On Notre Dame’s leafy campus in South Bend, Indiana, football is nearly as much a religion as, well, religion. Even Thom Browne, the Catholic university’s most famous fashion-world alumnus, cheered on the Fighting Irish when he was an undergrad in the late ’80s. “It was fun to go to the football games. I went to all of them, unless I had a swim meet,” Browne recalled recently over breakfast just a short stroll from the university’s 80,000-capacity stadium. Despite the overcast skies and 50-degree weather outside, Browne was in the gray suit jacket and tailored wool shorts he wears every day. (Every campus, of course, has that one guy who wears shorts year round—it just usually isn’t Thom Browne.)
The designer was visiting his alma mater for the first time in 34 years for a homecoming of his own design. Browne had been invited by the university’s research institute to serve as an artist-in-residence for the academic year; as part of his duties, he was in town to give a lecture to a packed auditorium about the evolution of the gray suit, the building block of his $500+ million tricolore empire. But the real action was going down the next morning on the leaf-strewn south quad, where a few dozen students in striped rugby shirts and thermals were warming up for the biggest scrimmage of the week: the annual Thom Browne football game.
Browne’s obsession with America’s hard-hitting pastime—he follows college ball to this day—started as a family thing: every Thanksgiving, the Brownes of Allentown, Pennsylvania gathered in the front yard for a muddy match of touch football. “Somebody usually got hurt, somebody usually broke something, somebody got pushed over the fence,” said Browne. Fittingly, he has long included varsity motifs in his collections: the sensational opera coats included in his most recent women’s runway show, for example, were emblazoned with football uniform numbers. In 2014, Thom Browne employees gathered in Central Park for their own version of the family tradition, albeit with slightly less pushing. It turned out that a bunch of people playing touch football decked out in Thom Browne’s jockiest gear was almost unbearably photogenic, and the event has since grown into a glorified, glory-filled lookbook shoot starring influencers, models, and editors, as well as a limited edition collection of sideline-ready varsity jackets and striped scarves. (Full disclosure: I threw a couple touchdown passes at the event in 2019.)
Needless to say, internationally renowned fashion designers don’t make it to South Bend very often. “I’m a huge Thom Browne fan,” said Notre Dame junior Dane Truman, who held red and white pom poms alongside his fellow cheerleaders. “Especially at a conservative Catholic school in the midwest, we never get speakers on campus who are so prominent and queer.” Said Browne, “I would have loved for somebody to come to school and say what I was saying, that actually you can do something other than law or medicine. [As a student,] I really had no clue what I wanted to do. My parents were the classic attorneys who were like, Ok, well why don’t you go to law school?”
Browne, for his part, also seemed to relish the opportunity to let loose a gaggle of fashion-skirt-wearing New Yorkers on his alma mater, showcasing his twisted version of the Catholic school uniform at an actual Catholic school. “I couldn’t have taken the chance,” he said, to express himself like this as a student in the late ’80s. “I could have been kicked out of school. The campus would have rioted!” Alongside the locker room, the church has provided Browne with ample sartorial inspiration over the years. “I reference it all the time, whether directly or indirectly. I think there’s something interesting and fun about subverting it and giving it to people in an inappropriate way,” Browne said before the game. One direct way: over a decade ago, he put on a show where hunky priests essentially undressed a procession of nuns. In recent years, Browne has embraced an even keener, queerer sense of provocation, such as at his SS23 men’s show in Paris, which featured ass-revealing trousers, capped off by a cowboy strutting in a bulbous codpiece. “It’s opening peoples’ minds,” Browne said, responding to how his shows might play in Notre Dame’s holier corners. “That’s what I want to do with these shows. I don’t really expect you to like it or want to adopt it for yourself, but I want you to appreciate that it is for someone.”