18 September 2012

The Italian Department Store...at 346 Madison Ave.



























Brooks Brothers has some challenges. My experience, as an employee with the company in the '80s, was that it was a lot like working for the federal government. Bloated with mostly incompetent management, it didn't really matter because the product sold itself. My customer wasn't 'sold' discreet rep ties, the perfect button down, cordovan tassel slip-ons, gray flannel sack suits, a fur felt hat or a fly front raincoat as much as it sold itself.

Recently, Charlie Davidson of the Andover Shop told me Brooks Brothers 'is dead' adding, "it looks like an Italian department store." Charlie's onto something and in more ways than one. While plenty of blame is frequently fired at Marks & Spencer (1988-2001) for almost tanking the company -- the Italians in Milan may just finish the job.

The problem is, the Brooks Brothers look doesn't look so Brooks Brothers anymore. That's not to say it looks bad -- Just Italian. See the extreme cut of a gray suit worn with a rich brown shoe. Bright trendy ties with tapered shirts worn by men who smoke too much, feel each others lapels and insist you open yourself to their culture but refuse to acknowledge yours.

Men who go shopping with each other and wear multi-colored dental floss on their wrists. Fashion is their 'get' and Italy is on a roll. But the bright colors, so loved now, will only annoy these fellas in a matter of months and like a lumbosacral sprain... they'll be back. But will Brooks Brothers, as we know it, be here?

In three years Brooks will celebrate 100 years in the 346 Madison building. In just six years, BB celebrates their bicentennial. What an amazing accomplishment. The question is, will it be Brooks Brothers or something else?

15 comments:

Boston Bean said...

I'd better stock up on traditional items before they stop carrying them.

Anonymous said...

Tin:
I think Charlie is spot on. And so are you about the one way street in being accepting of other's cultures. Happy to know someone else sees it that way as well.

The problem is that Brooks has become silly and the quality of their clothes is piss poor. Brooks was like the local hardware store: it sold the things a man needed, and maybe some that he didn't, but nonetheless, the quality was good.

Now I can't help but think that it's like some late night infomercial selling a bunch of worthless junk.

--Matthew

Enzo AGC said...

They also have a printed camo OCBD in store right now.

Very on trend and that's the problem.

Anonymous said...

Well i hope Brooks does not go the same path as Abercrombie and Fitch. You are, I'm sure, too young to remember the great Abercrombie store on Madison, neighbor to BB. It closed sometime in the late 60's and disappeared from the American cultural log.
Then, a decade or two later 'the brand' was acquired by new people who 'relaunched' it, as a suburban mall phenomenon aimed at a new demographic to be sure.
Those of us who knew the old Abercrombie were totally surprised at the familiar name suddently appearing in ads everywhere. Naively we hoped it might represent a return of some aspect of what had been before. Indeed during the very first years of the 'new brand' there were the occasional hints of what had been, which offered false encouragement.
Ultimately 'the brand' was driven into entirely alien territory -- quite literally, 'alien', bearing not the slightest similarity to what had once been.
I still have a great 'petroleum green' shetland crew sweater from the grand old establishment, bought in the closing days of the place. It is peppered with moth holes here and there, and shrunken (almost) beyond fitting by an injudicious turn in the w/d but the label is sill on, and it is a pleasure to occasionally wear when left alone to the seclusion of yard work.

Anonymous said...

Too tawdry for words!

Anonymous said...

In six years I want to see some Brooks Brothers 200 year-old styles revived for the bicentennial celebration: I say bring back knee socks, buckle shoes and the tricorn hat!

Oh wait, Tintin was way ahead of that curve having sported the look for his U.S. Park Service ranger/interpreter job at the Castillo de San Marcos. Hmm. Proof: trad, even then.

-DB

KSB said...

Some of the BB offerings are garish indeed. I have noticed that some of Polo's offerings of late are very nice though and while not quite old school BB it would probably please old school BB fans. When Ralph gets it right there is no one better but when he gets it wrong - and the last 15 years he has been more wrong than right - there is no one worse.

But it is a fine line between maintaining a sense of tradition and ossifying into a relic. We dont wear colonial era attire anymore(save for Tintin in his Park Ranger days)and even some of BB's most iconic offerings were once on the cutting edge. BB may have made some errors of late but its bones are still good and it can be salvaged.

I am more disturbed by BB's airport stores ( I dont know about you but I dont do my clothes shopping at an airport and I think a Snickers bar is more likely impulse purchase than a blue blazer) and their trying to seek other non BB outlets like Nordstrom's and some specialty retailers to increase sales. I am not sure Lands End ever recovered from the arrangement with Sears and the day we see BB turn up at JCP then we know the end is nigh.

Anonymous said...

It is all so sad. I was in the NYC store last year and couldn't find a way to spend money. Compare that to thirty years ago when I had much less money but so many things I wanted. Other than cordovan shoes what is worth having? Not the flimsy shirts and cheap pants Just try and find a blazer or odd jacket worth owning.

Alice Olive said...

Love the first image.

Brooks Brothers is a store I like looking at, but I don't want to buy. Mind you, I do love my Black Fleece tuxedo. (That no. 10 dress from your other post is still on my mind...)

Oyster Guy said...

It’s interesting that the question mark surrounding Brooks arises at the time of the FIT exhibit. I have observed that institutional shows in the arts often serve as an epitaph rather than evidence of a florescent resurgence.

Perhaps it is just time. Brooks has expanded into all sorts of pricy commercial space and the bills gotta get paid. If they too stayed in a little shop in Harvard Square maybe they would still be what they were. So they broaden their appeal to a more multi-cultural, international customer in the pursuit of greater sales and their base suffers. Production goes offshore to grow their margins, also at the expense of their base. Is this a good business decision? I have no idea. Do I like the results? No. Not as good as it was. Better than it will be.

Maybe in a little while, a new Ralph Lifschitz will come along with a bit of venture capital and dig up the old foundations and marvel at all the great old stuff and idealize these Nietzschean supermen of the past. If I was a billionaire, just for kicks, I would recruit all the menswear bloggers for a new company in a heartbeat. Until then you still have Mercer and bargain bespoke.

tintin said...

Matthew- What's that old adage? Stick to your knitting. Where ever BB has...the classic staples like shirts, ties and cordovan shoes, they offer the best at great value.

Enzo- You nailed it. I'm putting that in a Latin and sticking it on my coat of arms.

Anon- I did miss the old A&F but have seen a number of the catalogs going back to the 30s. Amazing. I understand they had a practice tennis court on the roof.

DB- Saw a very wearable BB Sack suit from 1916 at the F.I.T. show.

KSB & Anon-
I find it interesting that BB is copying Rugby which is copying BB 40 yrs ago. Having said that, it's hard to get anything done in a large corporation.

But the Passion Pit video on the BB website has to go down as the cheesiest thing I've seen Brooks do in a long time.

Alice- The Blackfleece dress has your name on it.

Oyster- Here's a show for you.

http://www.brooksbrothers.com/video/fall.tem?CMP=EMC-20120911_Mens_SportShirt&et_cid=162455&et_rid=9803272&cmp=AFC_CJ_VigLink_Brooks+Brothers+Product+Catalog

BB is making efforts but there's a lot in their way. Mainly the people who work there who could give 2 shits about the brand or the history.

Oyster Guy said...

re: that vid, next time just throw a bottle of drain cleaner in my face. It would hurt less...

greatzamboni said...

Its dead brotha.. but we go on...

caravan70 said...

As long as they can still pull a No. 1 sack suit and some must-iron OCBDs for me out of a back closet somewhere periodically, I don't really care what they sell up front. Sure, it's depressing to see an iconic source of men's style selling T-shirts that are almost as gauche as those Polo things with the huge logos that are out now, but as others have said, if that's what they have to do to survive, that's fine.

I suspect that if more men simply went in the brick-and-mortar locations and demanded the classics, bringing their charge cards with them, there would be some response on the corporate level. The company is simply giving people what they seem to want.

Brummagem Joe said...

Have to disagree with you somewhat here Tintin. BB was definitely heading for the great Abercrombie and Fitch graveyard in the sky in the M & S days but the Italians definitely pulled it out of the nosedive (if that's not a contradiction in terms). In truth I seldom see much in there to get excited about but that's probably because I have everything I need. Yes it looks a bit Italian but that's the in look at present however much you or I might dislike bum freezer jackets and flood pants. And they have way too many sales but then that's an essential feature of retailing these daysd also. Much of their basic stuff is ok and enough of the old BB has survived if you want to pay a little more (they've made a couple of very nice coats for me over the last five years and about three years ago I purchased OTP a very nice brown Chesterfield in Loro Piano cashmere fabric that with a bit of judicious tailoring looks quite superb and people have told me so). Things must change to stay as they are.