The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
The COVID pandemic and the work-from-home-in-sweatpants culture it’s accelerated tipped Brooks Brothers over a cliff. In June, Brooks announced it would close three of its factories and lay off 700 workers. In July, it filed for bankruptcy. In August, it was sold to a group known for snatching up famous but troubled brand names at bargain prices.
For more than a century, Brooks Brothers defined fashion for a certain kind of East Coast American elite. It’s been the clothier to nearly every U.S. president. So how did it get here?
Starting in the 1980s, attacks on Brooks Brothers’ business came from all sides. First, says fashion journalist Kate Betts, the Italians went after the top end: “In the ’80s, you had these Italian designers coming in and, at a slightly higher price point, offering a much different, more stylized look.” Brands like Giorgio Armani, she says, became the go-to for suits “for a certain aspirational customer. And I think that cut into Brooks Brothers.”
The staid, old, boxy sack suit that had long been Brooks Brothers’ specialty fell out of favor. The “in” look for elites was a sleeker, darted, more European silhouette. Men were more open to fashion, and they no longer felt they needed to shop at one place and buy the same trusty make of clothes over and over. It hurt Brooks to lose the 1980s-era masters of the universe and their big wardrobe budgets. But even more damaging was the incursion on the shoppers at the other end of Brooks’ customer base: the young ambitious guy on his way up.
“Brands like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, even J.Crew to a certain extent, came in and went for that Ivy League/English look that Brooks Brothers had really been the first to adapt to all the way back in 1818 at its founding,” Betts says. “They gave it more of a style spin and also marketed their products to a much different audience and a much different consumer, a much younger consumer. And I think that that was hard to compete with.”
Fashion blogger Derek Guy was one of those younger consumers. In a different world, one where Brooks Brothers had managed to adapt with the changing times, Guy might’ve grown up as a Brooks customer. Instead, he found his first Shetland sweaters and argyle socks at a store where he felt more welcome.
“Ralph Lauren presented Brooks Brothers in a way that felt relevant to me as a person who’s not white. And it felt sexy, frankly,” Guy says. “Brooks Brothers was not sexy. It was not relevant to how I identified myself. … I speak to a lot of people in the menswear industry and even the tailoring trade who grew up as teens in the ’90s, and I find that’s a very common story: Many people first discovered classic clothing at a Ralph Lauren store. Because all the other stores, you kind of walk by and it just seems a little bit too rich and, frankly, a little too white. I’m East Asian. You look at it, it’s like an aspirational thing, but it’s not necessarily something you specifically want to be part of. Whereas when you walked into a Ralph Lauren store, it reminded you of the music you listened to, and your friends, and it just felt cooler.”
Ralph Lauren had actually started in men’s fashion as a clerk at the Brooks Brothers flagship store in Manhattan. While he gutted the bottom of Brooks Brothers market, and Armani nibbled at the top, the heart of Brooks Brothers, its quality and heritage, remained unquestioned—until new ownership ruined that too. In 1988, Brooks was sold to Marks & Spencer, a midlevel British retail chain. In these new hands, some beloved Brooks Brothers items, like the classic Oxford cloth shirt, got some dubious updates.
Guy explains: “Historically, the Brooks Brothers collar was not lined, it was unlined. And the collar looks kind of messy, it wrinkled, it kind of looked a little bit more casual. It looked kind of cool. And for some reason they put in a lining, and the die-hards freaked out, and they lost a lot of die-hard customers. … When the customer goes into Brooks Brothers, they may not know all this stuff about, whatever, single-needle stitching and all these kind of details. They may not know words like interlining. But when they feel the product, they kind of get a sense that it’s not as ‘nice.’ And that may have contributed to the company’s downfall.”
Marks & Spencer sold Brooks Brothers in 2001 to Claudio Del Vecchio, son of the founder of Luxottica Group, the Italian eyewear conglomerate that owns brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley. Del Vecchio had some success reviving Brooks Brothers. He put stores in airports, where he hoped they’d catch the eye of business travelers. He updated Brooks’ style by collaborating with contemporary designers like Thom Browne. But he was fighting a losing battle. The long-term trend was not on his side. The sales guy who used to wear a suit for all his client calls was now maybe wearing a short-sleeved shirt and khakis. The guy who used to wear khakis was now maybe wearing so-called athleisure clothing. Brooks struggled to adjust. Casual and athleisure wear is just not what people expect or want from Brooks Brothers. And classic men’s clothing is no longer a viable business at the scale Brooks was accustomed to operating on.
Guy says, “When I talk to people who have been in the trade since the ’60s and ’70s, they say, ‘We used to sell suits.’ People would come in, buy a suit. And if you bought a suit, that means you also need a dress shirt. And if you wear a dress shirt, you also need a tie. You might also need a pocket square, you also need dress shoes, you need dress socks. This was your uniform. That’s what you wore. Eventually the sport coat gave way, and then men only started purchasing sweaters. And then eventually the sweater gave way, and now many men only purchase a dress shirt and the chinos. They don’t even purchase the tie.”
Of course, during a pandemic, when a work meeting means a Zoom call, men don’t need pants and shoes at all, never mind nice ones from Brooks. The pandemic was the final straw. Brooks had once clothed the tennis players, golfers, and rowers of an earlier era. But now no one went to Brooks for basketball shorts or yoga pants. Brooks had once been the uniform of the white-collar office worker. But now that man’s uniform often involved sneakers and jeans. Brooks’ shops—once numbering fewer than a dozen, in big-city meccas where traditional menswear enthusiasts came to worship—had multiplied, which devalued the brand. You could find a discount Brooks Brothers store in any decent suburban outlet mall. In July, crushed by the cost of paying rent on hundreds of mostly empty Brooks Brothers locations, Claudio Del Vecchio filed for bankruptcy.
“It’s sad to see, I think, the most important American clothier file for Chapter 11,” says Guy. “And I think Brooks Brothers represented a certain way of doing business that may just be very difficult to do in the future.”
In August, Brooks was sold for $325 million to a consortium led in part by Jamie Salter, the founder and CEO of Authentic Brands Group. He’s known for buying up brand names with cachet and then slapping them on occasionally tacky products. Derek Guy shudders to imagine what he might eventually do with Brooks. “If it’s just a licensed name, it could be that 20 years down the road, Brooks Brothers lives on as a stack of shirts on Amazon,” he says. Kate Betts also has trouble envisioning a bright future: “Brooks Brothers, the American icon, it’s very hard to say this, but it’s possible that it has been diluted over the last half-century to a point where it can’t really come back.”
But Janie Bryant, a costume designer best known for her work on Mad Men, is a little more upbeat. She thinks athleisure wear is due for a backlash, and classic menswear is ready for a comeback: “When quarantine is over, I think men are going to be so inspired to dress up and put their sport coat back on and wear a collared shirt. I feel like at a certain point when everybody starts going out again, they’re going to see the beauty in wearing a suit.”
Whether that suit will be made by Brooks Brothers remains to be seen.