Brooks Brothers: A Button-Down Bankruptcy
S1: John Slattery and I used to jokingly fight all the time, and I say that with great love because he was always like Cheney, please don’t make me wear suspenders, I’ll wear the three piece suit, but please let me wear a belt.
S2: Janie Bryant is a costume designer for film and TV. She’s maybe most famous for her work on Mad Men, a show about New York City advertising executive set in the 1960s when Janey started outfitting the men on that show. She knew she had to use clothes from Brooks Brothers.
S1: I actually started buying their shirts first because they still made the breast pocket shirts, classic white crisp shirts that all those Madison Avenue guys wore. Then the best thing about them was they had the breast pocket, which every man in the 60s put his cigarettes or his pen in their.
S2: One time, Jeannie accidentally dressed Jon Hamm, the show’s lead in a modern style shirt. It turned out Hannah developed the mannerisms of his character, the handsome chain smoking Don Draper around his period accurate Brooks Brothers wardrobe.
S1: When he did the tank, he just like the pack of cigarettes, fell to the floor as he was tried to like put the cigarettes in his pocket. And it’s like, Janie, where the hell is my pocket? Hey, Don.
S2: Here, but is in the man, the gray flannel suit, Jon Hamm looked so good in those clothes, he changed men’s fashion, helping to bring back skinny apparel, flat front gray sharkskin suits. Jany even collaborated with Brooks Brothers to sell a replica Don Draper ensemble.
S3: What man doesn’t want to look like Don Draper? I think every man should be in a Don Draper suit.
S2: The thing is, that suit came out in 2009. The American workplace has grown steadily more casual since then. And these days, very few men, even high powered executives, spend much time wearing suits of any kind. Let’s say you are going to start work right now on a show that’s set at a New York City ad agency, but in 2020, not 1961. How would you think about what the male characters on that show would wear? What kind of brands do you think you might end up collaborating with on that show?
S3: Well, if it were today, they would all be on a zoom call. And so maybe they would just be in t shirts or they would be in collared shirts and then they would have no pants on or something crazy.
S4: 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 madras start to bleed so badly? And how will it stitch back together its unraveling Oxford cloth?
S5: I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism. Day on the show, Brooks Brothers, a buttoned down bankruptcy.
S6: The company was originally founded in 1818 by Henry Sande’s Brooks. And he had this idea that he wanted to import fabrics and clothing and sell it to people in Manhattan, and he was kind of a dandy. So he was always looking to England for inspiration and to different ideas of men’s haberdashery and clothing.
S4: Keep that as a journalist who edited the book, Brooks Brothers, 200 Years of American Style.
S6: The store was down in the financial district, what we now call the financial district on Catherine Street, and I would say from the very beginning they were innovators in terms of merchandise and what they were selling.
S2: Many elements of American fashion history, things you now might take for granted were pioneered by Henry Sande’s Brooks and by his offspring, who would rename the store Brooks Brothers.
S6: They were the first to import Madras fabric from India. They were the first to import Harris Tweed from the U.K. They were the first to use seersucker in apparel.
S4: Along with new fabrics. Brooks Brothers also introduced unique items of clothing to American men.
S6: The most famous piece is probably the polo shirt. And what we know is the polo shirt now is a cotton piqué short sleeved shirt. But the original polo shirt is what we would now call the button down shirt or the Oxford cloth shirt. And that was probably and still is probably their most famous item.
S4: The Brooke shirt had that breast pocket. Don Draper could tuck his cigarettes into it. Also had a button down collar are now commonplace. Look, the Brooks Brothers invent it, at least for leisure and workwear. The caller’s origins were on an athletic field in England, which is where one of the Brooks brothers spotted it in 1896 and decided to adopt it for a new purpose in America.
S6: It was actually a shirt that was worn for playing polo and the buttoned down collar was created so that the collar wouldn’t fly up in the player’s face while he was riding. And that was something that became very popular. And eventually, you know, now we know the button down shirt as something that holds kind of the tie in place. But originally that was not the purpose of it.
S4: Brooks didn’t just innovate with fabrics or cuts, Derica is a men’s fashion expert who says Brooks most enduring contribution to haberdashery might be a process, one which they pioneered in the mid 19th century.
S7: Historically, clothing was custom made, meaning that if you wanted a garment, someone would measure you and they would draw after pattern and they would cut it in. And so it men who could afford tailors went to a tailor. Men who couldn’t afford tailors had their clothes made in the home.
S4: Brothers invented the first ready to wear suit, which meant that it wasn’t made to your measurements is something that you could buy and just wear before Brooks Brothers ready to wear clothes made for a general body type, not for an individual person, were mostly made for people like soldiers and sailors so that thousands of uniforms could be sewn without needing thousands of measurements. Brooks created what you now might call off the rack, which sounds kind of casual to our ears, but was actually what allowed the professional class of men in an earlier era to turn the Three-piece and later the Tuppy suit into a new kind of uniform. According to Kate Betts, the Brooks family intentionally catered to people of ambition.
S6: It was always a very specific kind of man that they were tailoring their clothing and their accessories to. It wasn’t that he was a snob in any way, because I think there is a famous quote about Henry since Brooks that said what he was creating was not for the rich, but for the successful. And that was kind of his idea that he wanted to capture from the very beginning, from the 18 20s, this kind of upwardly mobile group of men.
S4: Those men would include most U.S. presidents, starting with James Madison. Brooks Brothers designed a silk embroidered frock coat for Abraham Lincoln to wear at his second inauguration. Lincoln was wearing it six weeks later on the night he was shot. In 1946, after 128 years as a family business, Brooks Brothers was sold to a mercantile company based in Washington, D.C., a new CEO named John C. Wood Helms Brooks. For the next 20 years. When he retired, the New York Times asked him how he changed. Brooks Brothers would answered, I made it Brookshire.
S2: This was the post-war JFK Madmen era, a time when Brooks came to be identified with, according to Derek Guy, a very precise stratum of American society possibilities, a clothier for the elite.
S8: We’re talking like blue blooded kind of WASP types who went to Ivy League schools, the white collar professional class and the ones that lived in big cities on the coast. Right. That’s a very specific market. The way I always like to frame it is that in nineteen seventy one, Brooks Brothers only had 11 stores, 11, and they’re all located in major cities.
S2: For many people, this was Brooks Brothers heyday, outfitting the very narrow subset of mid century men who ran America. But by the end of the 1970s, trouble was on the horizon. More on that when we return.
S4: Starting in the 1980s, attacks on Brooks Brothers business came from all sides. First, says Kate Betts, the Italians went after the top end.
S3: In the 80s, you had these Italian designers coming in and at a slightly higher price point, offering a much different, more stylized look. So I would say people like Giorgio Armani, even though it was a higher price point and it was very different in terms of the fabrication and the cut, they became the brand for suits, for a certain aspirational customer.
S4: And I think that cut into Brooks Brothers, the state old boxy suit that had long been Brooks Brothers specialty, fell out of favor, didn’t 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 TRUSTe make of clothes over and over in her 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.
S6: Crew, to a certain extent came in and went for that Ivy League slash English look that Brooks Brothers had really been the first to adapt all the way back in 1889 at its founding. And they kind of 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.
S4: Derek, I was one of those younger consumers in a different world, one where Brooks Brothers had managed to adapt with the changing times. Derek might have grown up as a Brooks customer. Instead, he found his first Shetland sweaters and argyle socks at a store where he felt more welcome to me.
S7: Ralph Lauren presented Brooks Brothers in a way that felt relevant to me as a person who is not white. And it felt sexy, frankly. And Brooks Brothers was not sexy. It was not relevant to how I identified myself. And, you know, it’s funny, I speak to a lot of people in the menswear industry and even the tailoring trade who grew up as teens in the nineties and. I find that such a very common story of 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 if you’re an East Asian. So it just didn’t you know, you you look at it’s like a 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 listen to and your friends and like, it just felt cooler.
S4: Ralph Lauren had actually started in men’s fashion as a clerk at the Brooks Brothers flagship store in Manhattan while he got to 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 nineteen eighty eight, Brooks was sold to Marks and Spencer, a mid-level British retail chain. In these new hands, some beloved Brooks Brothers items like the classic Oxford cloth shirt got some dubious updates.
S7: But historically, the books by the caller was not line. It was unlined and the collar looks kind of messy, wrinkled. It kind of looked a little bit more casual, look kind of cool. And for some reason they put in eliding and the kind of die hards freaked out and they lost a lot of diehard customers.
S4: Even non diehards could tell something wasn’t quite right.
S7: When the customer goes in to Brooks Brothers, they may not know all the stuff about whatever single needle stitching and all these kind of details. They may not know the words like inner lining, but when they feel the product, they kind of get a sense that, like it’s not as quote unquote nice. And that may have contributed to the company’s downfall.
S4: Marks and Spencer sold Brooks Brothers in 2001 to Claudio Delveccio, son of the founder of Luxottica Group, the Italian eyewear conglomerate that owns brands like Rabanne and Oakley, Delvecchio 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’s 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 sleeve 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.
S7: When I talked to people who have been in the trade since like the 60s and 70s, they say, you know, we used to sell suits and people come in and buy a suit. And if you bought a suit, that means you also need a dress shirt. If you wear a dress shirt, you also need a tie. You might also need a pocket square. You also need dress shoes, dress socks. This was. Your uniform. That’s what you wore, eventually the sportcoat 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 time.
S4: Of course, during a pandemic, when a work meeting means a Xoom 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 closed the tennis players golfers at 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 is shops once numbering fewer than a dozen 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 Delveccio filed for bankruptcy.
S7: It’s sad to see, I think, the most important American clothier filed for Chapter 11 and. I think brothers represented a certain way of doing business that may just. It’s very difficult to do in the future.
S2: In August, Brooks was sold for 325 million dollars 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 cash and then slapping them on occasionally tacky products. Derek Guy shudders to imagine what he might eventually do with Brooks if it’s just like a licence name.
S8: It could be that like 20 years down the road, Brooks Brothers lives on as a stack of shirts on Amazon.
S4: Kate Betts also has trouble envisioning a bright future.
S6: Brooks Brothers, the American icon. You know, 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.
S4: But Janie Bryant, the costume designer, is a little more upbeat, she thinks athleisure wear is due for a backlash and classic menswear is ready for a comeback.
S1: You know, I think 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, you know what I mean? I feel like a certain point when everybody starts going out again, they’re going to see the beauty and wearing a suit.
S2: Whether that suit will be made by Brooks Brothers remains to be seen. That’s our show for today. This episode was produced by Jess Miller with help from Madeline Ducharme, Hannah Klein and Carl Levin, technical direction from Merritt Jacob. Special thanks to George and Holly Coffey for use of their studio. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. We’re going to take a few weeks to work on more episodes. We’ll be back soon with more thrilling tales of modern capitalism.