This is the fourth part of an extended profile of Brooks Brothers, the iconic and influential American clothing company. Click here to read Part 3.
After 114 years, Brooks Brothers opened its first full-sized store outside New York City in 1932. Located on Newbury Street in Boston, today still the retail heart of the city, the Boston Brooks Brothers store became a landmark in its own right.
Though seasonal outlets in The Hampton’s allowed Brooks to follow its customers while they summered away from the stifling summer heat of the city, these temporary shops closed up at the end of the season.
It wasn’t until 1939 that the first Brooks Brothers stores opened on America’s west coast, in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Then, in 1946, Brooks was acquired by Washington, D.C.-based specialty store chain Garfinkel-Rhoads, Inc. The new owners understood what made Brooks tick and wisely left the company to its own devices, rather than mess up a good thing.
1968 marked 150 years of business for Brooks Brothers and the company celebrated by introducing The ‘No. Three’ suit. With slightly squarer shoulders, definite waist accentuation, subtle flair and a deeper center vent, the No. Three added a more fitted style to the Brooks Brothers’ line-up.
The 1970s marked the start of aggressive expansion for Brooks Brothers. By the end of the decade, it had doubled to 26 stores. In 1979, Brooks opened its first Japanese store in Tokyo. Long fans of Brooks Brothers and Ivy League style, Japanese customers were then and remain now more traditional and demanding of quality than many American customers.
In 1981, Allied Stores Corporation bought Brooks and shifted the company’s business focus to one of profit. Brooks Brothers became a commodity. However, the experiment didn’t last very long and in 1988, the company was acquired by British retailer Marks and Spencer. M&S saw in Brooks Brothers an opportunity to leverage an American icon by updating the brand modernizing the product line.
For those who loved Brooks Brothers, this marked the lowest of the lows. In its effort to modernize Brooks Brothers, M&S literally abandoned everything for which the company was known. M&S, a giant of the British retail market, wholly miscalculated Brook’s brand appeal and value proposition and instead attempted to force-feed the company its economies of scale approach.
In a sincere but misguided effort to make the company more modern, M&S instead alienated both Brooks’ staff and its customers.
Suits and ties were out and sportswear was in. The rapid development of bland, interchangeable mall stores quickly took precedence over a rich history of quality and customer service. All of this led to a devaluation of Brooks Brothers’ brand equity. Soon, poor quality control and pedestrian designs -the results of a model focused on cost control and product commoditization – began to validate and then perpetuate the lowered expectations.
Even at the storied 346 Madison Avenue, M&S attempted to stamp its “modern” corporate imprint and sweep away many of the trappings of Brook’s rich history. Fixtures and furnishings from the main sales floor, many priceless and built specifically for the store, had to be secreted away to secure locations by loyal staff after the order came down ordering it all be thrown out; literally.
As marketing strategies and new product development began to chase the emerging dot.com generation, and move away from what made Brooks Brothers so unique, the company began to rapidly lose customers.
THE NEW BROOKS, REBUILDING A CLASSIC
In 2001, a momentous shift in ownership and brand philosophy took place. Marks & Spencer, unable to reinvent Brooks Brothers and hemorrhaging cash, sold the company to Retail Brand Alliance, a privately held group owned by Italian billionaire Claudio del Vecchio.
The of son of Luxottica founder Leonardo del Vecchio, Claudio grew up idolizing Brooks Brothers and watched with dismay as the pillar of classic American style dissolved into a brand chasing after Gap’s customers.
After watching M&S struggle to unload their ailing investment, Del Vecchio snapped up Brooks for US $225 million, a relative bargain at the time. He promptly made it clear that his goal was to return Brooks Brothers to the pinnacle of classic American menswear. One of his first tasks was to delve into the Brooks’ archives for inspiration.
Drawing from that extensive corporate history, Brooks began to refashion itself into a true clothier, blending the best of its past with the creative foresight needed to remain relevant today and in the future.
He deftly fused Brook’s American heritage with European detailing like double vents and higher arm holes on jackets, narrower arm and leg openings and the introduction of luxury fabrics from Italian mills like Loro Piana.
After several years of rebuilding Brooks Brothers’ image and standards of quality, Del Vecchio made an unusual but telling announcement in September 2007. Brooks would be pairing with avant-garde New York designer Thom Browne to collaborate on a new collection, dubbed Black Fleece. Browne would be Brooks Brothers’ first “guest designer.”
The high-end men’s and women’s collection would draw on designs from the Brooks Brothers’ archives but be dramatically reinterpreted for a younger, highly sophisticated crowd. The first of its kind for the company, the project was meant to both highlight the Brooks’ quality and tradition and at the same time pull it into a modern light.
One need only look at the burgeoning “heritage” design movement to appreciate Brooks’ prescient thinking. Brands from L.L. Bean to Gant are now plumbing the depths of their design history for inspiration and instant vintage credibility.
Many long-time customers looked askance as the man behind the shrunken suit produced elegantly quirky takes on classics like the oxford shirt, grey flannel suit and even Roosevelt’s aforementioned classic Navy cape.
The collection drew mostly positive press, though there were significant rumblings from those who felt Browne’s penchant for cropped jackets and high water pants were more costume than clothing. There were also some initial glitches, including delivery problems and soft women’s sales, but overall results were strong enough to keep the relationship in place and extend it through Spring 2011. Now well into that year, the successful arrangement shows no sign of going anywhere.
In fact, Black Fleece received so much critical and commercial success that a freestanding Black Fleece boutique was opened on New York’s Bleeker Street in the winter of 2008. Two other solo outlets followed, in Tokyo and San Francisco.
Also in 2008, Brooks Brothers began an extensive renovation of its 346 Madison Avenue flagship store and closed the moderne glass and steel Fifth Avenue store. Del Vecchio stated that the Fifth Avenue location focused too much on the women’s collection and sportswear. It was another move to regain a focus on classic and elegant menswear. Just recently completed, the renovation reflects the comfortable combination of Brooks’ classic heritage and modern stance.
Seeking to recapture the legitimacy of its historic claim of being a maker and merchant, in 2008 Brooks also purchased the 82 year-old Southwick clothing company. Not only did Brooks Brothers secure dedicated domestic workshops, it preserved a linchpin of American tailoring.
On the day that Southwick relocated to its new purpose-built facility, Claudio Del Vecchio noted that, “Today we celebrate the heritage of the Southwick brand and look to it as a source of inspiration. Here in Haverhill, we are reinventing the Southwick name in this beautiful new space designed to maximize both quality and efficiency. Every corner of this building has been thoughtfully conceived and with investments in state-of-the-art equipment and this dedicated team; Southwick’s best days are not in its archives but still to come.”
That’s not just PR talk – that’s investing in your company, valuing in the people who craft your product and being smart and targeted about vertical integration.
To be continued in Part 5…