The past week has seen a slew of features in major publications on the announcement that Brooks Brothers is bankrupt. Many see it as the end of this hallowed American institution and symbolic of a certain period in American life that has reached its end. Here’s a roundup along with some choice passages.
Brooks Brothers did attempt casual attire. Brooks Brothers entered casual wear with its Golden Fleece wardrobe. Competitive brands had casual street cred. The avant-garde line of clothing designed by Thom Browne, Black Fleece, also faltered after initial acceptance. By creating clothing lines that focused on casual, youthful attire, Brooks Brothers abandoned its core essence of dignified authority in formal clothing. Instead of ignoring their core, brands must make their core relevant. Don’t abandon a strong heritage; build on it.
Of course, Brooks can be salvaged. Some investor will pick it up and strip its assets. And yet, for the first time in two centuries, they’ll probably have to surrender their “Made in America” boast. It will be a “Maker and Merchant” no more, but a merchant only.
That should grieve all patriotic Americans. The history of Brooks Brothers is intimately bound up with the history of our republic. They have outfitted every president since John Quincy Adams. Ulysses S. Grant commissioned them to make uniforms for his Union officers; Theodore Roosevelt did the same for his Rough Riders. Abraham Lincoln was dressed in a Brooks suit the night he was assassinated; it had a custom lining worthy of an MMA fighter: an eagle carrying a banner that read, “One Country, One Destiny.” Brooks Brothers designed the very first athletic-cut suit especially for John F. Kennedy and named it “the Fitzgerald” in his honor.
And, as of this morning, that’s looking increasingly likely. Two possible buyers have emerged, and if you’ve been following the frenetic boom-and-bust cycle that’s been retail’s MO recently, one of them probably seems mighty familiar. Authentic Brands Group, the management company that bought Barneys New York after a protracted auction process last year, is expected to put in a bid on yet another American apparel mainstay, in partnership with Simon Property Group. ABG’s interest lends credence to the idea that Brooks Brothers’ intellectual property still resonates strongly with enough customers to warrant resuscitating the brand—in name, at least—by continuing to sell a pared-down selection of core products.
Many people have the wrong idea about the company founded in 1818 as H. and D.H. Brooks. So far from being elitist or “preppy,” Brooks Brothers was remarkably egalitarian precisely because it had been worn so long by so many without significantly changing. It is a good thing in a republic, however far gone into decadence, for the president to be dressed in the same manner as the humblest citizen. Brooks, where I received my first real dress clothes, belongs to the noble but almost vanished tradition of cultural aspiration that once led millions of Americans of all class backgrounds to purchase encyclopedias and Time Life boxed sets of the great composers and to read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples and Barbara Tuchman.
You could see the race to the bottom as the brand became more and more volume focused. Later a huge portion of the ground floor at 346 became a cafe a la Ralph’s Coffee on 5th Avenue — although the comparison stops at the inspiration. While Ralph Lauren executed a rich and beautiful experience, the Red Fleece cafe or whatever it is called just felt like an easy way to use up store space. It felt like something a failing department store would do. When I saw that for the first time I knew right then that Brooks Brothers was f/cked.