This is Henry, the new mascot unveiled by Brooks Brothers, and who already adorns $50 t-shirts.
Henry is named for Henry Sands Brooks, who founded the company in 1818. That was a long time ago, so it’s a futile exercise to imagine how old Henry would regard new Henry. He’d probably be more concerned with the loss of his company’s New York flagship, the deplorable level to which masculine dress has fallen, and the overall state of the State. Or he might just politely say, “Your shoe’s untied.”
For a little more perspective on exactly where we are on the historical timeline, Brooks Brothers’ former Southwick factory is going to become an Amazon warehouse. Henry, caught between two worlds, seems to be unable to decide whether he should dress Southwick-style or Amazon-style:
Old Henry would also surely be befuddled by Ralph Lauren, the upstart that still manages to be more Brooks than Brooks. Earlier this spring RL ran a marketing campaign featuring a couple of denizens on the fashion fringes of Tradsville, providing us with a good lead-up to Father’s Day. Here’s the always photogenic Kiel James Patrick:
And a man known for being behind the camera. Mr. Mort, as he is known, was one of the more enjoyable characters I met during my years in New York.
The times are certainly changing — enough to turn a man to drink. The Wall Street Journal wonders if ties will be relevant again, with quotes from trad clothiers H. Stockton and Junior’s. And for an entertaining look into what happens if ties don’t maintain their relevance, be sure and check out my storybook “These Are Our Failures.”
The Journal also says traditional dressing may never come back in a feature entitled “You’re finally going back to the office. What are you going to wear?”
Self-styled “relic” BC, who’s written a few pieces for Ivy Style and opines in the comments section now and then, is a regular correspondent of mine. In a recent exchange, we both agreed that while the ship may be sinking, we’re at least going to go down properly dressed, like the gentlemen on the Titanic. The joke resonated, as a few days later I adopted a new Titanic View Of Life that I may write about here as I become a relic myself.
In the words of Max Beerbohm, “I may be old-fashioned, but I’m right.”
But BC, who makes port in Maryland, has a lot more experience on the ocean than I do. Perhaps he’ll regale us with a tales of near or actual sinkings, or at least his most dangerous moments at sea. And so we give him the parting shot with this photo he sent over of his old sneakers. After all, going down “properly dressed” doesn’t have to mean formal. — CC
Wow – fifty dollars for a t-shirt. I’m sure that they are *much* nicer than the ones that I pick for $7 on sale at J. Crew’s end-of-season sales. Or the Amazon Basics t-shirts that I pick up for $6 not on sale. Or are they?
Or you could get a BB OCBD for $50 during the current sale. Or one of their Luxury dress shirts for the same sale price. Or, if you’re willing to spend a little more, you can even get a Golden Fleece dress shirt for $80 right now.
Let me think about this…
Will Ties Ever Be Relevant Again?
IN 2018, Rutledge’s, a 54-year-old classic men’s clothing store in Colorado Springs, Colo., sold a healthy 35 neckties a month. In 2020, that number has dipped to just 15. In an interview, the store’s vice president Luke Faricy joked that when he recently compared those sales figures, he “cried a little bit.” Ties were once an easy-to-sell accessory for Rutledge’s, with locals and tourists alike snatching them up. Today, neckwear sits largely ignored on the sales floor.
During the pandemic year, oh-so-casual Zoom shirts leapfrogged corporate attire. Interest in the necktie—already waning in recent decades—was nearly extinguished. Seigo Katsuragawa, the proprietor of Seigo, a beloved, tie-focused store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said this past year was the worst in his company’s 30-year history. “9/11 was bad,” he said, but it was nothing like this.
One clothier attributes the recent uptick in neckwear interest to ‘the fantasy of going back to the office.’
Although some of his favorite customers have come by to check in on the store, they’ve told Mr. Katsuragawa they just don’t wear ties anymore. “They’re dressed up in T-shirts and polo shirts,” not ties, he said, sounding more than a bit wounded.
He might find some solace in knowing that he’s not the only haberdasher taking a hit. Ashton Greene, a salesman at men’s clothier H. Stockton in Atlanta for 33 years, noted that tie sales are “certainly not at the levels we [experienced] even a year and a half ago.” He speculated that 90% of men in the store’s Atlanta neighborhood walk around tieless in “golf shirts every single day.”
Now that roughly half of Americans have received at least one vaccination dose and more businesspeople are trickling back into the office by the week, could the necktie reassert itself in men’s wardrobes in 2021? Glenn Au, who owns Junior’s, a by-appointment men’s clothier based in Philadelphia, sees sunnier days ahead. This spring, Junior’s, a relatively small business just over a year old, has nevertheless sold through about half its ties, which come in traditional patterns like deco-ish squares and red-and-gray repp stripes. Mr. Au’s customer base is “working professionals” like attorneys and doctors. He attributes the uptick in neckwear interest to “the fantasy of going back to the office.”
The return to the cubicle has made some men dust off their tie rack. Dylan S. Roberts works in executive recruitment in Chicago and recently started at a new company where he’s required to sport ties about once a week when meeting with clients. This marks the first time in 10 years that Mr. Roberts, 33, has been obliged to wear a tie—he even had to relearn how to knot one up. Still, he’s welcomed the experience and recently bought two new ties—a paisley number and a solid blue one on sale from London label Drake’s—to commemorate his neckwear reimmersion.
But the number of corporate environments that demand ties is declining. And the return to work might not be enough to pull the industry out of its downward spiral. Mr. Katsuragawa of Seigo said that doctors and lawyers—among those professionals still expected to dress formally—have bought ties from him in recent months. But while those customers once splurged on a handful of ties each visit, their needs have shrunken to just one or two styles.
Now back in the office, Lou Fiorilla, 36, a financial services litigator in Lancaster, Pa., wears one of his 50 or so ties each weekday. He buys around five new neckties a year and actually enjoys the formality of a suit and tie. Yet, even in his highly punctilious field, an influx of new, young litigators hits the workforce annually, pushing for more casual attire. In a decade, he said, he probably won’t be wearing ties at all.
The office might be a lost cause in the long-term. But several tie-sellers see hope in the recent surge of special occasions as America slowly reopens. Mr. Greene of H. Stockton noted that in the past two months, the store has seen a considerable uptick in men scooping up ties for weddings and other formal events. “The tie has become less of a commodity,” he said, and more of an indulgence. Now, he said, his customers buy ties that are “interesting,” such as neckwear in preppy repp stripes, to stand out on a big day. But Mr. Greene emphasized that the color-vomit 1980s “power tie” is still as dead as ever.
Mr. Faricy of Rutledge’s noted with a tinge of optimism that his store, too, has recently seen wedding-sparked interest around neckwear. On the day we spoke, a couple had just come in to pick up a suit and two ties for their nuptials. Customers are leaning toward solid navy knit ties and finely woven grenadines—subtle, textural options that complement a formal wedding suit. “What we’re selling is a simpler tie,” than in previous years, said Mr. Faricy. Better than selling no ties at all.
The tie in the eyes of the younger generation serves no functional purpose.
The younger generation, in my eyes, serves no functional purpose.
You’re Finally Going Back to the Office. What Are You Going to Wear?
Mattress maker ViscoSoft is relaxing its dress code as employees return to its Charlotte, N.C. headquarters in June. Instead of the button-down shirts and slacks that were the norm before the pandemic, staffers can now wear joggers, leggings and sweatshirts. “I told them no pajamas,” said Chief Executive Gabriel Dungan.
After more than a year of working from home, millions of Americans are heading back to the office—and they need new clothes. That offers a rare opportunity to retailers, who are trying to anticipate what their customers will now want to wear to work. Many brands are scaling back their production of suits, adding more stretch to their pants and using new phrases such as “workleisure.” They are turning out yoga pants that look like dress pants, T-shirts you can wear to work and a dressier version of cork-lined sandals dubbed the “Work Birk.”
The stakes are high, particularly for retailers that struggled during the pandemic. Brooks Brothers, J.Crew Group Inc., and J.C. Penney Co. all filed for bankruptcy and collectively closed hundreds of stores—in some cases permanently. Many others struggled to stay relevant as shoppers hunkered down. Gap Inc. closed more than 70 Banana Republic stores in 2020 and is closing more this year.
Some are now betting workers are ready for something different. As sales of work clothes surged at Banana Republic in recent weeks, the retailer didn’t promote the same pre-pandemic standard of blazers, skirts and suits. Instead it launched a new collection in April that pairs military shirts with dress slacks and hoodies with blazers. Chief brand officer Ana Andjelic calls it “hybrid dressing.”
Even Dockers, which helped spawn the concept of business casual, is adding more stretch to its classic chinos. “They look like khakis, but they feel more like sweatpants,” said Nick Rendic, the brand’s global head of design. “The pandemic taught us that we can wear whatever we want, but people still want to look good.”
Brooks Brothers Chief Executive Ken Ohashi, who has been back in his New York City office since September, is trying to model this shift himself. He said he wears a sports jacket on Mondays, because he likes “to start the week in a semiformal mood.” By later in the week, his outfit gets more relaxed, often consisting of a T-shirt, cardigan sweater and chinos.
The brand, known for its sack suit that epitomized conservative dressing for more than a century, is pivoting to focus more on sportswear, including unlined, deconstructed jackets, sweaters and knits—items that Mr. Ohashi said “look like suits, but aren’t.” Traditional work clothes such as suits, blazers, trousers and dress shirts, while still a cornerstone of the brand, will account for less than half of sales going forward, down from more than 60% historically, he said.
Spending on clothing had been sluggish before the pandemic as consumers spent more on experiences such as travel and eating out. U.S. apparel sales fell 1% in 2019, and then plunged 17% to $186 billion last year, according to research firm NPD Group. Now, as people emerge from their Covid-induced cocoons, retailers have a chance to recoup some of those lost sales, provided they tweak their offerings to reflect changing tastes.
Ministry of Supply Inc., a fashion brand that makes office attire with high-tech fabrics, shipped pants and button-down dress shirts that had languished in its warehouse since the start of the pandemic to a New Jersey factory last summer. There, workers added drawstring waistbands to the pants and shortened the shirt hems. Then the company reshot the photography for its website, showing models wearing the pants with sneakers and the shirts untucked.
“No one is tucking in their shirts,” said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, the brand’s president.
Many other retailers are experimenting with similar approaches. Betabrand Inc. added more styles of its Dress Pant Yoga Pants, which look like dress pants with a faux button and buttonhole but feel like leggings, according to merchandising manager Megan Quirolo. M.M. Lafleur Inc., which makes clothes for professional women, is promoting a “T-shirt you can wear to work.”
“It’s not the wrinkled T-shirt you wear to bed,” said Sarah LaFleur, the brand’s chief executive. “It’s made of thicker cotton or silk.”
Brands known for their laid-back vibe are making changes, too. A new version of the iconic cork-lined Birkenstock sandals, produced in partnership with designer brand Proenza Schouler, has dressier touches. The polished leather combined with hook and loop closures in place of traditional buckles make them spiffy enough for the office, said Jessica Richards, founder of trend forecasting firm JMR Design Consulting, who calls them the “Work Birk.”
The shifting nature of workwear also offers new risks for workers in fields ranging from law to finance as they rush this spring to line up new outfits. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. office workers are expected to return to an office, according to market research firm NPD Group. Some are worried about the superficial and societal implications of their choices.
“If our clients go to a more casual dress code, I don’t want to be that guy in the suit,” said Russ Ferguson, a 37-year-old lawyer in Charlotte who is weighing what to wear when he isn’t in court.
More than two-thirds of American consumers plan to change their wardrobe from pre-pandemic styles when they return to the office, according to Klarna Bank AB, a retail bank, payments and shopping service, which surveyed more than 1,000 people in May. Nearly half expect to wear more comfortable clothes, though women are more likely to dress up than men.
“The expectations have changed,” said 58-year-old Gabrielle Clemens, managing director of Clemens Private Wealth Group at RBC Wealth Management, who is ditching the nylons and heels that were a staple of her office attire before the pandemic. “Now that I’ve seen my colleagues and clients in very casual attire, it’s hard to unsee that.”
Company executives are walking a line between allowing employees to dress down as an incentive to get them back in the office and making sure they look presentable.
“It’s the next big issue our members will have to deal with,” said Angela Simpson, an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Employers are looking to do whatever they can to get people back in the office and one thing is to let them wear more casual clothes, because it’s shown to be a morale booster. But they want to make sure people don’t come in wearing their gym clothes or pajamas.”
Maureen Crawford Hentz, a career coach with Bravely and vice president of human resources at A.W. Chesterton Co., a manufacturer based in Groveland, Mass., said she has been having a lot of conversations with employees about what they should wear on their first day back at work. “It was something you never questioned before, but now there is anxiety, because you don’t want to look unprofessional,” she said.
One executive who says she is anxious about her work look is Elizabeth Spaulding, president and incoming CEO of the online personal shopping and styling service Stitch Fix Inc. For a recent in-person meeting with the management team at the company’s San Francisco headquarters, the first time the group gathered face-to-face since the pandemic started, she traded in the New Balance sneakers she had been wearing at home for espadrilles and paired them with white jeans and a camouflage jacket.
“It’s more casual than I would have been in the past, but getting dressed and pulling it all together is harder,” Ms. Spaulding said.
She isn’t the only one at that company who is concerned about such matters. Forty-four percent of Stitch Fix employees said they are feeling anxious about what to wear when the office reopens in September, according to a poll the company conducted of its workers.
The relaxation of the modern workplace dress code can be traced back to Hawaii in the 1960s. There, a group of shirt manufacturers promoted Aloha Fridays, making it acceptable to wear the colorful, button-down, short-sleeve shirts to the office, according to a history of the trend on Levi Strauss & Co.’s website.
The practice, which came to be known as Casual Fridays, migrated to the mainland during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, but wasn’t widely accepted at first. To overcome corporate resistance, Dockers, which is owned by Levi’s and makes chinos and other casual attire, created the “Guide to Casual Business Wear” in 1992, and mailed the pamphlet to 25,000 human-resources managers. Dockers sponsored office fashion shows and set up a hotline staffed by counselors who were trained to provide fashion guidance to HR professionals.
Suit makers have been backpedaling ever since. Even Wall Street, a bastion of corporate dressing, has been ditching the cuff links and loosening its tie. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. switched to a “flexible” dress code in 2019, allowing employees to use their judgment in determining how to dress. Then the pandemic hit and sent people home, where their office clothes have been gathering dust.
Studies have shown that how we dress affects how people perceive us. In one study co-written by University of Kansas psychology professor Omri Gillath and published in 2012, participants accurately judged the age, gender, income and other attributes of people based on photographs they provided of the shoes they wore most often.
Women and minorities are often judged more harshly. In a study published last year by Regan Gurung, a professor of psychological science at Oregon State University, the same Black men were shown to observers wearing different outfits, from suits to hoodies and sweatpants. They were viewed as intelligent and trustworthy only when they were dressed formally, Prof. Gurung said, adding that other studies show white men don’t face the same prejudices.
The same holds true for women, according to Joy Peluchette, a senior management professor at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., who has studied the issue. “When women conform to the stereotypes of their industry, they are more likely to get a promotion or a raise,” Prof. Peluchette said.
Samantha Puig, a cyber counterintelligence analyst for the U.S. government who has been working in her office since February, said her male colleagues have been making snide remarks about her wardrobe, after she traded the gray and black suits that were her pre-pandemic uniform for colorful blouses and Betabrand’s Dress Pant Yoga Pants. “They’ll say, ‘Is it Casual Friday on a Tuesday?” said Ms. Puig, who is 33 years old and lives in Fredericksburg, Va.
Liz Puccetti, a program manager at an industrial automation company, said she expects to dress more casually when she returns to the office this summer. But the 35-year-old, Wauwatosa, Wis., resident will only wear sneakers if senior female colleagues do.
“Engineering is historically a men’s field,” she said. “It’s always good to take cues from more senior women in the company as to what they are wearing, because they’ve earned the respect of their peers.”
Some companies in fields such as law, finance and government still require suits. After a year of anything-goes-attire, a reversion to more formal clothes can help people put the pandemic behind them, according to Prof. Gillath, of the University of Kansas. “It helps us feel closer to normal,” he said.
When Sheraz Iftikhar, managing partner of wealth-management firm Arch Global Advisors, prepared to bring employees back to the company’s Manhattan office last September, he got peppered with questions from his staff about what they should wear.
“There was a sense of confusion on their end, so we had to put some guidelines in place,” Mr. Iftikhar said. He reinstated the pre-pandemic dress code of suits and other formal business attire. “We wanted to maintain our culture,” Mr. Iftikhar said. “We wanted to go back to how things were before the pandemic.”
Argent Mill Inc., which makes clothes for working women and counts White House and Congressional staffers among its customers, is doubling down on suits and other classic work clothes, but adding more colors such as bright pink. “We’re making the bet that work may look different—we may not go in the office everyday—but that women will return to work clothes,” said Sali Christeson, the brand’s chief executive.
But dressing for success is at odds with our growing desire for comfort. And for many people, comfort is winning out. Karl Hudson, who oversees marketing for an online gaming company, swapped the leather shoes he wore before the pandemic for Nike sneakers when he returned to his Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K., office a few weeks ago. Some of his co-workers went a step further, pairing shorts with pajama tops. “They look like they just rolled out of bed,” said the 30-year-old.
The easygoing styles are evident in Manhattan’s garment district, where dressing is a way of life. “Everyone comes to work in sneakers now,” said the designer Nicole Miller. “Before we all wore heels.”
The Wall Street Journal’s menswear reporter, Jacob Gallagher, missed a golden opportunity in his piece on the death of the necktie.
Christian Chensvold, author of that brilliant breviary, “These Are Our Failures”, has written extensively on the decline of decorum in this country, or as I like to put it, “American sartorial entropy”.
In “These Are Our Failures”, there is a line that says, to paraphrase, that once men stop wearing ties regularly, the necktie will become extinct.
I’m afraid that time has come. Move over bowler hats, sock gaiters, and button-boots and make way for the necktie!
From “These Are Our Failures”:
“Fashion has its cycles, but not when it comes to formality. Once men stop wearing something, it’s gone forever.”
I might eventually replace the Sperry’s. But I probably made my final purchase from the late great Brooks Brothers a few years ago.
I thought the shirts had to be a joke, but no, they are a thing. Who in their right mind would wear this stuff?
And, my God, they offer a payment plan for the horrid $118 sweatshirt of “4 interest-free payments of $29.5.” Payments on a shirt?
Yes, C, the times are certainly changing — enough to turn a man to drink. I am thinking about a breakfast Dark & Stormy.
Fun weekend to all.
Cheers, BC The Relic
In spite of the doom and gloom regarding the current state of neckties, I see some hope for their place in the future. I wear ties almost everyday to work in a large corporation, and notice on the streets of Manhattan younger millennial professionals like myself, sporting their ties of choice. And we’re talking June in New York.
“Henry, caught between two worlds, seems to be unable to decide whether he should dress Southwick-style or Amazon-style…” funny.
Yet another example of the South vs. the-rest-of-the country divide. Culturally speaking. Were you to visit a law firm in Richmond or Nashville or Memphis or Charlotte or Columbia today, you’d see lots and lots and lots neckties. And they’ll be worn this fall–at Southern (SEC) Saturday afternoon football games. By young people. The president of a southern college recently informed me that recently there was a call (among students) for something resembling a (more formal) dress code–not unlike the Sewanee vibe.
Shelby Foote once suggested (politely and subtly) that much the propriety-driven traditionalism that undergirds Southern culture will never change or dissipate. The roots of all this may be Brooks, and, for a (very) brief blink of an eye, New England prep schools and colleges, but the look took root in the deep soil of the only part of the country that hospitality welcomes-and-embraces tradition(s) for tradition’s sake: the South. Which is why O’ Connell’s ‘ in-store profits would triple in a month if they replicated the wisdom of the Prenner family and moved to Charleston.
Clothing, including men’s clothing, serves one of three purposes. 1.) Weather protection, 2.) Tamp down sexuality in the workplace so work gets done, or 3.) Establish and display social status and allure. As has been normal for most of the last three thousand years, men are again dressing like peacocks, women again dressing like brown-feathered birds in the bushes. Suits and ties — better yet, EXPENSIVE WELL-tailored suits and ties — has been THE Standard for high-end men going on decades. Starting about three years ago with the screaming politics of #metoo, women’s clothing became more and more and more like shower curtains wrapped around their bodies to keep the rain out. Men’s clothing in response, of course, got tighter fitting across chest and shoulders, HIGHER snugger-fit in the inseam. Both will stay that way for decades to come. The trick — for men — is to notice just HOW men’s clothing works (in the present) to effect status and allure. Trust me, the brown-feathered birds kinda “hiding” in the bushes WILL let you know what catches their eye. GOTTA keep up with the times. As we used to say (probably still do say) in Marine Corps boot camp, “If you can’t hack it, fall out.” Life has changed, or has it? Brown-feathered birds, or chicks in micro-skirts and go-go boots are STILL women. Brown-feathered birds don’t rustle in the bushes when they see a man in sweat pants.
I second S.E. Someone posted this in the comments a few weeks back, but it went unanswered, perhaps for the very sentimentality towards Brooks we get in this latest greatest post: will OCBDs ever be available for purchase from them again? All they have now is leftover stock from the last made in NC run. If those go away, plus ties… One of the emails they sent out recently featured a guy in a grey sweatsuit. Maybe it was flannel material…
@ John – re your no.3.
Only by a thin stratum in effete, degenerate, and decadent societies just waiting to be swept away by hard, warlike men on horseback most practically attired in loose tunics/jerkins/sweaters/jackets, trousers, and heeled boots.
This has been the norm from the Bronze Age forward.
Don’t believe me?
Just ask the Romans – both East and West.
The brown birds? They’ll be all dolled up throwing themselves at whomever happens to be in charge at the moment hoping to be saved from a life of toil – or worse.
C’est la vie…
Spartacus – Wear your ties in good health. You give me cause for hope.
19th century travel guides advised people to always dress in their best when sailing aboard passenger vessels. The reason? So that should the vessel founder and you drown and are recovered, your remains will be treated more respectfully.
Charlottesville – Thank you for your kind words. We are doing our part in fighting the good fight.
Hope you and everyone here has a great weekend,
Re: suits attracting women, I can honestly say that I’ve never had a woman stop her car, roll down her window, and tell me how nice I look while I’m dressed casually. I can’t say the same, however, about what happens when I wear a suit.
As someone once noted, to women, seeing men in a suit provokes roughly the same response that men get when seeing women in lingerie.
When in Black Tie at a “Black tie recommended” event, I have received compliments from women (less than) half my age. This does not happen when casually attired.
As far as Brooks, I don’t consider them a luxury brand. I consider their clothing to be geared toward successful (or getting there) working professionals. Given the trend to a more casual office, it is only reasonable for them to have more casual offerings available.
I actually think WFH might have a positive effect on menswear. If you only show up in person 2/3 times a week, you might put more effort into looking good since you have less time to make a positive impression. In addition, dressing well will be less costly (both initial outlay and upkeep) if the garments are not used as often, which might encourage folks to buy fewer items of higher quality.
The coming inflation “might encourage folks to buy fewer items of higher quality”. It happened in the last half of the 1970’s.
Brooks Brothers, or whatever entity is currently dictating its marketing decisions, clearly has a high opinion of its core customers and their sons. Bird-legged sheep. Hot tip. Pro tip. Go long sensible, serious ties with a roaring lion as their corporate symbol.