’s work. “It’s a bit weird!” says Browne, and Bolton says found it “really hard to write” about his partner’s work, in the brief introduction that opens the book.

The pressure is understandable. “Andrew’s opinion is the only one I care about.”

The Thom Browne book is available to order now at and