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