Daniel C. Greenwood’s debut Millenial Fogey column on Brooks Brothers certainly stirred up discussion. It especially stirred up Chris Sharp, Ivy Style’s normally circumspect and disinterested assistant editor, known for his well researched historical pieces. He found himself inspired to lay his heart bare to the brand so dear to him that he recalls shopping excursions more vividly than otherwise more important days in his life.
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Daniel C. Greenwood’s recent piece, “Why do we get so worked up Over Brooks Brothers?” is well timed coming after New Year’s, as I am still in throws of a lingering Auld Lang Syne-style emotional hangover. His piece is certainly a reminder that I hold Brooks Brothers partially responsible for my condition.
Like a Dickensian ghost, an image of a lost Brooks Brothers executive haunts my subconscious. He asks me, “How can Brooks Brothers be relevant in 2015?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know how to be relevant myself,” I reply. Then I offer the phantasm this: “But I can tell you how to be Brooks Brothers, in case you’ve forgotten.”
It seems that Mr. Greenwood pounding on his keypad is answering the same ghost. He is among the millions of fingers on keyboards expressing frustration on websites and Internet forums. A legion of middle-aged men and young fogeys who are telling Brooks Brothers how to be Brooks Brothers. The problem for us is that Brooks Brothers does not seem to be answering that question.
In that case, a more to-the-point query might be, “Why does it sometimes feel like we care more about Brooks Brothers than Brooks Brothers itself?” But answering that might take a team of mental health professionals. It is certainly about us, how we feel about the past, and how we view the future. I am reminded of the Annie Tempest cartoon in which an airchaired old curmudgeon says to his pal over a glass of scotch, “The future’s is not what it used, to be, Dickie.”
What was our shared past with Brooks Brothers, and what was the future supposed to be like? I am sure it was different for each generation, but for some of us who came to Brooks Brothers during the Allied Store years, Brooks still retained the patina of greatness. It had been in business since 1818 and we believed it would be in business long after we departed this earth. During the interim years there was an implied promise that they would keep the faith.
What did keeping the faith mean? It meant that it was not contradictory to be both an innovator and a reactionary at the same time. You could introduce America to the buttondown shirt, Shetland sweaters, argyle socks, seersucker and madras and still have the good form not to discontinue longstanding items until the last person who could possibly want them was dead. It meant that you handled ownership changes with steely resolve. For example, in 1946 Brooks Brothers was bought by the Washington, DC department store Garfinkel’s. The new president John C. Wood put customer fears of radical change to rest when he declared that he would sooner be seen wearing a zoot suit in Times Square than tamper with Brooks policies.
But what I thought was a lifelong marriage may in fact be just an affair to remember. This only makes the memories dearer. I can recount for you in detail the first time I crossed the threshold of a Brooks Brothers and secured those fabled buttondowns. In contrast, there are days that are more significant in my life that I barely remember.
I should stick to my memories, but every few years I am lured back to Brooks Brothers, as I was during their recent sale. The experience is always awkward. They have canceled my store card now for the second time, apparently for inactivity. Canceling my account is very un-Brooksian, because I remember when I first got their store card it felt like being a made man in the Cosa Nostra: there was an implied contract that I was not going to get out of my relationship with Brooks Brothers alive.
I feel that some readers may be disappointed by my recent purchase. I did not buy shoes, which I still hold in high regard, but instead small novelties like a tartan wallet. It will replace the Brooks striped one I bought during a sale a couple of years ago. I know this one will have the same short lifespan as the other, but I am a sucker for tartan — even cheesey corporate ones. The other items were Kiel James Patrick woven belts, which I see as an artfully redesigned throwback product. The unintentional irony of the pick is not lost on me. I am mature and out of KJP’s target demographic, but find his neo-prep Horatio Alger story compelling. I marvel at his social media savvy and legions of young acolytes. It is like watching a really good magic show; I know he is working hard but I cannot see it.
I had not fully been aware of how much luster Brooks Brothers private label products had lost until this purchase. In the Brooks Brothers x KJP collaboration, it seems like KJP was the status lender and that Brooks Brothers was the status borrower, turning my paradigm completely upside down. I was buying a product because I had more faith in an American-made upstart than the corporate monolith that was responsible for shaping my entire sartorial worldview. Could this be the example of 21st-century relevance my ghost first sought?
There is no schadenfeude in seeing Brooks Brothers act like a dowager with dementia. It is heartbreaking when we don’t recognize each other anymore. Even now I am already preparing for my next meeting with the Brooks Brothers ghost. We will likely re-enact the scene from Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” I will play the parson, and the ghost will be John.
“And shall we ever come into our own again?” the ghost will ask.
“That I can’t tell,” I reply.
“What had we better do about it?”
“Nothing, except chasten yourself with the thought of ‘How are the mighty fallen.’ It is a fact of some interest to the local historian and genealogist, nothing more.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
Daniel C. Greenwood (“DCG” in the comments section, and the singer in our Christmas recital video) herein debuts the first in a series of musings on the current retail landscape for trad clothing. He brings a fresh and young voice to Ivy Style, being under 30 yet with a great interest in this style’s long history. Having had the face of a 35-year-old since before he started shaving, Greenwood’s column will go by the name The Millennial Fogey.
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Sitting on the train recently something stole my attention from my better half. As I furiously hammered away at my smart phone, she asked me if everything was OK, and was suprised I said of course. Apparently she thought I was dealing with some terrible emergency.
In fact I was commenting on a Brooks Brothers social media post describing dressing up sweatpants with a navy blazer.
In my increasingly excited state, I rattled off a whole list of changes I wanted to see: taking the lining out of the oxford collars, fixing the fit of Own Make and bringing the price down, improving the design of its paisley ties, the rise and finish of its khakis — I could have gone on all day. My ever-patient girlfriend rolled her eyes and watched me chew out a billion-dollar apparel company on the Internet.
Strange how I don’t have the kind of arguments with my girlfriend that I do with Brooks Brothers.
What is it about Brooks Brothers that inspires such passion in us? More to the point, why has the relationship between traditional menswear consumers and Brooks Brothers gotten so dysfunctional? Naturally there are men who were Brooks Brothers customers in the good ol’ days of the Ivy heyday through the late ’80s, and can quickly list everything they miss about the Brooks of yore. There are also younger menswear enthusiasts who comb through Internet archives, photographs, illustrated catalogues, and other evidence of this once beyond-reproach institution of American style and can’t help but agonize that we were born too late.
Many of us with buttoned-down parents fall somewhere in the middle. As a member of the millennial generation, I can’t say I have first-hand knowledge of what the store was like before I was born. My memories start as the store was sliding towards its sale to Marks & Spencer. Still, I have a cherished photograph of four generations of my family, three wearing Brooks Brothers shirts (I was just a newborn, otherwise I’d have been wearing one as well). There’s the story of my grandfather finding his uncle sitting upright in a red Brooks Brothers blazer and English-made shoes, whisky in hand, having just died. I still have the pincord suit and the cotton sport coat handed down to me by my father to wear to summer dances on Cape Cod. I’ve also kept my first Brooks Brothers bow tie, a gift from my parents that included a lesson on tying it.
If Ivy Style readers chastise Brooks Brothers rather wantonly in the comments section it’s because they have a passionate relationship with the brand. Traditionalists past and present owe much of their taste for natural shoulders, softly rolling button downs, and ancient madder ties to the very company they now beg to revive them. We plead for quality clothing of impeccable taste sold at a reasonable prices because Brooks Brothers all but invented the idea. If our standards remain high, it’s because Brooks Brothers gave us such standards. We’re like the devoted fans of a champion sports team and get furious when the guys strike out, fumble, or miss a penalty kick.
There are still reasons to hope. Own Make is a promising sign (despite its odd fit). There are still excellent ties to be found (although the modern paisleys and madders can’t compare with vintage Brooks). There are still beautiful English shoes to ogle. Can Brooks Brothers ever reconcile its international growth strategy with the historic legacy of serving a relatively small market segment? Can it become a tastemaker once more, rather than a follower of trend forecasts?
I certainly hope so. But until it does, I’ll do my part by sharing my opinions with any employee who will listen. Or read on a website. — DANIEL C. GREENWOOD
Yesterday afternoon Ivy-Style.com held an editorial meeting at The Polo Bar, Ralph Lauren’s new restaurant. In attendance were Golden Years columnist Richard Press, Ivy Style founder Christian Chensvold, and Daniel Greenwood, who was filled with bourbon and coerced into becoming a more regular contributor to the site, based on his passionate interest in the wares offered by current trad clothing manufacturers.
As for the setting, everything about it was perfect. The lighting was perfect (though hardly ideal, as you can see, for non-flash photography). The music (Billie Holiday from the ’50s, for example) hummed along at the ideal number of beats per minute to encourage blasé badinage and easy digestion. The walls were the perfect shade of green, the wood paneling the perfect shade of brown. Alcohol was poured generously, tea was hot. Prices were perfectly fair. The nuts were warm (makes a difference), and accompanied by fried olives and seasoned potato chips brought to the table a mere moment after seating. Service was prompt and completely non-snooty, by a diverse staff reflecting the citizens of this cosmopolitan metropolis.
There was one surprise when it came to the decor. In case you thought the word “polo” in the name referred to the brand, it more accurately refers to the sport. All the artwork is devoted to horses and the sport of polo, though there is great variation in the artistic renderings.
As for what the Ivy Style staff was wearing, King Richard The Forty-Fourth displayed the superb sprezzatura of a frayed pocket square that belonged to his father. When removing it for show-and-tell, he managed to get it tangled in his eyeglasses, surely one of the rarest forms of wardrobe malfunction.
DCG was also in fatherly hand-me-downs (or closet robberies, as he more accurately called them), in the form of tweed jacket and vintage Brooks tie. He noted the jacket’s single button on each cuff, and did not take kindly to the suggestion that perhaps the jacket originally had two buttons on each sleeve, that one had fallen off, and that a corresponding one was removed in the interest of symmetry. Below the waist were khakis and penny loafers.
Yours truly was in Viking Prep and Frazier-wannabe mode with lengthening hair and fabric boutonniere, glen-plaid jacket with olive knit tie and cashmere v-neck, grey flannels and penny loafers (my rain shoes).
It was a productive meeting and is quite possible the bar staff will soon know us by name. — CC
Update: More photos can be seen at Masculine Interiors.
When I was two-and-a-half years old, my father finished his Air Force commission and we left Berlin. We initially landed at my grandparents’ place in San Francisco, and there, while walking up the stairs of this strange new building, as my mother would tell me many years later, I uttered one of my earliest sentences: “Where’d my home go?”
My mother combined a master’s in Jungian psychology with astrology, which she first learned from my grandmother and later practiced professionally. She would tell me that my chart had extreme emphasis on the importance of my living space.
This is a meandering way of saying that it is with a lifelong sense of the importance and pleasure of appointing one’s living quarters that I’m pleased to announce the debut of my latest web project, MasculineInteriors.com.
It came about rather suddenly, as these things do, in a flurry of inspiration. A friend moved into a new apartment, and I helped her furnish the place. The process got me to scrutinize the parts of my own apartment, where I’ve been for going on three years, that didn’t exactly come out as imagined. What began as one simple plan to repaint a room ended up a complete transformation of my digs.
During this process my creative juices were flowing, and at some point I stumbled across the perfect combination of motivation to start a new web project: intense personal interest combined with what appears to be a hole in the market. “Masculine interiors” is evidently a popular search term, but save for some Pinterest and tumblrs there doesn’t seem to be a main site for it — and certainly not the kind that I envision.
So I hope to bring to the topic of men’s spaces the approach I’ve taken with style blogging for the past decade: variety and flexibility among a narrow topic (the topic of traditional golf clothes, if you’re wondering about GolfStyle.guru, turned out to be a little too narrow, though it was certainly great fun to do).
I plan to celebrate all the places where men make themselves comfortable in an elegant and stylish way, from bachelor pads to college dorms, high-rise offices to fraternal clubs, drawing on cinematic sets as much as real life, the traditional as well as modern, from British Colonial style in India to the swingin’ pad of Don Draper, and eras from the 19th century through the Art Deco and Midcentury Modern.
The ultimate goal of all the mish-mash will be curated inspiration for the reader. And it’s inspiration you can get on the go, as the site is responsive to whatever device you’re using, be it tablet or smart phone. That’s a change we’ll next have to make at this place. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
Last night was the grand opening of Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar. No, I wasn’t inside, but I walked past it carrying a gallon of Ralph Lauren paint.
Report next week. And yes, that’s the side of the building. — CC
It’s absolutely freezing here in New York, which means if you’re anybody who’s anybody (like my old publisher at Quest magazine), you’ve been in your Palm Beach property since Thursday evening.
But don’t be surprised if the sartorial distinction between the help and the in-season residents on Worth Avenue starts to narrow: Lilly Pulitzer now has a Target collection slated to debut in April with 250 home and clothing items.
Reaction online has been mixed, as USA Today reports, with some feeling that the downmarket move will dilute the prestige of the brand.
Just imagine how we’d feel if J. Press had collaborated with Target instead of Urban Outfitters. — CC