M Magazine, 1991: Unbuttoning Brooks Brothers

The March, 1991 M Magazine article — of which scans are presented below after the jump (click “Continue”) — is our second article on Brooks Brothers during the Marks & Spencer era.

Along with the previous one from Forbes, the article is part of a cache I collected while doing a paper for a Business 101 course. I titled my paper “The Fleecing of Brooks Brothers?” and chose the company as a subject because as a customer I had a vested interest in the changes going on.

Some of the changes make sense. Wardrobe sizing — the ability to buy separate pants in different waist sizes — allowed Brooks Brothers to fit people with non-standard drops. And wholesaling Brooks Brothers shirts to independent retailers opened the product to customers who were geographically isolated.

So what went wrong? I was uneasy from the start, considering that the best thing the press could say about Marks & Spencer was that they supplied Margaret Thatcher’s underwear. There were brash advertisements, new products, and perception of chasing a younger and hipper customer. There seemed to be a break with the past, and longtime customers lost confidence.

Richard Press, vice president of J. Press at the time, was spot on when he observed, “A number of customers are coming to us who can’t find what they want at places they’ve been shopping in the past. These customers have an allegiance to classical American clothing. Some of our competitors don’t seem to have confidence in that anymore.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

15 Comments on "M Magazine, 1991: Unbuttoning Brooks Brothers"

  1. The Marks & Spencer era of Brooks is a low point in its history.

    Some of the “lowlights”:

    1. Brooks “modernized” 346 Madison Avenue and literally junked many of its old display cases and English prints. A friend rescued a print from the trash heap. Also, it installed the dreaded escalator. Fortunately, much of the charm and old elements still exist, however, it could have been stayed a monument rather than altered one.

    2. The “modernization” involved the discarding of old display cases. Those required a salesman to show the merchandise to you. The ties and shirts were not in arm’s reach. In its place Brooks installed open displays for self-service, much like a five and dime. This was an effort to diminish the importance of a skilled salesman because you could serve yourself. Similarly, the old-time salesmen eventually retired. With the exception of a few old timers, the sales help has a “cash and wrap” mentality rather than a service outlook.

    3. The tailored clothing factories were sold-off. The Brooks top of the line suit was one of the best made suits available.

    4. Marks & Spencer were faced with a changing clothing scene which was none of its doing, and they experimented with clothes for the “young ones”, such as lime green dress shirts. These experiments drove away many loyal customers.

    5. The experiment with the different suits was a failure, such as Authentic, British, etc.

    6. More branches were opened. The specialness of Brooks Brothers was cheapened by reason of it being present in various shopping malls. Again, with the exception of some old stores in downtowns (such as Boston, Washington, DC, etc.), the sales help has a “cash and wrap” skillset. The late outpost on Fifth Avenue is an example.

    7. The biggest piece of evidence against Marks & Spencer is that it sold the business for less than its purchase price. It was a fire sale, and Brooks was considered a bad buy. The present ownership snatched it at a good price.

  2. I actually recall this article. It’s taken the new ownership a looonnnggg time to undo the damage to BB during the M&S regime. They’re turning the ship slowly, but I think they’ve come a long way.

  3. That William Roberti is really a piece of work. In addition to his destructive ‘changes’ at BB, his current bio indicates that he: “served as chairman and CEO of Duck Head Apparel Company. He was CEO of Brooks Brothers, President and CEO of the Plaid Clothing Group, which was the second largest tailored clothing manufacturer in the U.S. during his tenure, and Division CEO and COO of the Zale Corporation.” http://www.alvarezandmarsal.com/en/professionals/profile.aspx?ID=1295

    So in addition to helping ruin BB, he was around when Duck Head imploded (it’s now just a name, without an actual product line); and he was on board at Plaid Clothing Group when it went bankrupt. Now he does disaster recovery consulting. Indeed.

  4. And the collaboration with Thom Browne is the right direction ?

  5. It seems to me that the only way to save BB is for it to go back to its roots and try to remake itself into what it would have been had it not been cheapened. No small task, that.

    They could start by making everything domestically. I love my BB ties, and even those are still American-made, but what about the rest of it? Too many imported items.

    Well, what do I know. I’m just a consumer, not a seven-figure-earning CEO with a record of destroying good companies.

  6. What Marks and Sparks wanted to turn Brooks into was Banana Republic. Roberti took his talent over to Duck Head where old time employees had their compensation packages cut back so they’d quit. Instead they sued. I bet he’s wearing swivel back cuff links.

  7. John, Greenwich | February 3, 2010 at 10:20 am |

    It was a huge screw up….MS forgot a cardinal rule when you take over a business….hang onto the customer base you already have….then build on it. Instead they chased the existing customers away by turning the place into another GAP…..I never went in for a decade…..the present owner bought it for about $300 million over a decade after MS paid a billion for it……he’s started the process of rebuilding…..and there is nothing wrong with a bit of experimentation…..they have too many sales and have opened too many stores but in overall terms the direction is positive and I’m now a regular shopper again.

  8. Charlottesville | October 10, 2017 at 3:01 pm |

    Perhaps it is better that in the M&S era, but I cannot say that Brooks is likely to get me back as a regular purchaser of their tailored clothing. It is impossible to say what it would be today had that sale not occurred, but I do not think the Thom Browne and Italian department store style would be the direction it would have taken.

  9. Bill Roberti’s stock-in-trade was crisis management. After Brooks he became an executive in the New Orleans school system. In a different kind of crisis, he was also ceo of Plaid Clothing, the company that manufactured Brooks’s suit separates.

  10. Question for the Brooks fans of the past who no longer shop there. Which brands are your go-to’s for finding elegant and proper clothing? Which brands do you go for your kick-around clothes? Thanks!

  11. All interesting insights. Having had the luxury (if you want to call it that), of working with Bill Roberti – not only does he destroy good companies, his obnoxious – arrogant personality drives away talent! The man should reflect and realize he is not suitable for the work force. Loud and arrogant doesn’t always work!

  12. Tintins comment: “I bet he’s wearing swivel back cuff links” is the best phrase I’ve seen to describe a person who thinks he is well dressed but is not.

  13. They need to mine the catalogs from the golden era, reproduce their contents almost exactly with a few adjustments for modern needs and fit, and try to bring back the kind of people who did or would have wanted to shop there in its heyday, as well as the few remaining faithful who have been starving on the few remnant crumbs they occasionally retain. It will still continue to be mostly a slight step up from Jos. A. Bank in the suburban country club middle market nationally, but they could show people what they used to be and what they could become, and make it possible to enter their store without drinking beforehand. The brand needs a complete overhaul but it could start by testing the waters more selectively, maybe even opening a handful of niche stores that carry only the old guard stuff–maybe “Own Make” with selective British woolens and the like. What they’ve done even at 346 is so ridiculously fake and unappealing that they’re doing the brand no favors; in fact most everything they do merely cheapens it. They’ve made it an “aspirational” brand that nobody with taste wants to aspire to. This doesn’t mean it should become backward-thinking or snobbish or anything else retrograde but it should go forward by a selective retrieval of its past. I say this in all humility; the first Brooks store I entered I thought was merely another store selling men’s clothes without any history. It looked utterly ordinary. It was only later that I learned its history and saw how much it had devolved into something far from worthy of its former self.

  14. Of course, the irony is perhaps that this was the appropriate end of a store whose customer base since the guilded age had been largely industrial capitalists. It is difficult to name comparable companies of similar history that also have not gone to hell under the influence of capitalist business outlooks and models. If Brooks had remained what it had been with reasonable evolution, it never would have been anything close to a billion dollar company, but it would have retained its integrity, taste, and quality. Almost nothing of what Bruce Boyer wrote about it in 1985 is true today. It needs to try to make it true again in selective niche markets, like Ford building a GT and returning to Le Mans to show it still had the stuff worth of serious attention by serious people. Far from alienating the average Ford customer who could never afford a GT, it put a halo on the brand and showed a household name American car company could build cars that looked just right sitting alongside their European counterparts and could compete with them on the track as well yet as a real road car.

  15. One final thing–bring back the Number One Sack Suit and call it the goddamned Number One Sack Suit.

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