Brooks Brothers at 200 – Part 1

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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.

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* 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