Accidental Tourist: An M&S Exec At 346 Madison Avenue

Last evening I was taking a golf lesson at Brooks Brothers when a vacationing gentleman stopped by to check out the high-tech simulator.

By a happy accident it turned out to be a former executive for Marks & Spencer, the English department-store chain that bought Brooks in 1988 and went about dismantling it, starting with the staircase.

The gent was one of the M&S guys who was sent to New York to manage Brooks. When I told him I would be very interested in interviewing him, specifically noting with a wry smile that my readers consider Marks & Spencer the devil incarnate, he didn’t exactly say yes but he didn’t say no either. His wife encouraged him but perhaps he’s enjoying his retirement and would rather talk about golf. He has my card, so we’ll see.

He did, however, offer a gentle defense of Marks & Spencer’s strategy at the time by saying that there was a joke among the management team that whenever a hearse went by they’d say, “There goes another customer.” They believed they were losing customers faster than they were being replaced and had to do something to save the company. Their efforts failed, of course, and they ended up selling the company at a loss.

The gentleman, who resides in London and was visiting New York for the holidays, did offer one more interesting anecdote. In the ’80s there was still plenty of old-school snobbery among the sales staff, he said, who wouldn’t wait on somebody if he didn’t look right. One particular guy, who was “fat and sweaty,” eventually took his case all the way to the company president, saying that he wanted to be a Brooks customer but never felt welcomed in the store. The president ended up waiting on him personally and the man turned out to be the company’s number-one customer, spending tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Snooty salespeople are more charming in theory than practice, and I’m very happy to have a regular guy on the third floor to ring up my purchases. He knows my name and always has a friendly smile, even when I just pop in to grab the driver and make a bunch of noise. — CC

15 Comments on "Accidental Tourist: An M&S Exec At 346 Madison Avenue"

  1. I was just in BB the other day and saw the golf pro (?) waiting to dole out instruction and guidance.
    Perhaps he was waiting for you, Christian?
    I do hope that the M&S executive gets back to you, even if for just sharing a few more anecdotes.

  2. Christian – what a stroke of luck with the M&S exec! More than anyone online Ivy Style delivers – 1st Richard Press, now hopefully some Brooks Brothers inside scoop. Good luck & Merry Christmas!

  3. Richard Meyer | December 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |

    M&S ruined Brooks- end of discussion.

  4. @Rıchard Meyer

    Brooks was indeed better before M&S, but they stıll produce the only necktıes I can wear–far more substantial than the flimsy J. Press ties–and their current shirts–even the non-iron ones–are still my favorites.

  5. Richard Meyer | December 25, 2012 at 5:18 am |

    @ Candy Stripe: The ties are infinitely worse than the old BB, and, IMHO, than the current J. Press-and there’s no comparison between the old BB buttondowns and the new. Try Mercer or the Troy Guild from Press for a good buttondown. And as for no-iron shirts……just say no!!

  6. perhaps because i am not of means, nor come from a family who is, I regularly find the brooks sales people to be a bit snooty. they do not seem interested in taking care of me. i wear the extra slim fit oxfords religiously and have taken to only buying them online.

  7. @ Richard Meyer

    I’m too young to remember BB ties of the past, but I certainly agree with Candy Stripe that the ones they sell now are far more substantial than Press ties and produce a far better knot. As far as non-iron Oxfords are concerned, as other commenters have previously noted, they do, in fact, need some ironing. In any case they provide a far neater appearance than the “regular” ones. One can never get the collars or plackets on traditional OCBDs to look right, even with the most powerful steam irons and starch.

  8. Richard Meyer | December 26, 2012 at 4:18 am |

    @ Candy Stripe and Brooksman: I am sorry you did not experience the real BB, before M&S bought and ruined it. Then you would understand what I’m saying to you. The current store,other than some of its footwear and underwear/ pajama offerings, does not compare in quality or taste to the original. I find the shiny ties and Malaysian shirts to be especially egregious.

  9. Somehow, in spite of several trips to the UK over the past few decades, I never made it into a Marks & Spencer dept. store. I’d heard of the company, but, except for a touristic jaunt to Harrod’s where I came away with a Black Watch cashmere scarf, I kept my clothing forays to only small shops. And the States have a plethora of dept. stores all along the quality spectrum. In 2000 I was in Hong Kong, and happened to pass by an M&S store in Central, where I decided to have a look-see as I had become familiar with the M&S debacle at Brooks. The door of this location opened into the men’s dept., and it took me only a minute to determine that the parent’s quality was on par with Macy’s and J.C. Penney rather than Bullock’s Wilshire or J.W. Robinson’s (I live in SoCal, and these two fine stores are now long gone, gobbled up by Macy’s).

    “Their efforts failed, of course, and they ended up selling the company at a loss.” It does seem obligatory that Brit business investments in the States fail. Yet again in the news is HSBC (formerly The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp.) which bought in the late 1980’s Marine Midland thinking it a cash cow only to discover significant third-world debt and irregularities. To recoup losses, they sold off profitable ancillary subsidiaries (rather similar to M&S actions at Brooks Brothers). If the “formerly of M&S” exec calls you, there might be an excellent anecdote, though, like Brooks today, I doubt there will be any enlightenment.

  10. Marks and Sparksman | December 29, 2012 at 12:05 am |


    It was thanks to M&S that generations of Englishmen were able to afford Harris Tweed jackets.

  11. Holger Czukay | December 29, 2012 at 2:38 am |

    You chaps need to get your timelines correct. The moving of production out of the USA happened before M+S bought into the company.
    In fact the new management went back out to find some of the old suppliers to Brooks with a plan to launch a ‘Made in the USA’ range in the parent companies UK stores.
    Only a shirt range made it on to the shelves as many of the old suppliers refused to work with them, following Brooks poor treatment of them before the takeover.

  12. Frankly, I’d much rather be ignored by a salesman than run the gauntlet of floor staff in the Chicago LaSalle Street Brooks store. Within a minute of walking in, you’ll be accosted by at least 3 different salesmen. Sometimes, I’d just like to browse in peace. I’m at the point where I only go there when I absolutely need something and know exactly what it is. I’d probably buy a lot more there if I was given the time to actually check out the merchandise.

    This isn’t a criticism of the staff, but rather of the compensation and management model that promotes this over-eager and intrusive salesmanship.

    (PS: I’m also ticked about the fact that if I want to buy a must-iron buttondown, they have to bring it out from storage, and even then my choices are limited to 3 colors. That is, of course, a whole ‘nother topic…)

  13. @John

    Your statement “… I only go there when I absolutely need something and know exactly what it is” certainly ‘resonates’ with me 🙂

  14. James Reasoner | December 31, 2012 at 10:48 am |


    But there are only three purist OCBD colors: blue, white, and white with blue candy stripes. All the rest (pink, yellow, et cetera) are Preppy, rather than Ivy.

  15. Rich Arnold | May 4, 2014 at 8:07 pm |

    I read this article with great interest. Anyone who never experienced the BB of the 60s and 70s have no clue to BB quality. Yes, the salesmen were snobbish, but once they got to know u service was great. I am an expert on BB of that era. I and my friends wore everything BB from shoes to socks, underwear, shirts ( loved the Oxford cloth which you will never see the likes of again), ties, suits, hats, overcoats etc. Believe it or not I was paying $18 a pair for wool socks from BB in 1971. My store was in Chicago and when I moved to SF in 1971 I went to the SF. BB store and lo and behold, the manager was the old Chicago store manager.

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