346 Madison Avenue

Editor’s note: The following piece, written by Daniel D. Covell, touched me. When I started at NW Ayer in 1986, Brooks Brothers was aspirational. I would go in not to buy, because I couldn’t, but I would go in to know what to aim for. Not all nostalgia is backward thinking as we have been led to believe, and this piece took me right back. I was gonna hunt for pictures, but the piece makes its own.

A few days ago, as I was rifling through a tottering pile of books I needed to consult for an ongoing research project, I noticed a sales receipt that my rummaging had unearthed and caused to fall and to land face-down on the floor next to my desk. I could tell at a glance that it was from Brooks Brothers, as the back was adorned with the brand’s iconic golden fleece logo in a fetching light blue, argyle-like pattern. Nothing out of the ordinary there for a regular patron of the creator of Ivy Style’s landmark No. 1 Sack Suit. 

I leaned over to pick it up, turned it over, and immediately my heart sank. Not because the items were overly expensive and I had acted improvidently. That would have brought on not sadness but golden fleece-induced sheepishness. The receipt reflected a redemption of merchandise credit at Register 16 (with Derek, the salesperson) in the amount of $214.53, and the selection of three items (a pair of navy seersucker trousers and two spring-season shirts; I have no recollection of what I returned) that left a balance of $12.97. I covered it with a $20 bill and got back $7.03 (yes, in bills and pennies). So no buyer’s remorse from that. 

The sadness came from having noticed the date (4/13/18) and the address of the store: 346 Madison Avenue at 44th Street, New York, New York, 10017. This transaction had occurred at the Brooks Brothers flagship store in midtown Manhattan, a place I had visited regularly since my spouse and I had moved to Fairfield County in Connecticut in 2016. 

As noted above, I had been a Brooks customer for years prior to my periodic landmark store visits. My two oldest suits – purchased in the early 1990s – are BBs: a three-button navy pinstripe “Brooks Stretch” with cuffed trousers, and a three-button grey “Brooks Ease,” also with cuffs. When the cooler weather hits (as they are not an insubstantial heft), these suits still come out, and the pinstripe still elicits a few “Nice suit!” comments. My tie rack sports a full complement of the Brooks trademark #1, #2 and #3 rep ties, along with a Brooks Argyle & Sutherland bow tie or two. As fans of the site will recall, my brother Brian worked for a time at the Brooks store in the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, Illinois, and one of my most cherished ties is a blue/silver square-pattered number given to me then by him to mark the completion of my doctoral program. A few Brooks sport jackets and blazers are in the closet as well. A dozen or so shirts and a half-dozen pair of trousers are also in the rotation. 

Most of those would have been purchased at one of Brooks’s many satellite locations across the country (at one time numbering over 200), but it was only in the fall and winter of 2016 when I would have begun to frequent the flagship store (referred to as “Store One” in the company’s accounting system, as Brian told us a few weeks back). During these visits, I would peruse myriad table of ties and shirts displayed on the first floor, then ride the escalator or take the elevator up to floors for kids, ladies, men’s casual wear and shoes, and then, men’s suits. Generations of tailors, trained in the basement, fanned out across BB’s sphere of influence. On my visits Store One was never crowded but customers were always present, and clerks were generally helpful and pleasant. Around the time of the 2018 visit, Brooks was marking its bicentennial, and displays in the store touted this impressive longevity, as did a celebratory display in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall, complete with numerous photos and clothing samples artfully arranged and a coffee table book published by Rizzoli.

The readers of this site will no doubt be familiar with much of backstory about BB’s products and innovations, but maybe less about the brand’s physical locations. Here’s a brief recap:

  • Founded by Henry Sands Brooks in 1818 on the corner of Catherine and Cherry streets with a capital investment of $17,000, a waterfront location he described as “convenient to the Gentry and Seafaring Men alike;” 
  • The change to “Brooks Brothers” in 1835 when his sons inherited the business;
  • The move from custom tailor to ready-made wholesaler in 1849; 
  • The adoption of the golden fleece logo (borrowed from an insignia worn by a band of European medieval knights known for their appealing red and purple velvet robes) along with the move to Broadway and Grand in the 1850s (where a staff of 200 clerks and salespeople worked);
  • BB’s questionable business practices in providing poor-quality uniforms to Union soldiers during the Civil War, for which its’ building was sacked by rioters protesting the draft in 1863; 
  • The move to Union Square in 1869; to Broadway and 22nd in 1884 (just south of Madison Square and right across from where the Flatiron Building would rise a few years later); 
  • The introduction of seersucker (1870), Harris tweed (1900), madras (1902), British foulard and British rep ties and the invention of OCBDs around the turn of last century; 
  • The move in 1915 to a 10-story granite-and-brick slab of a structure at the northwest corner of Madison and 44th following the development of Grand Central Terminal.

Indeed, in Gotham, their 1999 encyclopedic, 1383-page history of New York until 1898, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace mentioned BB no fewer than 11 times. It is arguable that no other retailer in the country – of any kind, not just for menswear – has had as long and remarkable a history. 

The new location made sense not only because of the proximity to Grand Central, but also to the many Ivy university clubs located in the neighborhood. Several still perch there – the Yale Club at 44th and Vanderbilt (also the most recent home for J. Press on the northwest corner spot of the block) and the Cornell, Harvard and Penn clubs a bit further west on 44th. The Princeton Club, on its own on 43rd between 5th and 6th, defaulted on its mortgage lease in 2021 and has faded away. 

The targeting of these schools and their alumni was a standard marketing approach for any upscale menswear company of the day. In my Yale football program research referenced in a post here a few weeks back, I spied a full-page Brooks ad in a program for the 1897 Yale-Princeton game in New Haven. Fans attending this late-November contest at Yale Field (the as-yet-to-be-built Yale Bowl was almost two decades in the future) would have read the ad that touted half- and full-box overcoats, pea jackets, Ulster and storm coats and Inverness cape coats. No fewer than 25 other menswear purveyors also bought ads in the program, including multiple vendors in New York City (Knox hats at 194 5th Avenue, E.W. Emery Tailor at 246 5th, Alfred Nelson & Co. Tailors at 2615th, W.J. Coleman Tailor at 928 Broadway, Barnewall and Eldridge shirtmakers at 8 West 29th Street, Wetzel Sporting and Mufti Tailors at 363 5th, Nicoll at 771 Broadway). In 1922, Brooks took out full-page ad for the Yale-Army game program at the cost of $150 (about $2700 in 2023 dollars) that prominently displayed the Store One building that “was only a step from Grand Central,” and could be reached by telephone by having the operator ring Murray Hill 8800. “The store had an attitude that made you feel you were part of a select group who were smart, privileged and had great futures,” said a woman shopper who graduated from college in the mid-‘50s.

But BB was hardly the only retailer in that commercial enclave. Abercrombie & Fitch was a block further north. J. Press’s NYC stores hovered around the flagship for decades, beginning in 1929 by sliding in next door at 11 East 44th, then across the street on the northeast corner of Madison and 44th in ’34, then back across Madison in ’62 to 16 East 44th, a locale that is now a Le Pain Quotidien where I sometime breakfast after a night’s stay at the Penn Club. Chipp and Paul Stuart decamped nearby as well. Funny that the Andover Shop never ventured further south than Cambridge to plant its flag.

As good as all these other shops were (though I never had the good fortune to drop into Chipp, Langrock or Fenn-Feinstein), and some still are (Paul Stuart is still in its expansive digs on the southwest corner of Madison and 45th), they were part of a constellation in which BB was the sun, and they were satellites in orbits around it. Put another way, they were underdog middleweight prizefighters circling the heavyweight champ looking for that opening to land that a flurry of jabs, or maybe even that one big knockout punch. J. Press may have had Dick Cavett and Frank Sinatra (for a time), Chipp JFK, the Andover Shop Chet Baker and Miles Davis, but Brooks had pretty much everyone else. 

But every champ goes down eventually, and that’s why I was hit with a wash of sadness looking at the receipt. I knew that Store One was gone, finished off by the fallout from the Covid crush of 2020. The building is still there, and the brand still exists of course – on-line and in smaller brick-and-mortar niches like a spot in Rockefeller Center on the corner of 51st and 6th – but 346 Madison is now just a shell, hosting on the ground floor a pop-up confectionary store. The flattened Doric portico, with its two squared and two round Doric columns, complete with “BROOKS BROTHERS” inscribed over the door, still marks 44th Street entrance (there’s also a more understated entrance on Madison), as are the diagonally-shaped leaded pattern on the glass windows that frame the doorway. When I stopped to consider the building recently, I caught notice of something I hadn’t recalled: A wrought iron railing in front of the windows directly over the 44th Street doorway lintel. Although likely only ornamental. one can only wonder who and under what circumstances might someone open the windows and lean out and address passers-by below. Perhaps after a few drinks at the annual Christmas party, after the last last-minute shopper had been ushered out?

On a post on this site from 2019, Christopher Sharp comments on a 1950 article from Coronet magazine, a digest owned by Esquire. The article’s author, Lester David, noted that when the Washington, DC-based Garfinkel’s bought Brooks in 1946, the new owners stated bluntly that BB would not change its approach to style and merchandising, and that “the store is just as emphatic in its refusal to keep pace with current sartorial fads. Not long ago one of its salesmen showed up for work wearing a hand-painted tie. He was taken to task in the next issue of the Brooks house organ. ‘Asked if it were compulsory,’ the editor wrote, ‘the offender replied that a friend gave it to him for Christmas. This did not seem to us to be a complete answer, but we let it go. Perhaps there is nothing to worry about.’”

Sharp summarized the piece thusly: “The amazing thing about Brooks Brothers and its image is how slowly things changed over the years. I believe Brooks Brothers customers over 40 feel some of the old mystique and will recognize something of the Brooks Brothers presented here. This article from the halcyon days of Brooks Brothers is bound to cause some nostalgia, whether for a place remembered but now lost, or for a place one wishes he knew.” 

That observation reminded me that the 2018 Vanderbilt Hall exhibit featured a grey, two-button suit made specifically for Jon Hamm for his role as anti-hero and advertising savant Don Draper in the acclaimed dramatic television series, Mad Men. Brooks also worked with the show’s costumer designer, Jamie Bryant, to create a limited edition suit with period-correct touches like narrow lapels and diagonal pockets, with the intent to give the suit the sharp, trim look of the early ‘60s “without feeling too retro.” That “iconic, beautiful” suit Draper wore, said Bryant, “was a visual symbol of his success.”

In the final episode of the show’s first season, entitled “The Wheel,” Draper makes a pitch to executives from Kodak looking to market their new product, a round device that allows photographic slides to be easily inserted and removed from a projector. “Technology is a glittering lure, but there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged at a level beyond flash – if they have a sentimental bond with the product,” Draper says at the beginning of his presentation. He then cites the wisdom of former boss at a furrier company, an old Greek man named Teddy, who told him that the most important idea in advertising is “new:” “Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion,” says Draper.

But Teddy, said Draper, told him about a deeper bond with product: Nostalgia. “It’s delicate, but potent.” Then, the meeting room lights are dimmed, and Draper activates the machine, which with that telltale seven-beat clicking and shuffling as slides drop into place, shows image after image of Draper and his family, at weddings, birthday parties, at play in their yard. As the slides advance, the screen going black for a second before a new image appears, Draper tells the room that Teddy said the word nostalgia in Greek means literally the pain from an old wound. “A twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone,” continued Draper, and that this device, meant to show images of the past, “isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel. It’s called a carousel. It allows as to travel around and around, to a place we know we are loved.” Kudos to the writers of this episode, Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith, for that soliloquy, and for making me want to believe the actual pitch went down that way. Weiner later explained the connection in using BB as the show’s main outfitter for male cast members, stating that “my theory is that everything exists at once and that people’s taste may stop – as it does with music – in the period that they looked the best … All of these things become personal expressions, and Brooks Brothers had that entire variety for us.” 

But Christopher Sharp’s keen observations on the recreated retro suit underscores the fact that the past can be as much a burden as a benefit, especially in the ever-fluctuating world of fashion. Take a look back at those New York-based companies that advertised in the Yale football program. They’re all gone. For generations Brooks survived and thrived through its innovations and its connection to the Ivy Style market, and for while Brooks was able to thread the needle (apologies to Richard Press) – going backwards and forwards with equal dexterity, expounding on its history and its innovations, much like it did with the Mad Men edition suit.

But eventually its celebrated past became too weighty a burden, and stunted its ability to innovate. Yes, the burden was magnified by the inexorable rise of on-line shopping, multiplied by Covid, which in turn led to changes in work and dress habits. All this was exacerbated by the fact that that part of Manhattan continues to feel the fallout of these changed work habits. Being steps away from Grand Central is no longer a big deal when fewer and fewer people take those steps to work every day in a suit and tie. 

As a result, if one does take those steps today and passes by the shuttered Store One in a suit, one stands out rather than blends in, and even those in a sport jacket, blazer or suit rarely sport a necktie. If you are so clad it appears as if you are an alien who has disembarked from a spaceship/time machine from 1950, landed in Midtown and realized that the Dodgers and Giants are in California, Toots Shor’s, Veau D’Or and the 21 Club are gone too, and that Brooks Brothers is little more than J. Crew with a longer resume. Have I been grievously wounded by the demise of 346 Madison? No. But there is sadness. And it does hurt a little, especially when walking toward Grand Central at the corner of 44th and Madison.

  • Daniel D. Covell

37 Comments on "346 Madison Avenue"

  1. Richard E. Press | August 28, 2023 at 4:00 pm |

    I kindly accept your unneeded apology and in the meantime offer unlimited praise for your thoughtful, meaningful and accurate historical appraisal.

  2. I HAVE been grievously wounded by the demise of 346 Madison🖤 That store represented so much to me. When I moved to Manhattan, my Father, instead of giving me $3000 (which I would’ve spent at China Club) took me there and bought me a few suits, shirts, ties, etc……. I was 19 and the template was set. I loved that place. It seems everything that made New York~New York has faded away.
    Great article. Thank you.

  3. Bill Cariello | August 28, 2023 at 6:05 pm |

    Extremely well done and evocative. If you were commuting from Fairfield County in the 1980s, BB, JPress, and the not mentioned FR Tripler were cheek by jowl as you left Grand Central. There was also an off brand menswear store on Vanderbilt that had great deals on seersucker and poplin, but can’t remember the name. And thanks for the callout on Paul Smith. Out of my reach financially at the time but trad and stylish.

  4. Gosh, that was wonderful. About Brooks, but also about a style of shopping (knowledgeable, professional sales associates in a beautiful environment) that’s drastically curtailed if not basically ended as well. Yes, all the names in the Game program, but, since CT was mentioned prominently, local brick and mortars like G. Fox and Co.

    Thank you for such a wonderful piece.

  5. Brooks Brothers is an institution.

    A long-time salesman in the suit department told me that BB made suits for every single U.S. President except four. (JFK was a Chipp client.)

  6. At least we have something about which to reminisce. As late as 2002, I landed in the ATL, the 404. With no place yet to stay, all my things enroute, a GWOT to plan, and a company Christmas party luncheon right around the corner, which called for “civies”. So I made an appointment with a teacher in my field at a State U downtown. We had a nice visit. I told him my status, not so much a predicament, and asked him where I could find presentable threads. He said, “BB, two blocks up, one block over on Peachtree St”. Two hours later, I had an OTR lambswool tweed sport coat (which fit), a WOCBD, worsted trousers (cuffed in store while I shopped), and a very easy to tie navy and gold necktie…and a BB credit card on the way. That could never happen today, except for the credit card part, of course.

    • Keanu Moore | August 30, 2023 at 12:40 am |

      Surely “GWOT” doesn’t stand for Global War on Terrorism in this context…or does it?

  7. Chris Finegan | August 28, 2023 at 10:04 pm |

    346 Madison was a wonderful place to shop, I miss it dearly. For most of my professional life I wore Brooks Shirts, Ties, Hosiery and accessories almost exclusively and frequented the Madison Ave store often (along with Press) when they announced they were shutting down their American factories for good I ordered 8 OCBDs right away. I don’t wear a suit or button down for work any longer( I work from home these days) but everytime I have a need to dress proper I still have my brooks to reach for. Change isn’t always progress nor is it necessarily good. The loss of these institutions has left parts of Manhattan empty (along with the departure of many great Irish pubs). Well, enough said.

  8. What a treat!

    Two sentences that stood out:

    ”I would go in not to buy, because I couldn’t, but I would go in to know what to aim for.”

    “ If you are so clad it appears as if you are an alien who has disembarked from a spaceship/time machine from 1950”

  9. Southwick (Grieco Bros.) made the clothing for (Brooks for) Mad Men. A few models (designs) were used, including but not limited to Douglas, Warwick, Cambridge, and Dorset. Some of the models, such as Roger’s vested 3-button sack suits (paired with safety pinned club collars and foulards) and Duck’s flannel chalkstripes (accompanied by tattersall vests and wool challis) prints, featured an extremely soft-and-narrow shoulder that called to mind the old Southwick “Superflex” (circa 1930s and 40s).

    Southwick was the preferred manufacturer (MTM and OTR) of legendary retail outposts including The Andover Shop, Max’s Men’s Store, ELJO’s, and H. Stockton, as well as Langrock (Princeton), Adler (D.C.), and Cable Car (S.F.). Ben Silver worked with Southwick for a lot of the 90s (eventually, like J. Press, making the move to Canadian manufacturers), and, as I suspect we all know, Southwick was the O’ Connell family’s go-to.

    With due respect to the retailers, the story of Ivy style in America is defined, in large part, by the gospel of Southwick (Grieco Bros.) We recall that J. Press used them for long while (all of my favorite J. Press suits and blazers are the latter-day Southwick makes). Brooks saved Southwick from a downward spiral, operations and building, and, reciprocally, the Southwick cutters and sewers persevered in their craft(s).

    The best natural shouldered made-in-America operation is presently led by the former steward of … Southwick. They’re serving O’ Connell’s and Polo Ralph Lauren, among others. The jacket shoulder, sloping, unpadded, and rounded, is something to behold. Better, I’ll venture, than the old Warwick. Which is saying something. The spirit of Southwick (Brooks) lives on.

    • Very cool – thanks
      I went into Cable Car a few years back – wished I’d bought more there at the time.

  10. The Amazing Tom | August 29, 2023 at 7:07 am |

    One reason stores switched to Canada is the US tariff on fabric. Twenty five percent.

  11. whiskeydent | August 29, 2023 at 9:05 am |

    This piece made me nostalgic for a place I never entered.

  12. Aside but related: the late 90s and early 2000s were so very not good for the soft, sloping naturalness of the famed J. Press shoulder. Made in the U.S.A. but I wonder by whom (HSF? Oritsky?), as there were a dozen or more years of pointed paddedness on/at the shoulders.. The ‘Southwick-For-Squeeze’ jackets, blazers, and suits circa ‘05 to just a few years ago are gems. If you can find one, consider yourself lucky (blessed).

  13. Indeed, I might as well have been a time traveler from three+ decades ago walking across campus to a cafe in campus town this morning and back again two hours later. Of course, there are deans and provosts of one kind or another here who still dress thusly, plus a few female (identifying) faculty and staff, who manage to avoid THE FRUMP, but fewer and fewer the further we move into the 21st century. It’s such a shame that people in general no longer seem to aspire to something more than the bare minimum. In much of anything.

    Keeping the Faith,


  14. Poison Ivy Leaguer | August 29, 2023 at 12:57 pm |

    When I started shopping at Brooks Brothers on the mid 60’s. Southwick made the 346 line which was the “Buick”. The “Cadillac” was “Own Make” which was literally true in those days.

  15. Brian Covell | August 29, 2023 at 1:37 pm |

    Due to reverence for the brand and loquacity of our reminiscences, it strikes me that that Dr. Dan and I have become the “Brooks brothers” personified—at least for the purposes of this always-enlightening blog!

  16. Lovely article. Imagine us who started shopping there in the 80s.
    The real cause of the demise of Brooks was it’s insane purchase by Marks and Spencer circa 1990. It overpaid so much that BB continued a downward spiral of expansion and lowered quality trying to attract a customer base that would cover the cost of its financial folly.
    Brooks would have done just fine if it had stuck with 20-30 stores in major urban markets, selling to its upper middle class base and earning a tidy profit.

  17. Charlottesville | August 29, 2023 at 1:53 pm |

    Thank you, Mr. Covell, for your wonderful, well-written post. I too feel a pang when I think of the closing of the Madison Avenue flagship store, which for a lot of us really was “Store Number 1.” Like you I recall the escalator rides from Tom Davis’ first floor shirt counter to the suit department above. I still wear the No. 1 sack suits and sport coats that I began buying there in the mid to late 80s, fresh from school and finally able to afford them (a 3-decade-old blue and white pincord today). And, also like you, I still get complimented on them. That scene from Mad Men was a classic as well, and the perfect illustration to choose for this most nostalgic piece. Bravo. More, please.

  18. AtlantaPete | August 29, 2023 at 4:51 pm |

    Hardbopper’s comment brought a host of memories. In 1968 I went from the bar exam to Brooks on Peachtree for my first MTM suit and for the next 25 years Brooks on Peachtree was the source for most of my attire. Nick Fiorello, the head tailor, had been trained in New York and was supurb. John Hart and Bill Manry, both retired career military officers, were the two sales people I dealt with and they knew the merchandise. What a contrast to what BB became as a mass merchandiser that seemed to focus on mall locations rather than free standing stores.

  19. Keanu Moore | August 30, 2023 at 12:59 am |

    I’m 27 and Brooks is one of my favorite brands. My wardrobe is pretty much just them, Press, and a smattering of others. I hope it sticks around another 200+ years despite the turn to casual wear 🙂

  20. A really excellent article; I particularly enjoyed it.

    I think BB is an exemplary story of how a brand cannot change too much without losing its value but, at the same time, can be left behind by changing cultural or technological standards.

  21. Great article. I’ve come full circle now. Langrock, The Princeton Club and 346 all closed.

  22. Gary Glazer | August 30, 2023 at 4:01 pm |

    I remember walking into Store One as a sixteen year old visiting New York in August 1966 from Ohio.I had saved money from my first summer job cleaning dishes off tables in a restaurant and bought two pin stripe shirts, a repp tie, a pumpkin colored crew neck sweater and some BB lemon/lime soap. I remember the experience like it was yesterday. The sales staff treated me like I shopped there everyday. The store sparkled. Its demise was a terrible loss on many levels-but I did get to see it. It was every bit as magnificent as described in this very fine article.As the song notes,I know because I was there.

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