‘Strong Suits: The Art, Philosophy, and Business of Thom Browne’

Author: Mae Brennan

This spring, Thom Browne’s residency with the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) will produce the one- credit course “Strong Suits: The Art, Philosophy, and Business of Thom Browne,” co-taught by Meghan Sullivan, associate dean for the arts, and Michael Schreffler, associate dean for the arts and associate professor in the department of art, art history and design. The course investigates high fashion through an interdisciplinary lens, incorporating discussions of philosophy, designs and business with fashion. Browne graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1988 with a business degree and launched his eponymous fashion label in 2001. Students have been given the opportunity to learn about Browne’s journey from owning a singular shop in New York City’s West Village to being the center of a global fashion house with more than 80 stores worldwide.

Former GQ Designer of the Year and three-time winner of the CDFA Menswear Designer of the Year Award, Browne is renowned for his modern and innovative approach to design. Browne’s designs are recognized internationally by preeminent museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Browne has engineered globally recognizable moments, dressing various cultural icons, including LeBron James, David Bowie, Michelle Obama and Cardi B. Over a twenty-year career, Browne has revolutionized the way contemporary society thinks about suits, sparking major debates about individuality, uniformity, celebrity and identity.

In each session, students are joined by an expert guest with an insider’s perspective on a certain aspect of the fashion industry. Current students have spoken to Michael Hainey, Deputy Editor for AIR MAIL and previous Deputy Editor of GQ; Julie Henderson, a Notre Dame basketball alumna who belongs to the cohort of models pivotal to the inclusion of plus-size models in the fashion narrative; and Thi Wan, the Design Director at Thom Browne. The network that students have been given is providing a “step-up” in the competitive industry of fashion, and — compared to top fashion institutions — Notre Dame has succeeded in establishing a program where academia and creativity complement one another.

Most recently, the students in “Strong Suits” traveled to New York for Fashion Week where they attended Thom Browne’s Spring 2023 show. After a morning visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the students donned their self-chosen NYFW outfits and made their way to the Hudson Yards to Browne’s show. Inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘The Little Prince,’ eight tons of sand were scattered across the floor to make a clock-shaped desert with a life-size biplane positioned in the middle. Celebrities in attendance included Queen Latifah, Whoopie Goldberg, Pusha T, Lil Nas X, Penn Badgley, David Harbour and Christine Baranski, to name a few.

Felicity Wong, a junior in the class, explains how students pursuing a business path now have access to a program that “validates those wishing to pursue a creative career.” Wong, an English and art history double major, with a creative writing concentration and a philosophy, politics and economics minor, hopes to complete a senior thesis on the intersection of art, English and fashion, hoping to discuss “fashion more conceptually and philosophically.” Wong acknowledges the lack of fashion studies resources available on campus and finds “Strong Suits” to be the first step in cultivating a more creatively inclusive Notre Dame.

Similarly, Gracie Simoncic, a sophomore majoring in American studies with minors in design and digital marketing, says that “Strong Suits” has been extremely gratifying in providing a creative outlet inside the classroom. Simoncic acknowledges the beauty of seeing an academic institution like Notre Dame support artistically-minded students who stray from the expected business path common among so many college students. “Strong Suits” has sparked a larger conversation about how students looking to pursue a creative career can be effectively supported by Notre Dame and its resources.

“Strong Suits” feels like fate for both Simoncic and Wong, who have struggled to feel creatively supported on campus. Simoncic explains how gratifying it is to find a group of like-minded students — all passionate about fashion — on campus, and how enlightening it is to be surrounded by students all approaching the industry from different perspectives and with different aspirations. Wong encourages all students to look out for opportunities with NDIAS and credits the institution with supporting interdisciplinary studies. If Thom Browne is the first step, both Simonic and Wong wonder what else the NDIAS is capable of. By employing Thom Browne, Notre Dame is beginning to bridge the gap between students’ ambitions and the fashion industry, which many find difficult to break into. “Strong Suits” is the first step in Notre Dame committing itself to a creatively curious culture where the artistic aspirations of students are not solely supported yet also nurtured.