Editor’s Note: Reprinted with permission from the FB group by member Jim Moore, who is an English Teacher and Squash Coach at Blair Academy. That’s him pictured.
It is almost too easy to pile on to Brooks Brothers these days; we all, it seems, have a story about how this once great firm, to whose standards we aspired, on whom we relied, has lost its way, shifting its attention from its core patrons to a fickle market. And yet, we still tell those stories, still take offense, shouting, as it were, into the wilderness (or at least cyberspace), as if someone at Corporate might hear and, thinking it over, might decide that they should, say, train the salespeople how to dress properly, or that the margins they might make on logoed hoodies are not worth the damage to the brand displaying those items at the front of the store might cause. The truth is, we’ve been jilted by Brooks, and because we still have feelings for it, sometimes, if we’re in the neighborhood, we drop in, to look at how it’s doing, and, maybe, to see if it still might harbor some feelings for us.
It doesn’t. We need to get over it. Let me explain.
As I switched out the cottons, linens, and frescos for the woolens last week, it became apparent that it was time for a new pair of grey flannels. I’m a tough size, so it’s important for me to buy my tailoring at a shop; alas, the folks who get most of my custom these days– O’Connell’s, Press, Juniors– are a fair hike from where I live, and my visits to them require more time than I had. But I don’t live far from a Brooks outpost, which resides in a pleasant outdoor mall, so I made the trip there just to see; they advertised grey flannels on the website, a fairly standard item that I had purchased from Brooks before.
I should have kept walking to Starbucks when I saw the Brooks window display. To be sure, I didn’t expect the level of creativity and attention to detail in the Paul Stuart windows lining that block of Madison Avenue, but how hard can it be to find a suit in the back room that fits the mannequin?
I was there, though, so I entered and was almost immediately approached by an admittedly chipper and well-groomed young man who, while not in a suit, was attired in what some call Smart Casual: OCBD, quilted vest, khakis. I asked after the flannels, and he laughed.
“No, we don’t have anything like that here.”
“No grey flannels?”
“No, definitely not.” He was grinning, though a bit bemused. “We do have some flannel shirts, though.”
Now I understood: he thought I was asking about cotton flannel, the fabric of which the Bean’s down at the other end of the mall had stacks, in fetching plaids. “Who wears cotton flannel pants?” he must have been thinking. “Ha ha.”
“I’m talking about wool flannels. They’re trousers. To be tailored.” I was going to explain that one wears them with blazers and Odd Jackets, or perhaps, at Sunday brunch, with a Viyella shirt and Shetland sweater, but I knew that would lead only to further confusion. I did learn, for this lad was eager, that there were some “finished” wool trousers in another room, so I went to see; those items were, alas, already hemmed and looked, frankly, cheap. As there was no evidence in the establishment of an actual tailor, I realized that this store was one step up from the Gap, a sort of J. Crew without the panache and sense of fun.
I excused myself and wandered toward the door, pausing at a table of soft crew neck sweaters whose colors might have passed muster at Ben Silver. They could still do it, I thought, if they wanted to. (We are, after all, possessed of Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope.”) Then the manager came over and explained that this store didn’t get the good stuff, that if I were to go to the larger malls, the Brooks stores there would likely have more of what I was looking for. (The sales clerk helpfully added that a men’s store in a nearby town catered to the more “niche” clientele, of which I was evidently a member.)
“So is this an outlet store?”
“Oh, no, this is retail.” (This just confused me further.) “It’s just that the flagships get the stuff you’re looking for.”
They were pleasant enough, but I knew I wouldn’t head to the malls that day, if ever. The whiff of decay I had picked up one day a couple of decades ago, when the neurasthenic approach of a salesclerk in what used to be the very fine Brooks on Walnut in Philadelphia scotched his chance to sell me an entire set of dinner clothes, I knew now had been the harbinger of the long, slow death of something that seemed as if it would be there for us forever.
And yet… and yet. And yet, I couldn’t help but think about Lazarus and phoenixes rising from ashes. Might it be possible for Brooks to once again delight its customers, even as they instruct; might they lead?
Then, as I walked out the door, I turned back to consider one of those Shetlands. I picked it up and saw, on the left chest, an embroidered Golden Fleece logo. I put it back down.
Perhaps Brooks will rise again, but not on my dime.