The man who dressed Michelle Obama

January 25, 2013, 10:43 PM UTC

Thom Browne isn’t the most famous person to come out of Allentown, Pa.—that would be automotive industry icon Lee Iacocca. But the New York fashion designer had his dose of fame this week.

When Michelle Obama and the President stepped out of their limousine on Inauguration Day morning, people were talking about the First Lady’s sleek, checkered navy coat. The man who designed Mrs. Obama’s outfit is Browne, who hails from my hometown and has a career story that offers lessons that could apply to anyone.

Be true to yourself—that’s one lesson in Browne’s success story. One of seven children in an athletic and achievement-oriented Catholic family, Tommy Browne, as he was known back then, grew up next door to my closest friend from high school. Browne’s dad headed a local finance company, Finance America, that was owned by Bank of America and later by Chrysler. His mom was a lawyer who took 20 years off to raise the kids. “My parents always told us, ‘Regardless of what you want to do, you need to be true to yourself—and try to be the best at it,’” says Browne, now 46.

His siblings grew to be lawyers and doctors—Browne has one brother, Mike, who is a New York banker and another, Pat, who is a Republican member of the Pennsylvania State Senate. Thom was the oddball. At Notre Dame, where he majored in business, “I was one of the many kids who had no clue what I wanted to do,” he recalls. After graduating in 1988, Browne moved to Los Angeles, tried to make it as an actor and spent his spare time collecting and restructuring vintage clothes, which he would wear around LA. Not succeeding as an actor, he moved to New York in 1997 and got a job selling in Giorgio Armani’s showroom.

This was Browne’s break into fashion. “I am here because I was open to doing a lot of things and meeting a lot of people,” he says about his rise through the industry. “And I was serious about learning how to do things.”

When he moved to Club Monaco, owned by Ralph Lauren , he learned from Ralph how to build an iconic lifestyle brand—“how to create a world that will be forever,” he says.

Photo credit: Circe

Browne left Club Monaco and started his own label out of his apartment in 2001. Thom Browne, the brand, still isn’t well-known in middle America—his clothes are sold in just 119 stores around the world, plus Brooks Brothers, and his company, which employs about 30 people, owns one retail shop in downtown Manhattan and is due to open a second, in Tokyo, in March.

But Thom Browne, the brand, is iconic because his core product, men’s suits, are different from other designers’. Structured with strikingly short pants—as Browne is wearing in the picture on the left—his menswear has attracted both ridicule (the suits are Pee Wee Herman-like, some critics say) and the fashion industry’s most prestigious awards.

Browne started selling women’s apparel two years ago. While the clothes are form-fitting, he says he designs to make women look “feminine and beautiful. I don’t want it to look like a women in a man’s suit.”

Of course, with Mrs. Obama wearing his coat and dress ensemble—a design inspired by a man’s silk tie, Browne says–the man from Allentown is at a career high. He’s fine with the barbs as well as the kudos because his individuality, he realizes, has earned him his fame. Browne’s best advice to young people who hope to be as influential as he is someday? “Have a real clear point of view, and make sure it’s a unique point of view,” he says.

Click here to read my Postcard on another star of the fashion industry, Tory Burch, whom I interviewed last week at Stanford. And check Postcards for more to come on Burch.