Upper Class Fashion Pioneered From Within: Alan Flusser On Brooks Brothers

Our impromptu Madison Avenue series continues with unconfirmed reports that the supreme symbol of the Ivy League Look in New York — Brooks Brothers’ flagship store at 346 Madison Avenue — will not reopen. The building is evidently owned separately from the company and is not part of the deal with the new owners. If anyone can confirm, perhaps by peering in the windows, if they’re not boarded up, please do so.

In the meantime, yesterday my colleague Christian Barker from The Rake put up a piece on his website Mens Top Tens. It’s written by Alan Flusser and is entitled “10 Steps To Reonstructing Brooks Brothers.”

Flusser writes:

It is undeniable that over the past 30 years changing market forces have taken their toll, with the casualization of the workplace no doubt outpacing change at the storied brand. It is also true that since the 1980s, the menswear business has largely been driven by designer brands and in the specific case of Brooks Brothers, designer Ralph Lauren having stolen their thunder and monopoly over the preppy, Ivy League strain of American fashion that the retailer originally invented.

However, in the face of all this, I would counter that Brooks Brothers’ supposed slump is less marketplace driven and more merchandise abetted, the result of a gradual distancing from its true fashion legacy — its treasury of authentic pre-war classics and promise of time-tested good taste. Brooks Brothers survived the Great Depression in the 1930s, Carnaby Street and the Peacock revolution in the 1960’s, and the designer explosion in the 1970s by building their merchandise assortments around the extraordinary number of iconic articles of apparel that they either designed, brokered from Europe, or marketed into popular fashion prior to the outbreak of WWII. There was very little in the way of upper-class fashion that the firm not only pioneered but created from within.

He continues:

In 1982, Brooks decided to transport its century-plus repository of fashion literature from lodgings at 346 Madison Avenue to a storage facility outside Washington, D.C. In one corner of the so-named History Factory sits the most extensive and invaluable collection of menswear memorabilia ever assembled.

Staged on floor-to-ceiling shelving units sit stacks of vintage catalogues, specialized merchandise brochures, dressing manuals, salesmen primers, store history pamphlets, client ledgers, and miniature hand-bound, hard-cover guides on the rules and approved attire for various sports like tennis, golf, sailing, and polo, all arranged according to year. Opening one of their elegant illustrated catalogues from the 1930s is to enter menswear’s Golden Age when periodicals like Apparel Arts and Esquire became bibles and collector’s items of modern fashion education and thinking — starting a sartorial conversation that Brooks had a lot to do with helping to articulate and shape.

It’s hard to imagine an aggregation of anything, no less the original and complete design library of America’s most famous menswear brand, that could better inform or guide a rebranding effort. Any designer or merchant worth his salt would go weak-kneed from the sheer abundance of so much authentic and innovative material found within its pages. If the adage “sometimes looking back lets you know whether or not you are headed in the right direction” holds any truth, that such a treasure actually exists is almost providential, if not miraculous. Or someone looking in from the outside world would have thought so.

Having visited Brooks’ archive twice during the course of researching my various books on men’s style, I remember leaving both times mulling over the same notion. While sowing trust in their unique and rich connection to America’s heritage and culture, having disbursed such a sustained volume of company literature into the popular culture for so many years must have buffered the Brooks’ customer base from the company’s slow downward slide. Any other retail establishment would have succumbed years earlier, unable to maintain the façade of business-as-usual for such a protracted time frame. Until it finally caught up with them.

It’s a lengthy and important essay, and you can find it right here. — CC

24 Comments on "Upper Class Fashion Pioneered From Within: Alan Flusser On Brooks Brothers"

  1. A few years back, a store manager told me that this repository of literature in Virginia contains not only catalogues, brochures, etc. ,etc., but the patterns, the specifications.

  2. The state of North Carolina has *not* been kind to idle garment factories. Look what happened to the historic Cone Mills White Oak plant in Greensboro that made selvedge denim for Levi’s in their heyday:

    https://youtu.be/a-yEn5_ktz8

  3. I think it’s fair to say that Alan’s “nightmare scenario” is the one now being touted – and proudly! – by the new owners.

    But maybe there’s a silver lining: the Virginia archives which Alan describes don’t sound like they would have been of any interest to Mr. Salter (the new owner), insofar as they won’t help him do street-wear crossovers with the North Face, or Supreme, or worse. So perhaps they were carved out of the bankruptcy sale? This might be worth a look into the docket to review the exhibits to the asset purchase agreement.

    Start saving your pennies, boys!

  4. NaturalShoulder | September 17, 2020 at 5:59 pm | Reply

    Very well written and thoughtful piece by Alan Flusser but, after reading several of his books, I would expect nothing less. Alas, it appears to be nothing but wishful thinking as Paul has pointed out. More cheaply made goods trying to trade in on the storied BB name. Thankfully, other options out there including Press which is producing some great looking clothes as highlighted by CC with the sneak peak at the Fall brochure.

  5. Source has confirmed Del Vecchio owns the building personally.

  6. “Brooks Brothers has been virtually unhinged from any connection to its exclusive past.”

    This.

    The amount and kind of contempt the younger generations reserve for the sort of generic, overpriced, not-American-made crap Brooks peddles is cruel yet entirely just reality. Modern-day Brooks is thoroughly Boomer: non-iron kitsch. Awful.

  7. As always, bankruptcy numbers of a filing of this magnitude are mind boggling. I read 212 million in outstanding debt, 7.2 million in rent and lease obligations, 13.6 million in uncommitted (?) debt, 7.5 million in mortgage debt. Over the last few years, the principal owner could have personally bought 346 Madison and be holding it as a separate entity. Too complicated to bother without access to Lexis Nexis etc anymore. Maybe Donald Trump gave him advice.

  8. I few years ago, I was at 346 Madison trying to match impossible to find laces for an old pair of suede Peals. The salesman in the Shoe Department was stumped, so he called a woman who had worked there for decades. She knew just where they were…if she could only find them. After about 20 minutes upstairs, she came back with two pairs. Nothing like that will happen again.

  9. It seems like the two main roles of BB over the decades have been to stock imported and domestic items for easy, confident purchase, and to lead the way on style. Their relevance is considerably diminished as an importer and stockist. One can buy Pantherella socks online at their U.S. website (former maker of BB’s Made in England sized socks). One can buy Alden shoes online or in person. One can buy “Peal”-equivalent shoes simply by going to C&J, Alfred Sargent, or Edward Green, online or in person. You can even get C&J to make a one-off on one of the specific BB “Peal” lasts. Scottish cashmere sweaters can be found easily, from numerous sources. You can buy Swaine, Adeney leather goods, or their equivalent, at numerous places. Thanks to the internet and to physical expansion into the U.S. market by some British companies, Brooks’ role as a near-exclusive importer of these goods is over. Ditto for domestic items like OCBDs and cordovan shoes. BB’s recent switch to Italian products didn’t solve this, as anyone can go to Saks and find tons of Canali, Corneliani, and Brioni items for sale.

    As far as leading the way on style, BB lost that status a while ago. Both to Ralph Lauren, and to the general decline in interest in looking “correct.”

    So there was not much left to begin with. And now, I’m not sure how the company can recover. It’s lost its remaining status as the manufacturer of the classic OCBD and the classic American suit, with the closures of Garland and Southwick. What’s left? And if they can’t or won’t lead any more, why do we need them?

    A fun project someone could do would be to upload an older (pre Marks and Spencer) catalog, and provide a link to where one can purchase each item today. It wouldn’t be all that difficult, and one would discover that nearly everything is still readily available, with a small number of exceptions for extinct BB exclusives (like the unlined cordovan loafers).

  10. To your point, Taliesin, type ‘Shetland’ into the Brooks Brothers website search bar…nothing. Same with Bean. Hard to believe.

  11. Taliesin‘s post is among the more insightful I’ve read. Spot on. It’s easy to find the great clothing Brooks sold for decades— now we can go straight to the sources. You can put together an authentically Brooks outfit by visiting about a half a dozen (online) stores, including Ratio, Hertling, Sherman Brothers (Alden), Boardroom Socks, Bosie (Harley of Scotland), and Atkinsons.

    The good stuff is still being made— and bought and sold.

    If good taste, classic style, and grooming are priorities for a man, he’ll seek and find sources. If looking good makes a man feel good (and it does) and opens doors, then there’s appropriate pride taken in arranging significant portions of one’s life around this endeavor. It actually makes a lot of sense. It’s rational. Beauty, which may be broadened to handsomeness, may still be the most powerful force in the universe.

  12. One day back in the late ’70s, I went into 346 Mad to buy some underwear. I went over to the underwear counter, and pointing to the style that was long in the legs and had ties in the back, told a rather grumpy salesman I wanted two pair in my size. The salesman exploded: “You don’t want these! These are for old men. You’re a young man!” Chastened, I left 346 with two pair of standard blue oxford-cloth boxers.

  13. American-Preppy | September 18, 2020 at 3:58 pm | Reply

    Anyone else notice that the Brooks Brothers website seems to be having what I can only describe as a sale meltdown? They are not outright saying it but it feels almost like a liquidation sale. Every other moment my inbox is spammed with sale advertisements. Whats even worse is that no matter how hard I try to find something decent to purchase, most of their offerings have been GARBAGE this year.

  14. NaturalShoulder | September 18, 2020 at 6:20 pm | Reply

    @S.E. – does Hertling sell directly to consumers or must I do through a retailer? Looking at the website makes me believe the latter, but your comment makes me think there may be a way to do so.

  15. Does anyone make a 2-button sack suit? Guess I could always have one custom made, but I dont wear suits often and would rather not break the bank. Anyone know a good fairly priced custom shop in the Chicago area?

  16. Two-button undarted is the house style at The Andover Shop.

  17. There has already been a collaboration between Supreme and Brooks Brothers is 2014. The collaboration consisted of a white and grey striped seersucker suit and a matching bucket hat.

  18. Andrew – Two-Button sack is also the house style at Eljo’s in Charlottesville and Ben Silver. Unfortunately neither is in Chicago, and Ben Silver’s prices tend to break the bank, even off the rack.

  19. “Unhinged from the past” indeed! And the mall guys as new owners are going to make this better? Agree with NaturalShoulder that Flusser’s essay is wishful thinking.

  20. Christian and Charlottesville,

    Thank you for the recommendations. I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

    Cheers!

  21. to Hardbopper:
    Could you give me the name of the repository in Virginia?
    best regards.
    James Jones

  22. It’s an era gone. Shirts made in Brooklyn. Seersucker, extra pants with a suit. But as a mall store too limited appeal.

  23. James Jones,

    If you’re still out there, She told me “it’s in Chantilly”. Probably just a storage facility. Who knows?

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