Consider: Brooks Brothers
From Shoddy to Shipshape to Shutdown
Our talented editor suggested considering the retailer Brooks Brothers after listening to Avery Trufelman’s superlative podcast, Articles of Interest. The podcast is an engaging overview of preppy style and how it has morphed over time. We both highly recommend giving it a listen to accompany today’s newsletter. If you have any suggestions for future topics, hit reply and let me know!
One of my longest-term relationships has been with The Golden Fleece. On my first business trip to New York City I carved out time to do my own personal “prep” tour. Starting at J. Press (where I purchased a knit tie, ribbon belt and school scarf; the greatest number of items I could get within my budget), I walked north to Paul Stuart (where I could not afford a single thing) and stopped off at 346 Madison Ave, the since-closed Brooks Brothers flagship store. It was six stories of walnut panelling, and even had the jacket that Lincoln wore at his second inauguration (and was also wearing when he was assassinated), which was displayed inside-out to show off the embroidery on the lining that contained an intricately embroidered eagle and the inscription, “One Country, One Destiny”. My purchases included a blue and pink tie and a couple of their Black Fleece shirts. It would continue to be my go-to shirt for years, and my Brooks Brothers salesperson was one of the first to know when I was thinking of proposing. (Formal wear went on sale in Jan/Feb and I wanted to get that discount on the Black Fleece Tuxedo.)
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Since then, all three companies have undergone some form of bankruptcy or ownership change. Considered is normally a study of things things and places that have endured, and a study of failed menswear stores doesn’t seem to fit the bill. However, learning more about these companies, and Brooks Brothers in particular, paints a much more interesting picture than simply “business casual killed Brooks Brothers.” Through its centuries-long history, there are lessons to be learned about understanding and adapting to change.
Originally a family business, Brooks Brothers was started in 1818 in Manhattan and it was the innovation of “ready-to-wear” that drove their success. Clothing had traditionally been made by a tailor, seamstress or someone in the household from raw cloth to fit an individual’s proportions. In 1811, 2/3 of all garments worn by Americans were homemade. The war of 1812 saw the introduction of “mass” produced uniforms. The mass is an exaggeration because all of the stitching still needed to be done by hand and the garments tended to be one size, needing to be tailored by the wearer to their individual proportions.
The combination of the availability of sewing machines, the rise of piecework clothing manufacturing and the repurposing of Civil War production growth led to widespread adoption of ready-to-wear (vs made-to-measure) clothing. Brooks Brothers was awarded an initial contract for 12,000 uniforms just two weeks after the war was declared. Wool was in such short supply that they used glued-together frayed rags for many of the uniforms (leading to the creation of the term “shoddy” and a fine from the NY state legislature for war profiteering).
By 1861, Brooks Brothers was producing more than 36,000 uniforms a year. Until the 1860’s, the majority of ready-to-wear clothing was made for soldiers, sailors and slaves. Slave owners found it was cheaper to purchase the clothes rather than have their slaves manufacture them. For soldiers, the uniforms were made available in a predetermined set of sizes (based on the averages of soldier measurements), which was a first. Printed paper patterns in various sizes for cutting cloth were first produced in 1863 by a New England tailor named Ebenezer Butterick.
In the 1860s, the sewing machine started to become widely available. The combination of experienced manufacturing, sewing machines and patterns allowed Brooks Brothers to transition easily into the leader in ready-to-wear men’s clothing.
The company continued to grow and innovate under family ownership, launching the seersucker suit in 1870. It had a cotton weave that was similar to corduroy, with the ridges cutting the amount of fabric that came in contact with your skin by half .
Their most famous item is the Oxford Cloth Button Down, or, the Polo shirt. John E. Brooks noticed that polo players had buttonholes sewn into their collar tips and buttons on their shirt plackets, so he produced a similar shirt in 1896 for mass consumption. It has since become one of the defining pieces of the American wardrobe.
Other innovations include the introduction of madras fabrics, the repp tie, block printed silks, and adding polyester to cotton weaves to create “no-wrinkle fabrics.”
Fun fact: it was not until 2003 that the company produced black suits! The popular story is that it was out of respect for their customer Abraham Lincoln, who was shot in a black Brooks Brothers suit (and the aforementioned jacket over top). The more realistic explanation is that black suits were not popular amongst their customers as they were more often used as livery (servant’s uniforms).
The family sold the business in 1946 to Julius Garfinckel & Co., who kept it fairly regional, growing to only 11 locations and a mail-order business by the time they sold it in 1971. The company continued to change hands over the years, including a stint of ownership by the UK based Marks & Spencer. At the time of its bankruptcy, Brooks Brothers had roughly 250 stores in the United States alone, and nearly half of them were outlets. Showing the bad decisions that led to too much growth, only 40 of those stores were responsible for 80 percent of sales.
So what went wrong? Given that J. Press and Paul Stuart also stumbled, was it a sector-wide shift in dress and attitude? That is the commonly accepted answer. My personal opinion is that these brands shifted from being known for innovation (meeting the unmet needs of your customers) to tradition (meeting the same needs of their customers). Brooks Brothers is understood to be stuffy and traditional now, but for over 100 years they were extremely influential in how people dressed. The company introduced new products that people needed, like sportswear. They innovated with fabrics, like seersucker, madras and tweed.
The company came under ownership of the Authentic Brands Group in 2020. They brought on Michael Bastian, a menswear designer known for his work with heritage brands like GANT. Bastian was nominated in 2011 for the CFDA Award for Best Menswear Designer, but lost to Thom Browne, a former Brooks Brothers collaborator. Hopefully he can reignite some of that magic.
J. Press looks to be undergoing a renaissance of their own. A new New York City location (inside the Yale Club) and a new location in New Haven, CT mean that there will always be a supply of Shaggy Dog Sweaters. I am wearing one while I write this!
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