Let’s unpack this because it is starting to hurt my feelings.
My central thesis about Brooks Brothers back when Mr. Bastian took the wheel was this: What happens when a company is bought or sold is that it goes into debt. If you don’t do this kind of thing regularly, that sounds counterintuitive. If Nevada owns a company that is $5 in debt, and John buys the company for $7 with the proviso that Nevada use $5 out of the $7 to pay the debt, well, the debt is paid, and the company is out of debt, right? No, because I spent $7 to buy it, so now the company owes me $7. Actually, it owes me $8, because I didn’t buy the company not to lose, I bought it to make money. And this debt has no cap, because I am never going to call it even. Once I get $8, I am not going to say, “Ok, that was a good run, I don’t need any more money.”
So Brooks, which has been down that road a few times, is as much in the debt service business as it is in the clothing business. What happens when you are in debt service and not clothing? The debt gets serviced, and the clothing suffers. Which, judging from the notes on my piece a few days back, is fairly well acknowledged in this group.
Bastian, who knows he has an open invite here to respond, came out smartly. He fished with the biggest net. He said he was going back to Brooks’ roots, and some well-meaning folks in here believed that was a good idea. He then released his first album, reviewed here as well, which was anything but root-oriented. Then he took a few good pictures of himself in some trad clothing, then embarked on a year of exploratory Ivy surgery. Trying to see what would stick to the wall while 80 cents of every dollar (I am making that number up but you take my point) goes to the folks who bought Brooks and hired Bastian in the first place.
What could go wrong? Flower-print cargo pants is what. But ok, even that, hey, if you can reinvent yourself and find a way to survive, I am all for it. But now, Brooks has taken the final step off the ledge. Self parody.
Here’s the flip side, you are gonna need this to find all the hidden messages here.
What’s the first thing you find? Here’s a hint. It is in the headline.
So this shirt in terms of cut is all over the map, and the body. That’s okay. It’s an imitation. After all, they say themselves that it is imitated.
There are other hidden thing here. Look at the button placement on the collar and the way the tie is knotted.
Finally, there is the insult of the price. They are asking $198. Which is fine by me. Charge what you want. I was never one of those people who thought basketball players were over-compensated. If the market will bear it, you are entitled to it. But then, this:
So this shirt is 20% off if I borrow the money? There is a way that makes sense. But you ain’t gonna like it. The way it makes sense is that they know that once you get the card, you are gonna pay more than the 20% in interest, and you are going to buy more because it’s… credit. That also means that extra 20% you pay if you don’t get a card? That’s a fee for not letting them lend you money.
I have people who my life who live in a bigger house than they can afford, and the house comes with the disclaimer, “They must make more than you think they do, John,” and the answer is “Never mistake the acquisition of debt for the accumulation of wealth.”
This is not a tactic that is the sole purview of Brooks, of course. It is part of what is wrong with much of the industry, with much of a lot of industries. Companies realize they can make more money with the card you use to buy their product than they can with the product itself. So they focus on the card instead of the product.
But in the case of Brooks, this is icing on the cake. What they have done here is try to contemporize a classic (you can’t) but sell it as the original model. And they are doing this across the board. Compromising what brought you to the table in the hopes of staying at the table. This has never worked, not once. There are models where products are updated, certainly. But that is not done in the name of debt service or survival. And they are sold as updates. What you have here is all the whatever you can throw on the wall, maybe some sticks.
I used to love Brooks, and I am very grateful to companies like J. Press, Andover, Mercer, etc. for staying the course and being mindful of scale. But now Brooks is the woman I broke up with who I just saw at dinner and she got a bad boob job.
Is there a way out for Brooks, which in the notes on these columns has been called “irrelevant” and “why are we even talking about Brooks anymore”? Yes, there is.
- Consolidate your retail even further. You have done a good job of that, but keep going.
- Understand the sales cycle better. Do you think a 24 year old who has never worn an OCBD is going to wander into giant retail store and be so awed by the architecture that they buy 3? No. In fact, they won’t even wander into the retail store, because you haven’t sold them on the lifestyle. Sell the lifestyle first.
- Authenticity works. If you are going to try to be all things to all people you are gonna fail, but if you are going to go down, at least do it with integrity. Better yet, don’t do it at all. Instead of saying you are going back to basics and then never doing it, actually do it. The only differentiator that you have is your tradition and classicism. And even those are on life support. But we love a comeback.
… yes, that’s right. We love a comeback. But you have to come back.