Saturday, February 17, 2018

What Made Brooks Brothers Great?

Brooks Brothers on Newbury Street, Boston, 2011.  Photo by Salt Water New England
What is interesting about the L.L. Bean's Guarantee is not, "Why did it fail", which is obvious, but "Why did it succeed for so long,"  perhaps for the first 70 years or so.

Brooks Brothers is a company with a different past, of course, even as it is currently showing signs of end-stage convergence.  Wrote one commenter:
I was with Brooks Brother's Parent company in the late 70's and 80's, pretty much the zenith of their business. At the time, our shoes were made in England, we owned our own shirt factories in New Jersey, had a patent on the button down collar. Everything we did was geared to quality as we had clothed Presidents over the years. The boardroom on the 8th floor still echoed the ideas of the founder. But, in an unhappy takeover, the parent was bought out by Allied Stores who knew nothing about upscale retailing. As they began to influence us, they went into cost cutting measure to increase more own shoes, buy from Bass. Close the factories and have made in the orient. And, so on and so on. Later BB was sold to Marks and Spencer who did not know how to run it and it continued to go downhill. Now the present owners seem intent upon making it another J. Crew or Lands End. The sad demise of a once quality marque.(SpencerGray)
With Brooks Brothers, more than the "where are they now" issue, a richer question for the elucidation of future generations may be, "what had made Brooks Brothers great?"

More specifically, in the traditional of oral history, for those who had first hand memorable experiences with Brooks Brothers in its prime, either one-off or over time, what where they? (See also Mayle's mid-1980s <Connaught> description.)

For example, one 25 year old MBA graduate, many decades ago, said: "I shop at Brooks Brothers because I know I can't make a mistake."

And wrote MGC:
[M]y father took me into Brooks Brothers on Newbury Street when I was twelve and introduced me to Mr. Marquis, who would be my clothing mentor for the next dozen or more years into the late sixties. Every time my father and I would go to Brooks together, he and Mr. Marquis would ramble on about every subject known to man while I browsed through tweed jackets, suits and other items of sartorial interest. Mr. Marquis was a tall, thin, bald, gentlemanly, soft-spoken fellow who worked at Brooks a good thirty years, maybe forty. 
Long after my father died (Mr. Marquis never failed to mention how much he missed my father) I drove into Boston to shop for a suit. That particular summer, mid 1960’s, I had let myself go to seed, eating too much, drinking too much beer; generally overcome with lethargy both mental and physical. I took the elevator up to the 4th floor and found Mr. Marquis, who looked me over as an entomologist might view a bug through a microscope. “You’re getting fat,” he bellowed. “You need to do something about this immediately. Now what can I get you?” 
I spent the rest of the summer swimming furiously, drinking diet Tab (perfectly dreadful stuff), eating salads and working out. The next time I saw Mr. Marquis, he took one look and said with a huge smile, “ you need some pants; 32 waist now, I’m guessing.” I have retained the same slim figure ever since.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Triumph Briefcase by Lotuff - Made in New England

Photos by Salt Water New England
One of Lotuff's latest designs, the Triumph is a joy to use.  The beautifully made briefcase is structured, so it stands up on its own, either empty or full.  The quality of the leather (hand-selected and vegetable-tanned)  is incredibly high, and this bag has impressive grain, even on the inside pieces.  As is appropriate for a business case, its simple outside lines and almost slight presence do not distract when used, but it does reward scrutiny.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Question: What are the Best Biscuits to Have with Tea?

What are the best biscuits to have with tea?  Something bland?  Something sweet? Or perhaps something more?

So Very Bland

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

An Aran Sweater, Hand-knit in Ireland, 1980s

Photo by Salt Water New England

Taking a Wall

Photo by Salt Water New England

Spring in Vermont, 1978

Photo by Salt Water New England

Gathering Dust

Photo by Salt Water new England

Monday, February 12, 2018

Around Newburyport in March

Photos by Salt Water New England

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Questions for the Community: Taking Care of Your Silver

Photo by Salt Water New England

Questions for the Community:
How do you take care of your silver? 
What is the best silver polish?   
Are there safer approaches?

Not Guaranteed to Last: 5 Questions About L.L. Bean

On its journey to company shell, L.L. Bean remains an interesting case study.  Past L.L. Bean produced books: The Making of an American Icon (Bean's iconic era, printed in the U.S.) and Guaranteed to Last (Bean's cash grab era, printed in China).  Guaranteed to Last provided by L.L. Bean. Photo by Salt Water New England.
L.L. Bean's dissolution of their century-old guarantee generated some questions.
(Also see Bloomberg's The Death of Clothing <>, mentioned in the comments, and the earlier post <>.)
These may be more salient now, but few are surprising.  The beginning of the end of L.L. Bean was laid out by the contrast of approaches by two L.L. Bean CEO's, as quoted in  Leon Gorman's book, L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon:

Leon Gorman (past L.L. Bean CEO):
  • "Our overall strength was functional value – products that did what they were supposed to do, did it every time, and did it for a long time, all for a reasonable price.  This was what L.L. Bean was known for."
  • Quoting Gentlemen’s Quarterly – “…emphasis on simplicity, practicality and durability.  Unlike “high fashion” where “look” is foremost and function secondary, the appearance of Bean apparel is guided by what the clothes are intended to do.”
  • “We also never put a lot of editorial content or outdoors imagery in our catalogs.  We relied on our products and their descriptions to tell who we were.”
  • “LL Bean as fashion was a mixed blessing for us, and we all knew it.  Our sales increased markedly in the near term but were unlikely to be sustainable long term.  In addition, being fashionable was a serious contradiction of our character and brand positioning.  It confused our positioning internally as well as in the marketplace.”
  •  “We continued to use our employees and their families, friends, and dogs as models.  We didn't want to come across as slick or sophisticated (and we didn't want to pay expensive fees for professional models.)"
Chris McCormick (subsequent L.L. Bean CEO):
  • "I don’t’ want to overstate it but we were lagging on our sourcing competencies.  I'm guessing 60 or 70 percent of our items were probably sourced in the (United States) then.  Maybe a little bit less than that but not much.  What the consultants pointed out is that the world had moved offshore.  Yes it would be nice if we could keep sourcing products in the (United States), but, realistically, all those jobs were going offshore anyway.  The competencies were leaving this country and from a competitive standpoint we really had no choice.  The quality, by the way, would be just as good, if not better than the (United States).  So we created the sourcing department and gave them marching orders to improve our margins and reduce our cost of goods sold."
  • "To this day (sourcing) was probably the most successful thing that came out of the Strategic Review.  Today maybe 20 percent of our items are made in the (United States), and the rest are offshore…We needed to really learn quickly about vendors located in different countries, the quotas and all those tariffs, and everything about bringing product in here and we did that very quickly.  The cost of goods initiative was probably the single biggest reason the year... was as successful as it was.   That’s when our business really turned around.  It wasn't so much sales growth that drove the performance of that year, it was improving margins that improved profitability of that year."
See also August, 2011 Poll "Is L.L. Bean on the right track?" <>

Some categories of questions put forth by readers and others:

1. "Is such a retroactive action legal?  Can L.L. Bean change the terms of past purchases?" "For how long was L.L. Bean externally advertising their guarantee after they had internally decided to end it?"

2. "Why was L.L. Bean so aggressive towards their own customers in their announcement?  To shoppers reading the news, the headline should have read, 'Two less reasons to go to L.L. Bean'.  Rather than striking a tone of either balance (with perhaps an announcement: 'We have lowered our prices by 5%' or 'We have doubled our Made in U.S. offerings') or contrition ('We just can't afford any longer..., but we will do everything we can to make customers happy...') Beans attacked and characterized customers with such specific words as 'abusive' and 'fraudulent', and framing itself as a victim."

3.  "In how much financial trouble is L.L. Bean, really?"  "Did the Linda Bean vocal support of Trump erode the perceived alignment between some existing customers and Bean management?" "Will L.L. Bean exist as an independent company in three years?"  "Who might buy them out?"

4.  "Is this finally the end of the over-priced, over-sold 'Lifestyle,' made-in-China brands, including JC Penney, J. Crew, Nordstrom, Ralph Lauren, and Sears?" "Has the U.S. press, rather than providing intelligent reviews, been too blithely accepting of the PR narratives of the clothing and fashion companies, and has this hurt these companies - and consumers - in the long term?"

5.  "Who misused the guarantee more: no-good customers or the evolving L.L. Bean?"  "The issue for the history books is not 'Why the guarantee did not work' (which is obvious) but, earlier, 'Why the guarantee did.'"

Note:  This comment, from February, 2014, was added on February 15, 2018, as it adds some perspective:
I work for Beans and I'd like to share my observations over the past few years. I have learned that we are serving a number of different consumer groups. 
1. First, is the die hard, long term Bean customer, ie; readers of TDP. The company is trying very hard to maintain a relationship with this group. Unfortunately, this group has a very long memory matched only by their extremely high standards. Needless to say, it has been a battle that I don't think they have lost just yet. This group prefers classic design with quality materials and workmanship. 
2. The second group are the customers who are enamored of the LL Bean mystic. They love the idea of being "prep" and "Down-east" without having to leave home. These customers are definitely middle to upper middle class and have grown up in our disposable society and are comfortable with lower quality, imported items. Planned obsolescence is the norm. This group is more apt to follow fashion trends. 
3. Finally, the bargain hunters who feel they are buying a brand name at a deep discount. These customers never pay retail and are only there to peruse the sale racks and could really care less about quality or country of origin. 
That said, I do know that the company really is trying to meet the needs of the first group without alienating the second. They have brought back certain items from the archives, such as the women's Norwegian sweater which was a huge success at $169. They do know they have work to do.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Maine Coast, 1970s

Photo by Salt Water New England

Maine Coast, 1980s

Photo by Salt Water New England
Practically speaking, since the early twentieth century when the automobile became the primary form of transport, many affluent New England families spent summers in Maine, both in summer homes and at summer camp.  In fact from my own experience traveling the world, I am always surprised at the number of people who went to summer camp in Maine when they were younger.  This includes diplomats' kids, assorted foreign nationals, and of course, New Yorkers, many of whom further tell me that their fondest memories of childhood derived from their time "at camp" in Maine! 
After Labor Day, all of it was packed up and taken back to suburbs and cities all the way down to Washington, D.C., with children often enough getting ready to return to their secondary schools and universities. 
As they drove down Route 1, these families would stock up on back-to-school supplies, stopping at many now iconic stores, including of course, at Beans, and also at Quoddy stores, and at the stores with  G.H. Bass and Hathaway. 
This was how, every year, these Maine-based products purchased there became part of the collective wardrobe and cultural consciousness.  This is how the Prep aesthetic, if not always the ethos in its purest essence, made its way around the globe, from New York and Hollywood (through such icons as Miles Davis, Grace Kelly, and Steve McQueen), to Japan and beyond. 
- JA, via email, and with permission to share.

Some of the Weekend's Animals

Photos by Salt Water New England

Friday, February 9, 2018

Portland Press Herald: L.L. Bean scraps its century-old unlimited lifetime return policy

Photos by Salt Water New England
Averyl sent this article:
L.L. Bean scraps its century-old unlimited lifetime return policy 
Company executives say too many customers abused the policy by returning worn-out items years after they were purchased.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Greenwich, Mid-1960s

Photos by Salt Water New England

Quoddy Bluchers

Photo by Salt Water New England
The Blucher is, for many, their first pair of Quoddy shoes.  The design is as versatile and classic as a pair of khakis or an oxford shirt.
Shown here:
  • Upper : Horween Chromexcel / Brown
  • Sole Type : Camp Sole
  • Sole Color : Redbrick
  • Thread : Natural
  • Hardware : Antique Brass
  • Lace : Rawhide / Chestnut
  • Lining : Tan Glove Leather

Beston's Breakfast

Photos By Salt Water New England
I brought in basket after basket of firewood, till the corner of the room resembled a woodshed. Then I folded up the bedclothes, threw my blanket over the couch, lighted the oil stove, and prepared breakfast. An apple, oatmeal porridge, toast made at the fireplace, a boiled egg, and coffee. 
- Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928 <>

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Out of Doors and In

Photos by Salt Water New England

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Monday, February 5, 2018

When Do You Say When? The Life Cycle of Clothes

Photo by Salt Water New England
The expectation of certain clothing items is that they will last a long time.  An oxford shirt and pair of khakis may start, new, as business casual.  Eventually they get a bit worn and loses their crispness, and become weekend wear.  And finally, with tears and patches, they end up for garden work, brush clearing, and trips to the dump.  After a long run, it becomes necessary to ask, when do you say when?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Life on the Connecticut Shore: c. 1913

On the Beach Rocks: Grandmother on Left, Great Uncles in Middle, Great Grandmother on Right.

Winter Walk

Photo by Salt Water New England

Saturday, February 3, 2018

F.L. Woods Delivery

Photo by Salt Water New England
Interesting things from an interesting place - Marblehead's F.L. Woods:
Lightweight oiled wool, 20 percent nylon.  A favorite and worn constantly in cool weather.  In both Forest Green or Navy.

From the F.L. Woods site:
Yachtsman & Aviation Pioneer Sir T.O.M. Sopwith - challenged the America's Cup with his J-class yachts Endeavour & Endeavour II. 
In 1936 he commissioned crew uniforms for the 1937 campaign, which included a jersey-knit wool sweater. 
Our Sopwith Sweater is modeled after the original.

Wellies / Rain Boots

Le Chameau - Photos by Salt Water New England
A reader question:
Mud season seems to be coming a bit early this year.  I am looking to replace my rain boots, and I never know what to do.  Which boots have other people had luck with?  Is it worth it to go expensive or get by with cheap?  What are favorite brands, and which ones have gone downhill?  Thank you!
Options include (from comments):