Better Late Than Never: Bruce Boyer On Brooks’ New-Old Oxford Buttondown

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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.”

17 Comments on "Better Late Than Never: Bruce Boyer On Brooks’ New-Old Oxford Buttondown"

  1. John Bracken | January 13, 2016 at 3:22 pm |

    Great analysis! Brooks has become a follower – so true yet so sad. I hope they find their roots at some point.

  2. youngyaleguy | January 13, 2016 at 3:28 pm |

    Does anyone have a link to the Brooks “re-introduced” shirts? I can’t seem to find them on the site!

  3. Maxwell R. Rich | January 13, 2016 at 3:34 pm |

    On the plus side, between an easily acquired corporate discount and the frequent and varied BB promotions every few weeks, acquiring one of these shirts at less than MSRP shouldn’t be difficult.

  4. Señor Yuca | January 13, 2016 at 4:38 pm |

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I am under the impression that these shirts are not actually a genuine reintroduction of their old classic BD. Instead it’s more contemporary crap trading on the glories of the past.

  5. Mr. Boyer,
    Haven’t you always preferred spread collars to buttondowns?

  6. G. Bruce BOyer | January 13, 2016 at 5:00 pm |

    Dear Etymologue, Thank you for the question. I like spread collars — soft ones that are not fused — but button downs are more my natural element. Sometimes I button the flaps down, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I use a collar pin. I’m very Old School.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Boyer, for this well crafted, and, sadly, accurate piece. While you’re correct that we’ve no reason to believe this is a sign of better things to come, we can always hope.

    The price is, well, competitive. The O’ Connell’s unlined collar is $145, and isn’t the Mercer version priced at $125?

    Like all true blue trans, I’ll wait for the sale.

  8. correction. “trads.”

  9. youngyaleguy — click on the link in the first sentence of the post.

    So, how long are the points? Somehow I just don’t see BB getting this really right. But once these are 40% off I’d be happy to try one.

  10. Can you blame Brooks for seeking customers other than traditional dressers when they get this tepid response to making something trads have been begging them for for 20+ years?

    They look great at first glance, will be priced competitively when on discount, AND the kicker is that they make what looks to be a yellow university stripe, which is pretty damn cool.

    Perhaps instead of casting sidelong glances at this laurel wreath we should encourage Brooks to dip into the archives again and make some more good stuff. For the record, just because Brooks made something in the 1960s doesn’t mean it’s good. I have zero interest in Dacron trousers.

    And Dave Mercer started making his shirts during a so-called “good” Brooks Brothers period, n’est pas?

  11. In the spirit of being perpetually displeased… no pocket? Thanks for the words, Mr. Boyer.

  12. Having just now glanced at the offerings–

    How do we know the collar is unlined?

    It reads:

    “…we’ve restored the signature rolled collar, softening it along with the placket and cuffs for comfort. We’ve added genuine mother-of-pearl buttons as well as gussets along the side seams for durability.”

    “restored”? What’s this mean? And is a “softening” of the collar synonymous with removing all the lining? Or is there reason to guess that this means a light lining (think Kamakura)?

    The mother of pearl buttons add a bit to the cost, to be sure. A nice touch.

    I’m not going to take the train into the city just to pinch the collar. Hopefully DCG or CC will make the trek to the Flagship and report back festinatim.

  13. Agree totally with DCG. Obviously, Brooks is paying some amount of attention to the trad community, as evidenced by this new offering. Meeting this offering with scorn is probably going to lead Brooks to conclude that there is absolutely no pleasing this community and they might as well spend the time and money producing more cubicle-wear crap.

    Of course I’m a little disappointed that the shirt is priced at specialty-level, but ultimately Mercer and Michael Spencer are catering to a niche audience and the existing Made-in-USA Brooks oxford wasn’t making Brooks any money. Spinning this into an opportunity to heap moral opprobrium on Brooks (“contemporary crap trading on glories of the past,” “sordid little affair”) just strikes me as off the mark. Given the existing competition, the price is justifiable, leaving me with only two concrete complaints: the lack of breast pocket and aqua/purple instead of green/red stripes. Those peccadillos don’t quite rise to the level of “sordid.”

  14. Henry Contestwinner | January 14, 2016 at 3:24 am |

    DCG,

    Like you, I am excited about the yellow university striped shirt. I would also try the aqua stripe, and perhaps the purple stripe, but am perplexed by the absence of the classic blue stripe.

    However, at this price point, most consumers are probably better off going custom. MTO shirts can be had for the same price, or less, and once the company has your measurements, you can be assured that the shirts you buy will fit right, and fit consistently (the latter being a huge problem not only across retailers but even within them sometimes).

    Maybe the unusual colors are a way to entice people with large shirt wardrobes and the willingness to have some uncommon colors among those shirts to buy Brooks’ offerings: blue OCBDs can be had anywhere, but Brooks’ colors are rare.

  15. The blue university stripe shirt is there, it just isn’t grouped with the other colors.

  16. Henry Contestwinner | January 15, 2016 at 2:57 am |

    Indeed it is. Thank you for pointing that out.

  17. Prof. Boyer looking very snazzy in one of his spread collar shirts:

    https://www.instagram.com/p/BCQbig4yCw4/

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