Our impromptu Madison Avenue series continues with unconfirmed reports that the supreme symbol of the Ivy League Look in New York — Brooks Brothers’ flagship store at 346 Madison Avenue — will not reopen. The building is evidently owned separately from the company and is not part of the deal with the new owners. If anyone can confirm, perhaps by peering in the windows, if they’re not boarded up, please do so.
In the meantime, yesterday my colleague Christian Barker from The Rake put up a piece on his website Mens Top Tens. It’s written by Alan Flusser and is entitled “10 Steps To Reonstructing Brooks Brothers.”
It is undeniable that over the past 30 years changing market forces have taken their toll, with the casualization of the workplace no doubt outpacing change at the storied brand. It is also true that since the 1980s, the menswear business has largely been driven by designer brands and in the specific case of Brooks Brothers, designer Ralph Lauren having stolen their thunder and monopoly over the preppy, Ivy League strain of American fashion that the retailer originally invented.
However, in the face of all this, I would counter that Brooks Brothers’ supposed slump is less marketplace driven and more merchandise abetted, the result of a gradual distancing from its true fashion legacy — its treasury of authentic pre-war classics and promise of time-tested good taste. Brooks Brothers survived the Great Depression in the 1930s, Carnaby Street and the Peacock revolution in the 1960’s, and the designer explosion in the 1970s by building their merchandise assortments around the extraordinary number of iconic articles of apparel that they either designed, brokered from Europe, or marketed into popular fashion prior to the outbreak of WWII. There was very little in the way of upper-class fashion that the firm not only pioneered but created from within.
In 1982, Brooks decided to transport its century-plus repository of fashion literature from lodgings at 346 Madison Avenue to a storage facility outside Washington, D.C. In one corner of the so-named History Factory sits the most extensive and invaluable collection of menswear memorabilia ever assembled.
Staged on floor-to-ceiling shelving units sit stacks of vintage catalogues, specialized merchandise brochures, dressing manuals, salesmen primers, store history pamphlets, client ledgers, and miniature hand-bound, hard-cover guides on the rules and approved attire for various sports like tennis, golf, sailing, and polo, all arranged according to year. Opening one of their elegant illustrated catalogues from the 1930s is to enter menswear’s Golden Age when periodicals like Apparel Arts and Esquire became bibles and collector’s items of modern fashion education and thinking — starting a sartorial conversation that Brooks had a lot to do with helping to articulate and shape.
It’s hard to imagine an aggregation of anything, no less the original and complete design library of America’s most famous menswear brand, that could better inform or guide a rebranding effort. Any designer or merchant worth his salt would go weak-kneed from the sheer abundance of so much authentic and innovative material found within its pages. If the adage “sometimes looking back lets you know whether or not you are headed in the right direction” holds any truth, that such a treasure actually exists is almost providential, if not miraculous. Or someone looking in from the outside world would have thought so.
Having visited Brooks’ archive twice during the course of researching my various books on men’s style, I remember leaving both times mulling over the same notion. While sowing trust in their unique and rich connection to America’s heritage and culture, having disbursed such a sustained volume of company literature into the popular culture for so many years must have buffered the Brooks’ customer base from the company’s slow downward slide. Any other retail establishment would have succumbed years earlier, unable to maintain the façade of business-as-usual for such a protracted time frame. Until it finally caught up with them.
It’s a lengthy and important essay, and you can find it right here. — CC