A friend of mine used to say that a blue Brooks Brothers suit is like a refrigerator. When you become an adult, you buy one. When it wears out, you buy another. And so on until one of them outlives you.
For a particular type of man — my sort — this remains true. I was married in Brooks Brothers, and I’d be willing to bet my father was too. The power of this ancient, starchy, Anglophile, Ivy League-ish brand has for north-eastern, professional-class American males of my generation is hard to fully explain. But part of it is that the Brooks was once simultaneously standard kit (a set of tools issued for grown-up living) and special (the stuff was pricey and high quality, and going into the stores was a big deal).
That is all over now, though. The suit, and the conception of masculine adulthood that went with it, has been shoved into the corners of American life — interviews and funerals mostly. Such is the challenge facing Ken Ohashi and Michael Bastian, who have recently become chief executive and creative director of the brand following its purchase out of bankruptcy by Authentic Brands and Simon Property Group.
Their problem is bigger than the near-obsolescence of the brand’s core product. The company wildly overexpanded before it ran into trouble, adding hundreds of branches and lots of low-to-middling quality products. The item that came to define it was a machine-washable, non-iron shirt, usually bought in three-for-$150 sales.
It’s a practical item, of which I owned several, but nothing special about it. The mass-marketisation of Brooks Brothers, which took place over decades, ultimately overwhelmed the efforts of several good designers it employed, notably Thom Browne, and an otherwise smart and committed owner, Claudio Del Vecchio.
What, then, are Ohashi and Bastian to do? Clearly, if the brand is to regain its former power, it has to get smaller, improve quality and charge more money. This may not be possible. I don’t know what return the new owners demand on the $325m investment. Perhaps the only way to meet those demands is to be a mid-market sportswear brand with a preppy flavour. Certainly, Simon Property Group, a mall owner, will want to fill real estate. But such a business would have nothing to do with what the business once stood for.
What might a successful, classically American menswear store look like at this point in history? Is there room for something that is neither luxury boutique nor mall retailer? Here are some (possibly fantastical) ideas:
Reduce the number of products, but put more effort into getting each item right. Brooks’ Madison Avenue store can seem like an Encyclopaedia of Adequate Things. Do some choosing for me, please.
It would take the bet that when most men will own only one suit, they will pay more for a good one that really fits. It would sell them in even and odd chest sizes (ie no skipping from 42 to 44) and extra-shorts and extra-longs.
It would live or die on three items: shirts, shoes and outerwear. Shirts are what we are seen in at work every day; shoes are the one thing most men are prepared to spend on, because they last; coats and jackets are an area where (for reasons I don’t quite understand) more men are willing to try interesting things.
Its shoes will come from England (as Brooks’ used to do), and will be mostly derbies and brogues, not Oxfords. Oxfords are like suits at this point. No one needs more than one pair (in black).
The shirts come at one price point: upper-middle. When I buy a Brooks Brothers shirt, I need to know it will look good and last, but I don’t need luxury and I won’t pay luxury prices.
On trousers, it would give men semi-casual options that are not khakis, which are awful.
Share your suggestions
What are your ideas for bringing Brooks Brothers back from the brink? Post your comments below
It would not try to sell me $300 sweaters.
The accessories counter (socks, belts, watch bands, cufflinks) would be fun and change a lot.
It would have a rotating store within a store, where young designers and companies get some distribution, and the parent gets some inspiration.
Finally, its signature items would be made in America. I think this is important for romantic reasons of my own, but it might also let management have more control over quality and style. Again, this may be impossible. Brooks shuttered its last three US factories in the run-up to the bankruptcy. The equipment is probably sold off and the workers dispersed. But for a distinctly American brand, made in the USA has to be the goal.
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