At a time when the fashion press engages in a group hug with brands over how labels can stay viable in the digital age, it is fitting that we should pause to consider a brand that has been doing just fine, thank you, since James Monroe was president of the United States. Brooks Brothers, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, has had different owners and various designers (with Zac Posen now directing womenswear), but has adhered to a consistent philosophy that can be described in abstract terms as “wearable and confident American style.” Brooks Brothers can also be described, more explicitly, as one of the few places where, no matter what you buy, if the color and fit work, you can forget the term “fashion victim.” To celebrate its anniversary, the brand mounted its first show at Pitti Uomo in January. Sixty-one models (including eight women who made the term American style into a synonym for chic) were presented to the accompaniment of a full symphony orchestra; unusual for almost any show anywhere, every piece could have been worn out the door of the Palazzo Vecchio onto the streets of Florence (or New York, London or Tokyo).
As a branding lawyer, constancy in branding message and in legal protection are always on my mind. Managing that from the flagship at the corner of Madison Avenue and E. 44th Street in Manhattan may have been easy enough back when, if someone said he was going to Brooks Brothers, you just assumed that he meant going to that corner and into that store. Keeping consistency in message and legal protection became a bit more complicated when the brand expanded across the USA (eleven stores by the 1970s) and then, in 1979, to its first international location, in the prosperous Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo. The challenges are global now, with the brand maintaining hundreds of stores in nearly fifty countries, and with a wholesale business that places Brooks Brothers products onto shelves and racks of many third-party retailers.
I sat down recently with Arthur Wayne, the vice president of global public relations at Brooks Brothers, in his office in the tower behind the company flagship, to gain some understanding on how it is done.
The first thing that became clear in speaking to Mr. Wayne is that Brooks Brothers adheres to the strategy (which I fully support in general and for fashion in particular) that a brand is its story made temporal. The Brooks Brothers story is the American experience. There are many examples, but consider just three outlined briefly by Mr. Wayne: when miners landed in New York from around the world and headed (one might say herded) west in 1849 during the gold rush, Brooks Brothers innovated, with the ready-made suit. No need to wait to be measured and return for fittings. Pick one off the table,* let it out or take it in, and off you went to California, well-dressed, with a pickaxe in hand. Then came the Oxford button-down shirt, which has been copied by nearly everyone trying to look American.** And I have gone into detail on these pages about why the stripes of American ties, led by Brooks Brothers, go from right to left instead of left to right, as do the British regimental ties of their inspiration.
In my next post, I will pick up with what brought the company to where it is now—and what it is doing to keep its brand on message.
– end –
* Until comparatively recently in the company’s long history, men’s jackets were neatly folded and presented in stacks on counters.
** American style is about looking effortless; that does not mean it is easy to do. I shared with Mr. Wayne how I once knew the American representative of a renowned British shirtmaker. As he explained it to me, after several failed attempts on Jermyn Street to get that American collar right, he walked over to Madison & 44th, bought two Brooks Brothers button-down shirts off the shelf and sent them back to England with the message to please just copy this.
Credit: Alan Behr
While attending the annual meeting of the Copyright Society of the USA in Newport, Rhode Island last year, I walked into a military surplus store and came out the owner of a Swiss military field jacket. I had found a row of them crowded into a single rack. All were a bit malodorous (often a hazard when buying often questionably stored surplus clothes), and although none bore a size label, all were unworn. The first one I tried on fit almost as well as something my tailor might have done up for me, and so, sacrificing the eight-dollar purchase price, I took it home. Much of the summer was occupied with airing it out, but with the first chill of autumn, I wore it on the streets of Manhattan.
It hardly drew a notice from my dinner companion that evening, which was a bit discouraging because she was Swiss. But the payoff came next time out, during a horrid day of wind, chill and rain. The jacket, intended to keep hearty Swiss conscripts dry and toasty in the worst Alpine weather, answered its calling brilliantly. Weaving among New Yorkers who stomped along in the wet ground as if persecuted, I kept up a merry pace, as warm as if I were wearing a space heater. I thought that the nipped-waist, gray-green, single-breasted, many-pocketed jacket, which would have enabled me to blend in seamlessly in an Alpine pine forest, was also quite stylish. It was undeniably practical: there was even space for a Swiss Army knife. But when my prize at last emerged from the foul weather again to rest under the sweet lights of home, my wife had this to say: “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”
That intramural sartorial challenge next led me to a website where I found a green German policeman’s jacket. This wardrobe caprice set me back a relatively dear eleven dollars plus shipping. Also unworn, it bore the fading hang tag of its manufacturer under the name it was called during the days it was a state-run enterprise in East Germany. The jacket appeared to date, however, from a time near the end of the last century when the cops in the German state of its origin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to you geography buffs) switched to much cooler SWAT-team coats of blue. Indeed, these green jackets do tend to make even the most warlike German Polizist look like a bureaucrat—which might well have been the intention in a nation grown uncomfortable with symbols of armed authority.
This time, the outerwear debut took place in the parents’ lounge of the Deutsche Sprachschule (German Language School) attended by my first grader on Saturday mornings. Everyone recognized it, and I got quite a few compliments, but a room full of German expats is not exactly a statistically supportable random sample for this stylistic boundary-pusher. As my son and I were heading up Lexington Avenue on our way home, we saw Eliot Rabin, who owns and designs menswear for the sophisticated Peter Elliot stores. He was busy on his mobile phone, but the moment he saw us, he excused himself to his caller, put down the phone and ran over to say, “That’s a great jacket.”
I was suddenly feeling the kind of confidence in my taste that is unmatched by any male who has not done a turn as the GQ Style Guy. As my wife opened the door for us and caught first sight of my new success, she said, “Where did you get that ugly jacket?”
So much for the old spousal imprimatur. I’ll take that under advisement–even as I troll the web for something chic in a size 38 that is a leftover from the Soviet navy.
Credit: Alan Behr
The bankruptcy and attempted reorganization of American Apparel demonstrate not just that fashion is a risky business but also that, in bad times as well as good, it brings into play some unique considerations. First among those is that fashion businesses tend to arise from the unique vision of one or a very few individuals. That is true as well for tech startups, but except for a few software geniuses (such as Mark Zuckerberg), entrepreneurial masters (such as Bill Gates) and brilliant marketers (such as Steve Jobs), once a tech business gets going, skilled replacements are relatively easy to find.
That is not the case when the founder and guiding light of a fashion business is also its chief designer. As even well-established brands have demonstrated, bringing in a new designer who understands a brand’s signature looks and who can add his or her own vision while somehow keeping all that fresh (and keeping loyal customers purchasing) is not an easy feat.
The situation at American Apparel was ironically even more complicated because much of the trouble started when its founder, Dov Charney, was forcibly removed. More of a businessman than the creator of a signature style (American Apparel was all about ever-cool basics made in the USA), he dominated the company. He made a failed effort to return; and while everyone involved focused attention on that, the business lost its vision and too many of its customers, and then slid into receivership. That might have happened anyway, but the disruptions caused by the long-running Charney episode may well have been the tipping point.
It all serves as a reminder that, in fashion, getting a clear and effective legal structure into place as early as possible, with understandable methods and procedures for personnel transitions and successions, could potentially be a business-saver. True, Ralph Lauren, that grand warrior for American gentlemanly style, simply and graciously stepped aside as CEO of his company, letting the business keep running, apparently seamlessly, from there. But legal planning is not about expecting the best; it is, unfortunately, about hoping for the best while planning for the worst. And when it comes to fashion and the people in fashion, that is nearly always a prudent way to go.
Credit: Alan Behr
As everyone knows, lawyers have far too many stellar qualities to enumerate here. We have a sense of humor. (Who can forget, after all, the priceless nugget of wit that goes: “What do you call one hundred lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good start.”) We are sure there must be just as many good ones about chiropractors, occupational therapists and entomologists.
And lawyers are media stars. Whenever an attorney is convicted of a felony in the line of duty, doesn’t it always make headlines? Lawyers are also highly respected for their assertiveness, as knows any lawyer whose application to rent an apartment was mysteriously and inexplicably denied.
But who knew that lawyers could also be fashion trend-setters? So it appeared from a blog several months ago, in which the author of this blog was blogged. The post was in the form of a column about accessories worn by attendees at the charity benefit held on the opening night of an antiques fair.
The site is New York Social Diary, in which David Patrick Columbia, combining the roles of Edith Wharton and Henry James for an earlier generation, chronicles the real life moments that those earlier writers drew upon for much of their fiction. The blogger in the guest column was Alison Minton, a friend and queen of New York style, who reports for the site on accessories. In my debut as a fashion icon, you can clearly see the Ralph Lauren necktie and pocket square that were the objects of the author’s attention, along with a fair bit of the Henry Poole bespoke suit that they accented and almost none of my face. As my earlier appearances in New York Social Diary and elsewhere have shown, that omission was no loss at all to the reader. It did, in this instance, force all attention on not who I am but on what I had chosen to wear in the expression of who I am. It demonstrates in pictorial form that what each of us holds as our personal style is both a part of us and an abstraction of us. We are what we wear, but what we wear is also a part of us and a metaphor for how we wish to be perceived.
It also reminds me that, as someone who will on occasion take this forum as a soapbox on which to stand and proclaim what is and is not good style, acting as a fashion authority is uniquely hard work. A theater critic need not act or direct; an art critic is not expected to paint or sculpt; but we all wear clothes. A style critic, therefore, is always in danger of being held accountable for his or her own style success and failures. (And we all have both, to be sure.) This line of work is not for the faint-hearted—but neither is any job in fashion and accessories. Would any of us have it any other way?
Credit: Alan Behr
If the suit is for business (and how many bought by anyone who is not a groom are anything but?), be careful when bringing along the lady in your life. She probably does dress herself better than you do yourself, but you are not dressing for her: mostly, you are dressing for your boss. If you bring your lady love, and the sales staff see her walking in ahead of you, they know from experience that they have to sell her, not you; the next thing you know, you become the mannequin for an ensemble of her creation. Unless you are dating Donna Karan or happen to bring along Miuccia Prada, do not let that happen to you.
Maybe you look great in brown or maroon. Nearly all proper business suits are “city colors,” which means blue or gray. Best to make your peace with that and move on.
Fit is everything. After you have tried on three or four suits, you will nearly always do best by going with the one that fits best before the tailor makes alterations. The shoulders are everything. If they work, the suit may have a chance; if they do not, try something else.
When in a fitting, put on both the trousers and the jacket. During the fitting, if the salesman or fitter asks, “Are you going to wear the jacket open or closed?” answer “Both,” and give back the suit you have on. You have just been discreetly informed that the jacket is too tight and cannot be altered to fit properly. If the salesman asks if you “have enough room” in the pants, he is hinting that they look too small. Make sure that there is enough extra cloth at the waist and in the seat to let them out properly or hand that one back too.
Conventional wisdom holds that, when you try on the suit and stand in it before the fitter’s triptych mirror, you should look not at the suit but at yourself—to understand how you look in it. That is not as easy to do in practice as it sounds. Lots of guys who try that just see their own faces staring back at them in bewilderment. Others, myself included, start to notice that the mirror adds an unpleasant green cast. So look at the suit, look at yourself, tilt your head up and look at the light fixtures, glower at the price tag—just keep looking until something clicks in your head that you like what you have on. And if that does not happen, take it off and try again with something else.
If you live in what in North America is the temperate zone, you are probably in a place where the difference between winter chill and summer heat is so extreme, you will need two separate suit wardrobes: one in winter weight and another in tropical weight. (A good rule of thumb is that a summer suit should have a weight of cloth of between about 7.5 ounces and—at a maximum—nine ounces.) There is a third option, invented by sales people, known as “year-round weight.” That applies, as needed by them (but not you), either to a summer-weight suit the sales person is trying to sell for winter or a winter-weight suit being pushed for summer. Wool does not change its thickness to preference. If you call the sales person out on it, you know that he or she is really having you on if the response goes: “You can wear it ten months of the year.” If that happens, vacate the area immediately and find someone who will give you a straight answer.
Finally, when fitting a suit: if you let the sales person and the fitter know how much you really like it, and you see that the reaction is guarded hesitation—ask them politely to come clean and also ask if the sales person can recommend an alternative. Together, they have likely seen plenty of these come and go, and if your test model does not work for them there and then, the chances are good that it will not work for you later.
There, that was easy. Next step—accessories!
Credit: Alan Behr
Why is a can for Minute Maid juice like a coat? The answer: Because federal statutes and government regulations prescribe how each is labeled. In the case of juice, the label is prescribed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations promulgated under the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990. In the case of the coat, as apparel manufacturers are all too aware, by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under either the venerable Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939 or the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act. The regulatory schemes share ostensibly the same goal: to assure a uniform national standard and to inform consumers of the content and the qualities of the goods. But what if prescribed rules do not further that purpose?
That is a question posed by a case that the Supreme Court heard on April 21, 2014 Pom Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company. Pom’s business revolves around marketing beverages featuring pomegranate juice. Coca-Cola, wishing to cash in on the craze for such beverages, introduced a Minute Maid juice it called “Pomegranate Blueberry.” Notwithstanding the name, pomegranate juice constituted only 0.3% of the contents, and blueberry only 0.2%. The 99.4% of the contents which consisted of apple and grape juice was uncredited in the product name and the graphics decorating the label. Pom sued, claiming that the name “Pomegranate Blueberry” constituted false advertising and unfair competition, as consumers would naturally infer that the product’s main ingredients were pomegranate and blueberry juices. Unfortunately for Pom (and, one might add, for consumers seeking the health benefits of pomegranates and blueberries), FDA regulations specifically permit naming a product for ingredients so minor that they could be described as no more than flavoring.
So, now, the Supreme Court will decide whether a competitor can sue for false advertising and unfair competition when the contents of a label are authorized (or sometimes even required) by government regulations, no matter how misleading. In the language of the law, do the specific provisions of federal labeling law preempt federal and state laws that more broadly and generally protect consumers and competitors from deception as to the contents or quality of the goods?
Should the Court find for Pom, attention will have to be given not only to technical compliance with legal requirements, but also to whether consumers are likely to be misled. One might think Coca-Cola has the better argument. After all, if your labels comply with federal regulations, you should not have to worry about what consumers think. If there is a problem, the fault lies with the government and its regulations. But that conclusion might be wrong. Some of the justices appeared to view the labels as very misleading. Others wondered whether the FDA considered anything other than health and safety in promulgating the regulations and questioned whether assuring that consumers are not misled was the responsibility of the FDA.
Of course, that is the responsibility of the FTC and it is the purpose ostensibly served by the FTC labeling rules for textiles. But even under the FTC rules, you can name your line of sheets “Bamboo,” as long as that is just the name and the fine print on your label states that the fabric is rayon made from bamboo fibers. After all, this is consistent with a regulatory scheme that requires you to state the country of origin of a coat but not that of vitamins or toothpaste.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman