Removing the Ivy League Stigma: Plimpton on Brooks

In 1993, five-odd years under new owners Marks & Spencer, now widely agreed to have veered the brand drastically off course, Brooks Brothers took out a six-page advertorial in The Atlantic Monthly celebrating its 175 years in business.

Literary heavyweight George Plimpton was hired to write the text, which combines history with everyday goings-on at the Madison Avenue flagship.

Like our previous post, containing an article on Brooks from 1991, the advertorial is an interesting PR move at a time when the company was struggling to redefine itself.

* * *

Under The Golden Fleece
By George Plimpton

Asked to check out Brooks Brothers on its 175th anniversary, I thought it best to outfit myself for the visit from head to foot in their clothing. It was not too difficult, since I have been a patron for years, as was my father before me, and his father before him. I missed out only on the shoes. I have an unnaturally wide foot, a triple E, and their shoe department stops at a single E, shoes that would have caused a wince at every step if I could have squeezed into them. But the rest was all theirs — socks, underwear, tie, a white button-down shirt, and a slightly rumpled seersucker suit, which was appropriate because it was a hot summer day. The blue flag with its legend attesting to “175 Years of American Style” hung listlessly in the heat over Forty-fourth Street.

Once inside the pleasant cool of the store, I was taken in hand by Wayne Sheridan, a salesman on the first floor. He has been employed by Brooks Brothers for thirty-five years. That is by no means remarkable. Indeed, the employment record is held by salesman Joseph Mancini, who retired in 1992 after sixty-six years of service. Another salesman, Frederick Webb, worked in the store selling suits up through his eighties. Among his steady customers (“see you” patrons, in the jargon of the store) were members of the Morgan banking family. He served five generations of them during his sixty-five years of service. He could never bring himself to judge when the young Morgans reached an age when it was no longer appropriate for him to call them by their first names: no easy solution. So he simply continued on a first-name basis with Morgan family members throughout their lives.

Mr. Sheridan, being on the first floor, which features ties, shirts, and men’s accessories, does not have quite the “see you” patronage situation enjoyed by the suit salesmen on the fourth. But he told me he had once sold a button-down shirt to Joan Collins. He remembers John F. Kennedy in his senatorial days, walking past the tie counter with his hands in his coat pockets.

We walked over to his tie counter. I asked how many were sold on a good day, and he said upwards of a thousand. Noticing one with a pattern of seals balancing beach balls on their noses, I commented that I had expected only regimental ties.

“The animal ties do very well,” he told me. ‘They bring in the younger group.” He smiled. “Ralph Lauren started his career standing just where you are — selling ties. He worked here for two years and then started designing ties on his own. Paul Stuart up the street started selling them for him.”

“Why not Brooks Brothers?” I asked.

“His designs were before their time — at least that was the opinion among the marketing people: too wide they thought.”

Mr. Sheridan smiled again and asked if I’d like to take a crack at selling ties. He said he’d try to steer some Japanese patrons to the counter; there were bound to be a lot of them in the store. In fact, he went on to say, these days the Japanese head the list of foreign patrons. They carry their calculators with them, their eyes widen when they figure out what extraordinary bargains are available. The Italians come next. Giovanni Agnelli, the gentleman who runs Fiat, buys at Brooks Brothers frequently. “He buys lots and lots of shirts,” said Mr. Sheridan as he went off looking for some Japanese.

They wandered by eventually — a solemn-looking couple. “How about these seals balancing balls on their noses?” I said. “Very popular with the young crowd.” The pair inspected the tie gravely, and then moved on without a word.

I remarked to Mr. Sheridan that Ralph Lauren probably had had his bad days, and then I wondered aloud if his innovative design ideas would have been accepted by today’s marketing people.

“Oh, there have been many, many changes in company policies,” Mr. Sheridan said. “Many.”

A bit of background. The store was founded — “established” is the proper Brooks Brothers term — on April 7, 1818, by Henry Sands Brooks. A dapper dresser, he often traveled to Europe to supplement his wardrobe. What he brought back, especially his colorful waistcoats, was the envy of his friends. Considering that the bulk of his transatlantic luggage began to consist of materials, coats, waistcoats they had begged him to purchase for them, it was a natural step to go into the business professionally. For $17,000 he bought a frame building with an arcade that stretched over the sidewalks of Catharine and Cherry Streets, on a corner near Franklin Square, then the center of New York’s mercantile district and within blocks of the more fashionable residences of the time. The articles that could be purchased ready-made were folded and laid out in neat row on tables. On pleasant days some of the suits were hung outdoors on hangers, flapping in a breeze like laundry on a line — a primitive precursor of the display window.

The store moved five times — each time farther uptown toward its present location on Madison Avenue and Forty-fourth Street and bringing with it traditions that became increasingly hallowed over the years. Throughout its history it catered to a clientele that prided itself on its sense of taste and its fastidiousness. Andrew Mellon, the banker and philanthropist, spent long minutes at the tie counter before selecting what he wanted —always black with small white figures — which he would invariably take outside to see how it looked in the sunlight. So staid was the organization that its credit department would not allow Rudolph Valentino — who fancied Brooks Brothers hats — to open an account at the height of his career.

In 1976, when the company lowered the top button on its suits by half an inch, it was considered a cataclysmic step by die-hard customers. All of this was very much in keeping with the principle laid down by the founder, namely “to make and deal in merchandise of only the best quality, to sell it at a fair profit only, and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise.”

This attitude of exclusivity was best summed up by Frederick Brooks, company vice president, in 1889. He closed the store on Saturdays because of the “outsiders” who crowded the premises on that day. “Who are all these people?” he asked. “We must save the merchandise for all our regular customers.”

Of course, it was exactly this brand of elitism, carried on through the years, that made Brooks Brothers a world-famous institution, and indeed lured “outsiders” into the store. Given this tradition, one might suppose that the company’s policies have remained rather rigid over the years. Not at all. The store — to the surprise of many — has often been a pioneer in men’s fashion. Among other things, it is responsible for:

Ready-made Clothing: Brooks Brothers has in its records an 1859 advertisement that decorously states that Brooks was the first to offer ready-made clothing. No date is given, and it’s a difficult fact to check; but since advertising copy has always been edited by executives steeped in the Brooks tradition of the “soft sell,” it seems inconceivable that they would claim an innovation if it weren’t so.

English Foulard Ties: These are not the ties I was trying to sell to the Japanese couple. Conservative, largely patterned after the regimental and club ties of England, they were reputedly introduced by Francis G. Lloyd in the 1890s before he was made president of the corporation. He was a tall, dominating figure of great energy and brilliance; he could add up columns of fourdigit numbers in his head, and since he refused to believe others couldn’t do the same, the accounting departments were denied adding machines until after his death in 1920. His taste was admirable. Many of the design blocks still used for printing Brooks ties were selected by Lloyd when he was in England. Incidentally, the stripes on the regimental and club ties are reversed so that a wearer in London, say, will not run the risk of being accosted by an angry club member demanding to know why he is wearing a tie to which he is not entitled.

The Shetland Sweater: This classic sweater, made of the soft, firm wool of the Shetland sheep, was introduced in 1904. The original imports were irregular in size and texture; moreover the wool absorbed many of the domestic smells of the peasant homes where it was spun, including smoked herring, and on dampish days often exuded an odor that was almost unbearable. The process was eventually refined until, in 1912, women stormed the store in search of the Shetland sweater; with its pungency gone, it was no longer — along with such odiferous items as a wet hunting dog in front of a fire and a pipe — a man’s exclusive property.

The Button-down Shirt: Surely the store’s best-known product. In 1896 John Brooks, the grandson of the founder, sent a polo player’s shirt back to the main store from England. It featured a button-down collar which kept the collar wings from flying up during play. Why this should be an attraction off the polo field is somewhat of a mystery since one’s collar wings, even if not buttoned down, are not apt to fly up, say, while one is getting into a taxi. Nonetheless, the button-down shirt has persevered; indeed, it is the store’s best-seIler (500,000 a year), and a familiar adjunct to the Ivy League Look. These button-downs receive not only popular support but critical acclaim as well: this year’s August Consumer Reports puts Brooks Brothers shirts at the top of the list in both the All Cotton and the Cotton/Polyester categories, besting thirteen competitors in the first group and twenty-three in the second.

The Polo Coat: This item also came out of the game of polo — a coat, white in color, originally designed with a full belt, to throw over the riding habit following a match. The store introduced the polo coat about 1910. It went through a color transformation, from white to gray, then finally to camel. Men had the style to themselves for a decade before young women stepped in and adopted it in the early twenties. It has faded somewhat from public view, but then in the faddish world of fashion, who knows? The game of polo is enjoying a great resurgence; perhaps the coat will accompany it.

The Pink Shirt: Actually shirts in this startling color have been on sale in the store since before 1900 — an item not especially sought after, until suddenly, overnight, it became a sensation, snapped up by the Madison Avenue advertising fraternity in the postwar period to go with charcoal-gray suits. Women were responsible for the other great run on the pink shirt. The late forties had seen a slow but increasing sale of men’s button-down shirts to wives and daughters until the pink shirt suddenly caught on: thousands sold at eight dollars each.

The Sack Suit: This famous “silhouette” — as the term goes — was introduced shortly before the turn of the century. At Brooks Brothers it is referred to by the rather unprepossessing name of “Number One Sack Suit.” Three-buttoned and single-breasted, with natural shoulders and straight-hanging lines, the suit has remained relatively unchanged since 1895. Only two of the three buttons are visible, the top one tucked behind a lapel — quite indicative of Brooks Brothers’ sense of tradition, to keep a button about as useful to the wearer as an appendix. There are some who have criticized the sack suit: it takes away any sense of individuality; it is so anonymous that it offends no one; anyone wearing it can walk into just about any social occasion and be acceptably attired. No one objects to a dark blue suit, a button-down shirt, and a regimental tie; this serves the same function as a uniform. Those who would disagree suggest that is exactly the point, that the sack suit indeed makes a statement — its wearer is unique and his head has not been turned by the fads of the time. After all, in French the business suit is known as the complet (or in Italian, the completo), a word that means absolute, total, comprehensive. Nothing more is needed.

Madras: This material, popular in jackets, trousers, and shorts, was introduced from India via Brooks Brothers to the public in 1920.

Argyles: Brooks’ president in the late forties, John Clark Wood, noticed a fellow golfer wearing a pair of strikingly patterned hand-knit socks. He borrowed the pattern, which had come originally from a pattern book inherited from a great-grandmother; Brooks Brothers became the first American retailer to manufacture argyle hose.

Wash-and-Wear Shirts: In 1953 the store pioneered these shirts, made of Brooksweave, a blend of Dacron, polyester and cotton. The blend was first used in oxford shirts and fabrics for suits and sportswear. Typical of Brooks Brothers’ soft-sell restraint: when the store decided the public should hear of this remarkable development, the innovation was presented in a brief description accompanied by the suggestion that “it might be of interest.”

Light-weight Summer Suits: The first lightweight summer suits made of cotton corduroy and seersucker (the same material I was wearing) were introduced during the early thirties.

Quite a list! And it’s hardly exhaustive. Last year, the company introduced The Wardrobe Suit Collection, which allows customers to select jackets and pants separately for better-fitting readymade suits.

The famed Golden Fleece has been Brooks Brothers’ trademark since the 1850s. Often jocularly referred to by the saIesmen as a “pig in a sling,” it is in fact a sheep suspended in a ribbon. It was a symbol of
British woolen merchants, and before that of the Knights of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Each knight wore the emblem over his heart; it symbolized the Lamb of God.

The logo has become such a familiar status symbol that it apparently has value even when it isn’t attached to anything. There are stories of customers buying the least expensive item in the store bearing the Brooks Brothers logo and then transferring the Fleece to something more substantial — perhaps to a suit of inferior make. “An empty gesture,” a salesman informed me. “That certainly wouldn’t fool us.” He went on to describe a man who nervously asked for an athletic supporter and then turned it down because it did not have the Brooks Brothers label.

“So it’s safe to say that the logo itself is responsible for many of the sales,” I suggested.

“Oh yes. A cap with the Golden Fleece insignia on the front is a big seller,” he told me. “Pique-knit sports shirts with the logo on the front sell easily over a hundred a day.”

I asked about the colors the patrons of different nationalities seem to prefer and was told that the Italians buy the entire spectrum available but that the Japanese shy away from the reds, the hot pinks. “They stick to navy, black, and white and only rarely venture into color.”

“Do they buy seersucker suits?” I asked.

“Very American,” the salesman said obliquely

“I trust you’ve noticed that I’m wearing a Brooks Brothers seersucker.”

“Without a doubt.”

The fourth floor is the sanctum sanctorum where customers are introduced to the Number One Sack Suit. A suit at Brooks Brothers these days costs anywhere from $295 to $895 (the readymades, popularly described as “of-the-rack”) on up to $1,600, the so-called “special order” where the suit is tailor-made to the client’s specifications.

Often as many as fifteen new orders are made during the day, and, of course, customers come in to have second and third fittings as well. The fourth floor remains very much as I remember it from my first visits — the cavernous room almost ecclesiastically quiet. I said to a salesman that it looked about the same. He shook his head. “There have been changes,” he said emphatically.

I went up to the executive offices on the eighth floor to hear about some of them with William Roberti, who has been in charge of operations at Brooks Brothers since January 1990. We met in his office — a comfortable corner room, complete with fireplace, quite clublike in tone, which in fact does not reflect Mr. Roberti’s background at all. He admits to not being a tried-and-true customer, though to my unpracticed eye he appeared to be wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. I asked, and he was. A powerfully built man, he is a lieutenant colonel in the army reserve, and indeed had just returned from maneuvers. A no-nonsense character.

“What we’ve tried to do is make the store more customer-friendly,” he explained. ”The notion for years was that Brooks Brothers was a private club, and that doesn’t make good business sense. The fact is that the only denominator is good taste, good quality, and good value. And that means for everybody.”

I asked how one went about removing the Ivy League stigma.

“Well, expansion, of course, is part of it,” he said. “We have expanded the operation not only nationwide but around the world. There are fifty-eight regular stores in this country, not including twenty-two “factory outlet” stores in places like Freeport, Maine. Then there are forty-five stores in Japan, and over a hundred· odd locations in Italy that sell Brooks Brothers products.”

“Hardly Ivy League territory,” I said.

“Exactly. Then we are getting involved in licensing operations — home furnishings, eye frames for glasses…”

I asked if the Golden Fleece was carried on the eye frames.

“Of course,” he said. “On the inside, rather small. But it’s there. What is is important,” he went on, “is never to stand still. No business can. The secret is to add products and not mess with what works.”

When I asked about the new products, Mr. Roberti mentioned pigment-dyed washed-twill sports shirts, Brooks blue jeans (“years ago could you imagine that Brooks would one day carry blue jeans?”), and more recently a baseball jacket — what is referred to as the “varsity jacket” — snap buttons down the front and available in burgundy, bottle-green and navy.

I asked him what he thought the founding brothers would have made of all this — the varsity jacket, the blue jeans, and the most radical change of all, getting into the wholesale business.

‘They were traditionalists but also practical.” He smiled. “I think they would have come around.”

12 Comments on "Removing the Ivy League Stigma: Plimpton on Brooks"

  1. Excellent article. Well done sir. As usual.
    If by chance some out there may not have come across
    the following apparel lines, I’m sure they would make
    a wonderful addition to your Merchants column, with
    perhaps accompanying introductions and reviews
    from yourself.

    HouseofCarrington Apparel

    CastawayClothing Line -out of Nantucket

    TailorVintage Line-from TailorNY

    The Berle Apparel Group – makers of Charleston Khakis.

  2. Old School | April 21, 2010 at 3:13 am |

    Fortunately, there are still enough people around for whom “Ivy League” is not a stigma.

  3. The Japanese aversion to red ties and seersucker still holds true.

  4. Occidental | April 23, 2010 at 3:06 am |

    How I wish that the Japanese had an aversion to all things Ivy. They look as ludicrous in Ivy/Wasp/Preppy/Trad clothing as Caucasian women do in kimonos.

  5. I poured some out for Plimpton.

  6. Angela C. | June 28, 2014 at 8:07 am |

    @Occidental: Does your assessment extend to Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals who actually attend Ivy League institutions?

  7. Occidental | June 28, 2014 at 11:42 am |

    @Angela C.

    My assessment does not extend to Japanese-Americans.

    As far as Japanese nationals who attend Ivy League institutions are concerned: That is hardly the place that they would be exposed to Ivy League style.

  8. In the process of refreshing my fading memory of George Plimpton I came across an undated (1990ish?) 30-second YouTube video of Mr. Plimpton promoting Betty Crocker Pop Secret microwave popcorn (at )

    It’s notable to Ivy-Style readers for the fact that Mr. Plimpton wears a crewneck sweater over a (nearly invisible) necktie, a subject of prior pro-and-con discussion on this forum.

  9. Blame it on the Westernisation of Japan. And furthermore an unfair comparison. A kimono is uniquely Japanese, whereas a lounge suit is a product of Western culture. Hence donning a kimono is ridiculous, because Western culture has not been influenced by Japanese culture in that way, but the vice versa has.

  10. Playing Devil’s advocate, I remember reading an article about Brook’s being accused of profiteering in the American Civil War. Something about contracts providing the Union Army with uniforms.

    Even Back then…

    Happy New Year to All!

  11. Marks & Spencer may have introduced reforms, but one could walk into Brooks throughout the 90s and buy the old OCBDs (sans lining in collars and cuffs), OTR sack blazers and suits (Brooksease), and sack jackets of camel hair, saxony tweed, and the occasional Harris tweed. All of that disappeared around 2002, best I recall.

  12. Coincidentally, I went to the thrift store yesterday and found that “seal balancing a ball” tie that Plimpton mentions. Score!

Comments are closed.