That Brooks Brothers has now seen fit to “re-introduce” its original buttondown shirt – complete with unfused collar, cuffs and placket – should be Big News. Unfortunately it’s all rather anti-climactic, isn’t it? But better late than never, you might say.
I can only suppose that it finally got through the thickheads at Brooks that there were plenty of guys out there who wanted The Real Thing and they’d better get in on it. After all, Mercer & Sons, and more recently Michael Spencer and O’Connell’s, have been eating their lunch when it comes to unfused buttondowns. When Brooks abandoned its trad customers years ago, Mercer stepped into the gap and produced the classic unfused, big-bodied and much beloved oxford shirt that men had worn for generations.
The question, again one can only suppose, is whether the Brooks customer will pay the much higher price for this new-old Brooks oxford buttondown. The price of the fused horse-collar buttondown was $95. The new-old model is priced at $140. In other words, Brooks has been producing a bastard version of its signature shirt for over 20 years and has now decided to give its customers The Real Thing, but nearly double the price for this belated privilege. Will the customer to whom Brooks has sold the heavy, stiffer Brooks fused buttondown now be willing to pay $140? It should be noted that the Mercer, O’Connell’s, and Michael Spencer buttondowns are all around that price, too.
Obviously, turning Brooks around is akin to turning a battleship, but the real problem would seem to go deeper. The problem is that Brooks has not known for years now who its customer actually should be. Do they have studies about this? Demographics? The firm has pretty much abandoned its old, trad customers – those guys who wanted soft collars and easy-fitting Harris Tweed sports jackets and softly constructed seersucker suits at a reasonable price — and has been trying to appeal to — well, to whom? An international preppy?
I don’t for a minute believe that this turn of events means that Brooks is about to return to some Golden Age. It’s clearer to me that the firm has finally gotten the message that soft collars are cool. Other companies are making a nice business from unfused shirts, and hey, Brooks brought this shirt to the world. Why shouldn’t it get back some of its own?
I suppose what’s so bothering about this sordid little affair is that we get the squeamish feeling that Brooks, which gave such wonderful direction for two centuries, has in recent years become a follower, and that this is just one more example of confusion in the ranks. — G. BRUCE BOYER
Ivy Style special correspondent G. Bruce Boyer’s latest book is “True Style.”