A Brooks Tale

Editor’s Note: Reprinted with permission from the FB group by member Jim Moore, who is an English Teacher and Squash Coach at Blair Academy. That’s him pictured.

It is almost too easy to pile on to Brooks Brothers these days; we all, it seems, have a story about how this once great firm, to whose standards we aspired, on whom we relied, has lost its way, shifting its attention from its core patrons to a fickle market. And yet, we still tell those stories, still take offense, shouting, as it were, into the wilderness (or at least cyberspace), as if someone at Corporate might hear and, thinking it over, might decide that they should, say, train the salespeople how to dress properly, or that the margins they might make on logoed hoodies are not worth the damage to the brand displaying those items at the front of the store might cause. The truth is, we’ve been jilted by Brooks, and because we still have feelings for it, sometimes, if we’re in the neighborhood, we drop in, to look at how it’s doing, and, maybe, to see if it still might harbor some feelings for us.

It doesn’t. We need to get over it. Let me explain.

As I switched out the cottons, linens, and frescos for the woolens last week, it became apparent that it was time for a new pair of grey flannels. I’m a tough size, so it’s important for me to buy my tailoring at a shop; alas, the folks who get most of my custom these days– O’Connell’s, Press, Juniors– are a fair hike from where I live, and my visits to them require more time than I had. But I don’t live far from a Brooks outpost, which resides in a pleasant outdoor mall, so I made the trip there just to see; they advertised grey flannels on the website, a fairly standard item that I had purchased from Brooks before.

I should have kept walking to Starbucks when I saw the Brooks window display. To be sure, I didn’t expect the level of creativity and attention to detail in the Paul Stuart windows lining that block of Madison Avenue, but how hard can it be to find a suit in the back room that fits the mannequin?

I was there, though, so I entered and was almost immediately approached by an admittedly chipper and well-groomed young man who, while not in a suit, was attired in what some call Smart Casual: OCBD, quilted vest, khakis. I asked after the flannels, and he laughed.

“No, we don’t have anything like that here.”

“No grey flannels?”

“No, definitely not.” He was grinning, though a bit bemused. “We do have some flannel shirts, though.”

Now I understood: he thought I was asking about cotton flannel, the fabric of which the Bean’s down at the other end of the mall had stacks, in fetching plaids. “Who wears cotton flannel pants?” he must have been thinking. “Ha ha.”

“I’m talking about wool flannels. They’re trousers. To be tailored.” I was going to explain that one wears them with blazers and Odd Jackets, or perhaps, at Sunday brunch, with a Viyella shirt and Shetland sweater, but I knew that would lead only to further confusion. I did learn, for this lad was eager, that there were some “finished” wool trousers in another room, so I went to see; those items were, alas, already hemmed and looked, frankly, cheap. As there was no evidence in the establishment of an actual tailor, I realized that this store was one step up from the Gap, a sort of J. Crew without the panache and sense of fun.

I excused myself and wandered toward the door, pausing at a table of soft crew neck sweaters whose colors might have passed muster at Ben Silver. They could still do it, I thought, if they wanted to. (We are, after all, possessed of Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope.”) Then the manager came over and explained that this store didn’t get the good stuff, that if I were to go to the larger malls, the Brooks stores there would likely have more of what I was looking for. (The sales clerk helpfully added that a men’s store in a nearby town catered to the more “niche” clientele, of which I was evidently a member.)

“So is this an outlet store?”

“Oh, no, this is retail.” (This just confused me further.) “It’s just that the flagships get the stuff you’re looking for.”

They were pleasant enough, but I knew I wouldn’t head to the malls that day, if ever. The whiff of decay I had picked up one day a couple of decades ago, when the neurasthenic approach of a salesclerk in what used to be the very fine Brooks on Walnut in Philadelphia scotched his chance to sell me an entire set of dinner clothes, I knew now had been the harbinger of the long, slow death of something that seemed as if it would be there for us forever.

And yet… and yet. And yet, I couldn’t help but think about Lazarus and phoenixes rising from ashes. Might it be possible for Brooks to once again delight its customers, even as they instruct; might they lead?

Then, as I walked out the door, I turned back to consider one of those Shetlands. I picked it up and saw, on the left chest, an embroidered Golden Fleece logo. I put it back down.

Perhaps Brooks will rise again, but not on my dime.

17 Comments on "A Brooks Tale"

  1. “Neurasthenic”. Thank for augmenting my vocabulary, Jim.

    If only O’Connell’s, Press, and Juniors were but a fair hike away for me.

    • They’re a fair flight for me. I therefore have become an online purchaser from all three with mostly good results. I hate the guesswork and returns, but dems da breaks.

  2. I fully agree with the article… no that Press has left Cambridge I am still fortunate enough to be close enough to The Andover Shop to be my go to store for all things Ivy.. Rest in Peace Brooks Brothers

  3. Well written!

    I’ve needed to explain things to chipper and well-groomed employees at my local Brooks as well. Have not been back in quite a while.

    I like to run up to DC for J Press tailoring. Mostly an online customer of J Press and Andover these days.

  4. It’s far too easy to blame the “higher up’s” at Brooks. I’ve indulged in this clumsy habit, to be sure — of judging and condemning the recent owners (the past few decades) and the multitude of designers and hipster(ish) “brand consultants” they’ve hired — always in hopes of renewal and resurrection, chasing that seductive siren “innovation.” Truth be known, they’ve (merely) been doing what business-minded merchants are trained like (as seals at a zoo might be) to do: “prioritize profits” by giving the hoards of customers (actual and potential) what it seems (??) they’re asking for.

    Indeed, a more thoughtful analysis reveals another culprit: the people. Not, mind you, the masses who never had good reasons to care about Scottish Shetland crewnecks, West of England flannel bottoms, Cheviot suitings, or Irish Donegal tweed sport jackets. Let’s be honest: Brooks didn’t bother with considerations of/about, say, high school educated plumbers in Muncie or even accountants in up-and-coming Fort Worth. Who could blame them? Their congregations of devoted adherents, residents of Greenwich, Darien, Short Hills, Bernardsville, and Brookville, were sure-and-certain. A cloistered community. Alas, Ivy was not for everyone. It is forever the uniform of a small, elite once-upon-a-time Establishment.

    I am referring to that lot, the sons and daughters of WASPy presbyters and vestrymen, who were called upon (and educated) to maintain traditions having to do with high standards and decorum Anglophile-ish observances and gritty, old-fashioned “shoulders back, chin high, back straightened” stoicism, but instead opted for the relaxed, the cheap-and-easy, the slipshod, and the bohemian. Mainline Protestantism, the wellspring of the Brooksy aesthetic, is dying a slow yet dignified death, stiff-upper-lipping to the last breath. By God. Are we surprised that this demise is accompanied by the spirited announcement that “Hey!—Every day is casual Friday!”

    “Baby Boomers” are blamed for a heck of a lot, not infrequently the manner in which they, as a generation, collectively bid fond farewells to, well, manners. Their progeny drank from that rotting font of “we can do better,” and, well, uh…here we are.

    Old Brooks Style is now what it always was: the style favored by traditionalists of certain stripe. It’s just that nowadays, there are far fewer of them — us, that is. They (we) shop at the four or maybe five stores, most family owned, that give a damn — as a good shepherd tends a flock. Brooks Brothers is dead; Long live Brooks Brothers.

  5. Charlottesville | October 24, 2023 at 3:42 pm |

    Sad but true. The decline was long, but I fear is now complete. I am thankful for a closet that is still fairly well stocked with Brooks and Press clothing acquired over the past decades, and for the continued excellence of Press, and a handful of other merchants who can still supply “the good stuff.”

  6. Jim your article was right on target and so true.

  7. Hmmm. The Brooks store at the Promenade Shops in Center Valley, PA? With LL Bean a few yards away? Walked by a thousand times, never felt the urge to go in. I don’t even shop at Bean’s any more, the quality isn’t what it used to be

  8. Poison Ivy Leaguer | October 25, 2023 at 10:41 am |

    Do y’all think that maybe it’s time to stop beating this dead horse?

  9. whiskeydent | October 25, 2023 at 2:36 pm |

    I wonder if the decaying carcass of Brooks Brothers has fertilized growth in online sales for J Press, O’Connells, the Andover Shop, and other Ivy-related brands. Perhaps that’s the one positive from BB’s demise.

    • Charlottesville | October 25, 2023 at 3:22 pm |

      Good point, Whiskeydent. I owe my own multi-decade loyalty to J. Press to the discovery that I could no longer consistently find what I wanted at Brooks. Thankfully, Press opened their Washington store at around the same time, so the long decline and fall of Brooks is not as painful as it would have been.

  10. Keanu Moore | October 27, 2023 at 4:10 am |

    Their monogram shirts still slap tho, I proudly have 6 of them 🙂

  11. MacMcConnell | October 27, 2023 at 11:49 pm |

    Brooks Brothers didn’t come to Kansas City on the Country Club Plaza as Ivy missionaries, they came to tap a market that was already here and had been since 1950.
    Half a block away was Jack Henry’s Club Shop. A block away was the Mister Guy flagship store. I know we all knew the historical significance of Brooks Brothers, but I don’t think the quality or the selection was any better than our home grown shops. Plus you had a personal relationship with the local shops after decades of being outfitted there.
    Looking back, I can only think of four things I bought from Brooks, in 1967 a blue university stripe OCBD at a trunk showing in KC. The Brooks salesman kept calling it a candy stripe, I kept calling it a university stripe, we both thought the other was a moron in a cordial way. In the KC Brooks I bought a pair of Alden #8 shell penny loafers and two standard Brook rep ties. I did spend a fortune on boat load of Brooks women’s executive suits.
    Sadly Covid lock downs took their toll on our Ivy men’s shops. I now shop online at O’Connells and have purchased a few jackets from Press. I may give Andover a shot, pre-internet I did buy a few items from their catalog. Unlike Brooks’ artsy interpretations of the goods, Andover had images.

  12. Michael Powell | October 30, 2023 at 9:29 pm |

    After reading the story, I got on Ebay and bought a pair of gray flannels. Got them today and I loved them. Thanks a lot… now I’ve got to go get a gray flannel suit.

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