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Thom Browne’s Path to $500 Million, 500 Square Feet at a Time

The Zegna-owned brand seeks to double sales to over $500 million from $230 million in 2021 while maintaining its insider cachet. CEO Rodrigo Bazan sees opening intimate boutiques in offbeat locations as a path to keep growing in a luxury market dominated by European giants.
inside thom browne store clothing racks and desk
Thom Browne's first retail store in France is in Saint-Tropez, a tennis-themed pro shop inside the members club Epi. (Thom Browne)

Key insights

  • American luxury brand Thom Browne’s first store in France isn't a Paris flagship, but rather a 500-square foot outpost in a members club in Saint-Tropez.
  • Intimate stores aimed at nourishing ties with loyal clients are a focus as the brand seeks to grow in a market dominated by European megabrands.
  • The brand hopes to double sales from €230 million in 2021 to around €500 million in the next five years, CEO Rodrigo Bazan said.

When Thom Browne opened its first retail store in France, it didn’t opt for a glitzy, multi-level storefront in Paris, like many luxury brands would do. Rather, it opened a 500-square-foot outpost in the Mediterranean resort of Saint-Tropez, tucked away inside the members-only beach club Épi.

The subway tile-coated store, which is available to shop by appointment only, aims to be small but mighty: Following its parent company Zegna’s 2021 IPO, Thom Browne is seeking to double its revenues in five years while sticking to a strategy of snubbing splashy flagships in favour of intimate boutiques that target loyal, high-spending clients.

By opening 100 stores by 2023 in locations including San Francisco and Kobe, Japan, the brand is betting it can “double the amount of clients [while] keeping the first pool of clients even more engaged,” chief executive Rodrigo Bazan told BoF.

Bold plans for retail expansion have become commonplace amid surging sales for luxury brands since the pandemic. But where Thom Browne is opening its stores, what they look like, and who they are intended to serve is a departure from the “mega-store” trend overtaking luxury retail. While big names like Dior are investing in highly visible, sprawling locations to market their brands, Thom Browne’s stores are on average, around 1,500 square feet and are situated in locations that are more interesting than visible. Their interiors are, on the whole, true to the brand — midcentury touches and Thom Browne signature grosgrain abound, though the materials vary from marble and stone to tiling, each with an ultra-high sheen.

The store’s role is more of a clubhouse than a billboard, with a focus on outfitting loyal clients with top-end items like grey flannel sport coats that run $2,500 rather than pushing card holders and sunglasses to logo-seeking passersby.

“Uniquely, what we have at Thom Browne is that the [customer’s] first purchase is of extremely high ticket value and it’s in multiple categories,” Bazan said. “We don’t start from a certain lower price point and go up. Usually [a first-time customer] starts with a committed purchase.”

As Thom Browne continues its journey from American designer label to global luxury name, the focus on intimate, client-focused shops could help the brand grow while side-stepping some of the lavish spending pressure coming from big groups like LVMH and Kering, who can afford to make unrivalled investments in their brands’ spaces.

And while megastores like Dior’s new 30 Avenue Montaigne hub (which includes a museum, restaurant, pastry shop and luxury suite) can broaden awareness and move countless small accessories as well as higher-ticket items like flagship handbags, high-traffic stores often struggle to provide an plush experience for the top-spending, loyal clients who are key to ready-to-wear driven businesses like Thom Browne.

“The high net worth customer doesn’t want to necessarily go into a big flagship,” New York-based retail consultant Robert Burke said, pointing out that in addition to rolling out bigger-than-ever locations like its renovated Rue Cambon hub, Chanel has also been adding more intimate locations in London and Asia. The brand even said it was planning to open dedicated, invitation-only boutiques for top-spending clients.

“We’re going to see a reversal of big flagship stores into more intimate stores that are more personal,” Burke said. “In these more human-scale stores, it’s really about the customer service.”

Niche Wins

Thom Browne founded his eponymous label in 2001, building a name for himself in New York fashion at department stores like Bergdorf Goodman with distinctive tailoring that bucked the casualisation trend and refused the idea of suiting as a bland uniform.

Browne opened a made-to-measure store, his first, in 2003 and pursued a collaboration with Brooks Brothers in 2007 that helped the label gain popularity with clients who continued to favour more formal attire in the face of fashion movements like normcore, athleisure and eventually, streetwear. In 2013, the CFDA named Browne menswear designer of the year.

Nearly a decade later, the brand has shown staying power and international appeal. In 2018, Zegna acquired a controlling stake at a $500 million valuation, betting it could continue to grow Thom Browne into a global luxury brand. Thom Browne was set to benefit from Zegna’s top-notch Italian supply chain expertise and investments in retail, while Zegna would gain exposure to a younger, more fashion-focused client base, the thinking went.

So far, the plan seems to be working: Thom Browne grew 27 percent in 2021 to €230 million, up from around €125 million at the time of the acquisition.

Its brand awareness has grown in kind, as the American label elbows its way into mentions alongside the biggest global luxury names. At the 2022 Met Gala, Thom Browne cracked the top five most-mentioned brands (behind Versace, Jeremy Scott, Ralph Lauren and Moschino) according to marketing firm Brandwatch. Facebook- and Instagram-owner Meta selected Thom Browne alongside powerhouses Prada and Balenciaga to lead the charge on a storefront for selling virtual fashion on its networks.

To be sure, Thom Browne faces challenges of its own. Vying for space in the luxury market with LVMH- and Kering-backed brands means competing with unparalleled budgets. All of this makes it harder for small- and medium-sized brands to remain top-of-mind. And while Thom Browne sticks with opening its restrained boutiques, other niche luxury players are drifting away from destination retail, increasingly positioning themselves on the same streets as larger rivals — Acne Studios, for example, opened a flagship store next to Balenciaga and Saint Laurent in Paris last month.

And even with the backing of a public parent company, it can be difficult for designers to maintain their allure after an aggressive retail expansion strategy, as was the case when fellow American Marc Jacobs quickly sprouted up retail locations around the world, only to close most of them a few years later.

Thom Browne is also seeking to grow at a time of mounting anxiety over inflation and a likely recession, which could drive customers back to luxury names with the greatest staying power, like Chanel and Louis Vuitton.

In that context, and with the scrutiny of public markets now trained on the brand (it makes up 20 percent of Zegna Group’s revenues), a strategy of making the most of a tight store concept makes financial sense. “With brands of [Thom Browne’s] size, you really don’t need big stores because it’s just going to be incredibly expensive and your productivity is going to be low,” said Susy Tibaldi, luxury analyst at UBS.

Ultimately, the size of the store matters less than how the brand is servicing the clients coming to it. “It’s more about treating the existing customer and then, of course, using marketing activities trying to attract new customers,” Tibaldi said.

Thom Browne began and remains, in part, a made-to-measure atelier, a format that Bazan calls “100 percent client-centric.” Today, clienteling accounts for 40 percent of the Thom Browne business, where the brand’s “client value management” team “evaluates data and acts on it to have the same personalised approach globally through close to 100 stores.”

“We communicate, we service the client, we create a custom-made selection for them and we have their feedback and we continue the relationship with them,” Bazan said. “By understanding the client and his or her moments, family, preferences, we advise them respectfully and positively.

A long-term partnership with Farfetch has also allowed the brand to integrate stocks between its own website, e-tailers, and stores — meaning that even tiny locations like those in China, South Korea and Japan can offer access to the brand’s full breadth of styles. Farfetch’s technology helps the brand by recommending relevant products to shoppers, helping them organise a list of items they may have been interested in while shopping in-store and providing links to purchases that can be made on mobile, for example.

The brand is profitable, and aims to remain so even amid the expense of its retail push. In May, Zegna Group noted that it aims for its for revenues to exceed €2 billion and adjusted EBIT as a percentage of revenues to reach at least 15 percent.

“We do our best when we do things on our own terms,” Bazan said.

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