Brooks Brothers Obituaries

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.

Forbes:

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.

The American Conservative:

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.

Esquire:

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.

The Week:

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.

A Continuous Lean:

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.

31 Comments on "Brooks Brothers Obituaries"

  1. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 16, 2020 at 2:18 pm |

    “Two possible buyers have emerged”…

    The ideal will be a Japanese “Ivy” brand or Ralph Lauren.

  2. Ralph Lauren is to old at this point to have any significant long lasting impact at BB.

  3. Charlottesville | July 16, 2020 at 5:45 pm |

    I agree with Carmelo, but unfortunately I expect it will be someone who loots the remaining assets and further cheapens the brand, rather than following the advice from Forbes to build on the heritage. The 44th and Madison store would be a sizable asset, I imagine, and no-doubt the name has value, but 500 leases and $300 million in debt is a lot to take on to acquire a niche company. I hope some menswear genius can figure it out. Unfortunately I lack both the money and the brains to do it myself. Thank God for J. Press. Long may they waive.

  4. Charlottesville,

    As you say, “Thank God for J. Press…”

    Cheers, BC

  5. Eric Cooley | July 16, 2020 at 8:36 pm |

    Funny, I’m a Seattlite who worked at our downtown Brooks Brothers store about a decade ago. It left a lasting impression on me and I’ve been a Brand loyalist ever since. When I saw that the Red Fleece cafe opened up in NYC, I thought “how cool” — I’d definitely stop by on my next NYC trip. Then COVID happened, and with it saw the inevitable downfall of many, including Brooks Brothers — Lets face it, no one’s shopping for a Fitzgerald suit or Allen Edmunds’ brogues for their next Zoom call.
    Everyone’s hoping and praying for a return to normalcy, and let’s hope BB 1818 joins us.

  6. Charlottesville | July 16, 2020 at 9:00 pm |

    “Tastes vary, of course, and I realize Brooks Brothers isn’t for everyone. But its aficionados are like what Jerry Garcia once said of his Deadhead audience: Not everybody likes licorice, but people who like licorice *really* like licorice. As one such ‘Repp-Head,’ I hope Brooks Brothers survives bankruptcy, with the same commitment to timeless elegance. I am not prepared to attend this corporate funeral — though if I must, I have just the suit for it.”

    Mike Kerrigan, an attorney in Charlotte, N.C., in today’s Wall Street Journal.

    I may have a quibble or two with the piece (like attributing Kris Kristofferson’s great line from “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to the immortal Johnny Cash, who sang but did not write it), but the overall gist is exactly right.

    For those who can get behind the firewall, the whole thing is here, including Kris’s great line: https://www.wsj.com/articles/brooks-brothers-is-a-brand-out-of-time-11594941230?mod=opinion_lead_pos10

  7. Brooks Brothers has lived its company lifecycle. Commonly divided into five stages: launch, growth, shake-out, maturity, and decline. Ralph Lauren is dancing with this issue as well. You have to ask yourself regardless of who acquires them, will you bet $25K of your savings into their stock? ?

  8. How come, numerous old, traditional British brands, both, small and not-too-small, seem to be doing just fine, still selling a lot of “made in UK” products at reasonable prices, but here, in America it appears to be a constant struggle to survive?! Why can’t BB be a small company, similar to J-Press, perhaps, and rely on a limited, but strongly dedicated clientele? Come on!

  9. Hardbopper | July 17, 2020 at 7:47 am |

    Because they are “still selling a lot of “made in UK” products at reasonable prices”.

  10. whiskeydent | July 17, 2020 at 9:18 am |

    Charlottesville
    Which KK line? Perhaps this one: “From the rocking’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse, the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.”

    Or maybe: “Then I headed back for home and somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin’
    And it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.”

    I think these are two of the best lines ever in American music history.

  11. Old School Tie | July 17, 2020 at 9:34 am |

    The British question is very interesting. Does it come down to the manufacturing heritage of the Industrial Revolution? Perhaps the whole British tailoring, shirt-making and shoe manufacturing industries influence the market. Who knows? But there is a lot of choice, relatively speaking and that makes things competitive. There also exists a super-level for almost anything you can wear. Savile Row for tailoring. Green or Cleverley for shoes. Meyrowitz for glasses. Locke for hats. The list goes on without even considering the “designers”, Burberry, Paul Smith, whoever. Of course Drake’s is going to sell its (relatively expensive) wares when they are a fraction of the price of Savile Row etc…I don’t think the US has the same breadth as the sector has in the UK, per capita and per square mile…we are almost obliged to go to those places, so numerous are they. And they cater for all tastes – the Sex Pistols were dressed in Vivienne Westwood and Tommy Nutter and shod in George Cox…all high end and fundamentally traditional (in terms of quality and manufacture) products…

  12. whiskeydent | July 17, 2020 at 10:03 am |

    Old School Tie
    Despite Del Vecchio’s butchering of BB, I don’t think the Italians should be left out. They have a very deep roster of custom tailors (particularly in Naples), high-end designers, fabric mills and shoe-makers. Pitti Uomo is a huge influence on the industry worldwide. Currently, I think they have more influence on the silhouette of men’s suits in the U.S. than the Brits. I’m not a fan of their short, drape-less jackets, but at least they generally prefer a natural shoulders.

  13. Charlottesville | July 17, 2020 at 10:11 am |

    Whiskeydent – The first line you quoted is from “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” which is undoubtedly a great song, as are so many of Kristofferson’s. The second is from “SMCD” but is not the one referred to in the WSJ piece. It was: “Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt.” An apt reference for the way most people dress these days.

    Old School Tie – Sounds delightful. I haven’t visited Britain since the ’90s, when people generally seemed polite and mostly well dressed, at least where I traveled. Is that still generally the case, or have things fallen off the precipice as they seem to have done here? I still see a well-dressed man now and then, especially in Washington and Manhattan, or locally on rarer occasions, but the norm is t-shirts, shorts, fleece, sneakers (Trainers? Plimsoles?), all set off by prominent tattoos. I am usually the only man in a coat and tie on any but the most formal occasions, although women still seem to wear skirts and dresses and almost always look better than the men accompanying them.

  14. As long Mainline Protestantism and its historically robust influence make it, the clothes we here exalt and chronicle will make it–natural shoulder clothing, striped ties, khakis, penny loafers, OCBDs.

    All the talk about the Jewish ownership and Italian tailoring of the old outposts — it’s beside the point. They would’ve had nothing to make, market or sell without members of Presbyterian sessions and Episcopal vestries.

    It’s just, well, a fact.

    Protestantism is more than just a religious tradition consisting of a few denominations. It’s a way of thinking and believing…and, yes, I’ll say it– sounding and looking. It’s a cultural force. And a powerful one, at that. Its scope (reach) was so extensive and penetrating that, with the passing of time, everybody else (who wasn’t Protestant) kinda-sorta ‘got on board’ the Protestant train.

    I suspect the shop-and- store owners who visit the site know as much.

    The “P” in WASP matters (arguably) more than the W, the AS.

  15. whiskeydent | July 17, 2020 at 11:44 am |

    SE
    The mainline churches are becoming off-line. The Presbyterian and Episcopal churches have shed millions of members since their declines began in the mid-60’s. If Trad’s future lies with them, then it’s in major trouble too.

    Moreover, I think you’ve gone a step too far in equating your experience with everyone else’s. It’s certainly not “a fact” for me even though I was raised Presbyterian, my dad’s father was one of its ministers, another ancestor founded a Presbyterian seminary, and some of my Scottish ancestors were a sept of the Bruce (I bleed both Scot and scotch). However, I was also raised on Air Force bases and on the Texas Coast. That’s a long way from the northeast, both in mileage and culture.

    I think a bit more more inclusion is needed for Trad/Ivy to survive. Otherwise, empty pews could lead to empty stores.

  16. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 17, 2020 at 12:08 pm |

    1-“How come, numerous old, traditional British brands, both, small and not-too-small, seem to be doing just fine, still selling a lot of “made in UK” products at reasonable prices, but here, in America it appears to be a constant struggle to survive?! Why can’t BB be a small company, similar to J-Press, perhaps, and rely on a limited, but strongly dedicated clientele”?

    2-“Brooks Brothers Is a Brand Out of Time”

    The answer to 1 is at 2.
    The main problem is that our American friends are too much (and increasingly in the last decades) fascinated with “new” things and (apart from exceptions)not too much devoted to traditions.
    An American phrase that has always struck me is “nobody wants to dress like his father”? Why? i want dress as my father,because he had well cut bespoke suits in a classic “timeless” style.
    At most i could want update some proportions (widyh of trousers,breadth of lapels and so),but i don’t want brand new things only because are new.
    We Europeans ( and Italians and British above all)are still bound (despite everything) to traditions and heritage.
    Another cultural difference is that in Europe “small is better”; little or mid sized brands are better that huge company faceless.
    In a better world Brooks Brothers would have remained a renowed haberdashery/custom/ready to wear shop in New York,with a couple of branches in America.

  17. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 17, 2020 at 12:28 pm |

    Old School Tie
    “Despite Del Vecchio’s butchering of BB, I don’t think the Italians should be left out. They have a very deep roster of custom tailors (particularly in Naples), high-end designers, fabric mills and shoe-makers. Pitti Uomo is a huge influence on the industry worldwide. Currently, I think they have more influence on the silhouette of men’s suits in the U.S. than the Brits. I’m not a fan of their short, drape-less jackets, but at least they generally prefer a natural shoulders”.

    Well,in Italy we have different regional silhouettes,and the bespoke and the classic brands are not so deep in the short/tight shape (a thin difference of class is that who dress in too fashionalbe suits is…well.. not much refined).

    But the real problem is that Del Vecchio have never understood the nature,the essence of Brooks Brothers and of the American “trad” style.
    A happy contamination could be a Neapolitan jacket UNDARTED; would have been on line with the BB tradition,and would have given a distinctive silhouette,different from others brands.
    “The Milano”? “The Regent”? “The Madison”? oh,come on,you can found similiar crap in cheap outlet in Italy.
    They have not soul!

  18. whiskeydent–

    you may be right. I’ll reflect.

    Still, a fact is a fact: the look (clothes) we like, praise and wear–they’re rooted in the experiences, values, and tastes of the WASPs of old. To separate the style from the culture is like separating vestments from liturgy. Doesn’t make sense–historically or sociologically. Ultimately, clothing isn’t about “style” (whatever that’s come to mean –??). An extension of appearance/grooming, it’s about public manners.

    Protestantism is more than just a religious tradition consisting of a few denominations–a way of worshiping and theologizing. It’s a way of thinking and being — of sounding and looking. It’s a cultural force. And a powerful one, at that. Its scope (reach) was so extensive and penetrating that, with the passing of time, everybody else (who wasn’t Protestant) kinda-sorta ‘got on board’ the Protestant train. The Protestant Reformation reforms still.

    Even today, we look upon the excesses and vulgarities of our culture–from entertainment to fast (junk) food to professional sports
    –through a Calvinist lens. We know how disgusting, crass, garish, slothful, and cheap many parts of our culture have become. We’re well aware. We just don’t do much to address it. So, our greatest sin–the quintessentially American sin–abides: Hubris.

    It makes sense to me. If somebody stops me on a street of a city and asks, “Why, in this pandemic moment, are you wearing a blazer, button-down, khakis, and striped tie,” I might respond: “Oh? This getup? Easily explained. You see, my parents were Southern Episcopalians.” The person, if even a little bit in-the-know, would smile and nod and walk away — “Ah, of course. Now I understand.”

    I refer to an earlier reference to Barone and post-War America’s unifying/codifying of “Americanness.”

  19. And let’s be careful about treating the apocalyptic prophecies as gospel. There are LOTS of people predicting the death of Ivy because they so passionately SEEK (hope for) its demise. Its affiliations–with puritanical ethics, plainness, traditional manners, all things patrician, aversion to the avant garde–
    –drive a lot of people up the damned wall.

  20. whiskeydent | July 17, 2020 at 3:34 pm |

    Dad-gummit Charlottesville!
    I mixed the two songs. Sigh.

  21. Lots of great discussions!

    I would add that Brooks Brothers itself is probably worth zero because of the debt they have assumed, the lease obligations and because it was operating at break-even pre-Covid. I think Brooks can be saved by moving production offshore and restructuring lease obligations and addressing their overall cost structure. Focusing more heavily on selling through their online channel.

    However, brands do not remain static – and Brooks has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. They will need a good steward to lead the brand into the future.

    For at least a decade, I have been purchasing all of my Brooks brothers clothing online. I have only visited a BB store a couple times in that time period to browse. I know my size – and I have a local tailor who can work on jackets and pants that I buy online from BB.

    I’m sure the current owner deeply regrets not moving faster and sooner to sell BB. Hundreds of millions in valuation have been lost the last few months.

  22. Charlottesville | July 17, 2020 at 5:28 pm |

    whiskeydent – An easy mistake to make when the man wrote so many terrific songs. John Prine is another in that category. I am glad that I got to see them both perform over the years,and I retain a good many of their lyrics somewhere in my brain, which can keep me “singing” silently to myself when I wake up in the wee hours and can’t get back to sleep for some reason.

  23. Charlottesville | July 18, 2020 at 10:50 am |

    The news keeps coming in. According to the WSJ:

    The race to buy Brooks Brothers out of bankruptcy is about to get a little more crowded with a group of Italian investors planning to bid for the quintessential American clothing brand and introduce some European flair.

    Milan-based Giglio Group GG 0.75% SpA, which helps fashion companies improve online sales, is spearheading the group of investors. If successful, Giglio plans to install Italian managers with fashion-industry experience and close stores to free up funds to invest in digital.

    “It’s going to be a tough fight, but I like our chances,” Mr. Giglio said. “We normally help brands rather than buy them, but the opportunity to remake an iconic brand like Brooks Brothers from zero was too appealing to pass up.”

    The full article is here, behind the firewall: https://www.wsj.com/articles/brooks-brothers-latest-suitor-wants-to-bring-italian-flair-to-american-fashion-11595064809?mod=hp_lista_pos3

    At least, the plan is to keep the American factories open, but I fear that the Italian design influence will be more of what Del Vecchio was doing, rather than what our friend Carmelo suggests.

  24. Vern Trotter | July 19, 2020 at 6:18 am |

    Miscellany:

    It is fitting that John Quincy Adams was the first President to wear Brooks. He was his father’s secretary and translator in our Paris embassy at age 14. Still considered the smartest to ever graduate from Harvard. How do they know? Relax. So far as I know he never owned slaves.

    Southern Episcopal? The only place always to find a real low church. I went to one years ago in Eastern North Carolina that read the hymns aloud instead of singing them. Bookies are giving odds on the life of the Episcopal Church.

    The death of Ivy? They said that about the one button roll. Some members of the Democrat party are still wearing it in pink and black sans shirt, underwear, socks and matching shoes.

    You are not a real Wasp unless your people were at the Battle Of Hastings.

    Songs Ivy? Only Mozart please.

    Maybe Prince Harry will buy BB and put in some kind of family trust with his share of the Queen’s and Prince Charles’ assets now that his Frau has him living in a Community Property state.

  25. Vern Trotter | July 19, 2020 at 6:21 am |

    Untouchable trust.

  26. Old School Tie | July 19, 2020 at 8:18 am |

    As for the “P” in WASP being important in all of this, if course it is. I myself am Catholic, educated by the Jesuits, married to a Spanish girl. A very good friend of mine, native New Yorker and also Jesuit educated, who lives in my wife’s city in Spain and whom I see whenever I am over, has exactly the same attitude as myself when it comes to Spain (or indeed Italy) which is….idolators! So strong is the Protestant mindset that even Catholics from Protestant countries have the pared down, no-nonsense approach to life and indeed everything (comparatively speaking). Whilst the Italians may well espouse a natural shoulder, I just cannot be doing with all the puckering, ruching, shortness and fussiness. My absolute nightmare would be to end up looking like some Pitti monstrosity.

  27. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 20, 2020 at 10:15 am |

    Well,Old School Tie , this is true.
    A thing that strike the Italians ( i don’t know if is the same for Spanish and southern French) is that the Catholics in Protestant countries take the whole matter very ( maybe too much) seriously.
    The truth is that in Italy (and i think in the mediterranean countries)under the coat of paint of Catholicism,the dear old paganism is alive.
    The Saints,with their holydays, are the ancient Gods in fancy dress,and the many Madonnas are indeed Isis,Demeter,Artemis,Athena,in disguise ( the many processions on boats of Maria in the coastal cities of Sicily and south Italy are the old “navigium Isidis” rite.
    Well,nobody can say that we in Italy are not..”trad”.

  28. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 20, 2020 at 10:51 am |

    ..And obviously,while the Neapolitans can do a wonderful natural shoulder,like or better the best Brooks Brothers in old times, the philosophy behind is very different.
    The Wasp have a natural shoulders in their jacket for work more easily, the Neapolitans for be more comfortable in the leisure.

  29. ‘How come, numerous old, traditional British brands, both, small and not-too-small, seem to be doing just fine, still selling a lot of “made in UK” products at reasonable prices, but here, in America it appears to be a constant struggle to survive?!’

    I know a very small number of British brands that still sell made in the UK products. Likewise I know a small number of US brands that still sell made in the US products. Despite having lived in the UK from birth to age 47 I know of no one personally who wears made in UK clothing.

    In all honesty British clothing rarely interests me so you may be correct however I’d be interested to know what these numerous British clothing brands are that still do made in the UK product. Mackintosh, Pringle, John Smedley plus various Scottish manufacturers of Shetlands are the only ones I can think of. Grenfell are ‘designed and crafted in London’ – I assume crafted is a subtle way of saying that some of the construction is outsourced. Aquascutum don’t seem to mention where their clothes are made – draw your own conclusions.

  30. It seems that a number of “smallish” British brands
    (Cordings for example) may do well because not only do they cater to a certain gentleman and lady’s traditional daily wardrobe (UK trad?), but they also are experts in outfitting those whom love traditional sporting clothes (Think shooting tweeds and cricket sweaters). Maybe if more USA shops catered to specific traditional countryside sports over the decades like equestrian endeavors, fox chasing, tennis whites and say maybe old-fashioned fly fishing they would have faired better. Of course those shooting tweed sales in GB are largely tied to the stalking business on private estates (each estate with their own tweed) which the US does not have. Imagine Brooks Brothers selling the American hunter’s garb of choice, “camo”.

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