"New England is quite as large a lump of earth as my heart can really take in." - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Monday, January 5, 2015

Overview of Companies, Past and Present (Including Those Often Referred to as Preppy and Trad)



Here is the most recent life cycle chart.  This chart is an opinion piece, for fun and conversation starting, not complete, nor actual analysis.

For those new to this, this chart strives to plot the current state of some clothing and accessory vendors - including many that are often referred to as Preppy and Traditional - as they evolve from young, innovative companies on the left of the chart to company shells/cautionary tales on the right.

The broad characteristics of each stage are as follows (and all characteristics don't apply to all companies):

Crucible
  • A company serves demanding clients in authentic environments significantly better then competitors.  
  • The company’s founder is hands on.
  • Other people often love the products without necessarily recognizing the company that made it.
  • As any VC knows, companies here are highly unstable; they can change nearly instantly, from experiencing overnight rapid growth, to selling out, pivoting, or going away.
Precious
  • Fiercely passionate customers, who are "in the know", are very loyal to the company.
  • The company has much higher prices than competitors.
  • Quality is paramount. Marketing is poor.  Web sites may be disastrous.
  • Customers can still call or email and get the owner (and often work through any problems).
  • New, great products are added, seemingly effortlessly.
Iconic
  • The company has widely recognized popular and unique items.
  • Great pride is taken in the company by employees, who go "beyond the call of duty" to make happy customers.
  • Items are expensive, but high quality.
  • New items, extensions of old, are added.
  • Companies gain increasing brand recognition well beyond passionate base.
  • A short term flattening of growth can cause panic.
  • The company worries about becoming trendy.  They also fear complacency, bloat, and smugness, and don't want to be thought of as the category leader.  They sell great products, not a great brand.
New Markets
  • The company is often under new management, typically with MBA and logistics-centric credentials. The company increases focuses on greatly improving contribution margins.
  • The new management begins to purge many of the old employees and suppliers/branded vendors that had contributed to the success of the company.  Cheaper parts are swapped in.
  • Companies in this stage are very interested in new categories of customers, and take the existing customer base for granted; many loyal customers find themselves buying less and less.
  • The new management experiments with "leveraging the look and the feel of the brand and brand experience" by tentatively lowering the quality and increasing the channels, supported by heavy marketing, including social media outreach.  
  • Marketing gets increasingly - often awkwardly - self-congratulatory.  Wooden boats are everywhere.
  • The company makes big deals of changing the colors of successful products.  
  • Vendors open mall stores, for example, in this stage, ancillary to design decision making.  
  • No new great products are launched, despite expensive misfires.  Companies go after markets they don't understand.  From a creative perspective, the company becomes derivative and inert. Marketing and product design takes from outside sources.  
Cash Grab
  • There is a nearly impossible to resist opportunity for upper management to personally cash-in with a one-time windfall through a rapid market expansion with much lower quality goods at still high prices with very high margins, irrevocably sacrificing brand, long-term employees and partners, and traditional customers. 
  • There is significant confusion from traditional customers.  Long time customers start to experience return-fatigue.
  • Some classics remain (but fewer and fewer).
  • There are wild fluctuations of prices (higher prices, then massive sales, with various coupons and sweepstakes).
  • New products are low quality and relatively expensive.  Companies design for 75% to 80% mark ups. 
  • Mall stores grow in influence over the direction of the company. Outlet stores open. Companies here may invest in "big data" programs.  
  • Companies increasingly outsource production to low-cost providers.
  • Companies are desperate to be trendy.
  • A cash grab company has a significant PR budget, first spent trying to differentiate the company from their past, then relentlessly trying to invoke it.  Companies become louder and more strident.
  • Near the end of this stage, companies believe success comes when they can best distract from, rather than highlight, what they are actually selling; "matters of the flesh" are, for example, used, either overtly or, more unctuously, faux-coyly. Skirts get shorter.  Contrived "lifestyle marketing", designed to elicit envy in potential customers, is used relentlessly.  
Company Shell
  • Companies' products are no longer significantly differentiated in the marketplace. Branding chugs along.  Companies here find themselves with new competitors and engage in a race-to-the-bottom in price and quality.  
  • They shift, almost overnight from an external market perception, from relevant and interesting to irrelevant and over-exposed.  
  • Outlet stores become highly influential in setting company strategies.  
  • They bear no resemblance to their original selves.  Black and white old photographs are used.
  • They rely on good customer service to overcome quality problems, not to meet individual needs or repair but to efficiently replace or refund.  Guarantees become more restrictive.
  • Coach, for example, is included as a cautionary tale. 

Common use language and rigorous taxonomies can clash here.  This chart tries to focus on branded producers.  This can be a gray area when retail or online stores create a store brand, especially when they custom order products.  F.L. Woods designs their own products, and is listed here.  The case could be made without breaking much of a sweat to also include, using the same criteria:    
If so, O'Connell's would be in the iconic category, and Royal Male would be in the precious category.  Both are highly recommended. 

Links to companies mentioned on the chart:


Observations:

Lotuff



The Lotuff tote is by far my favorite accessory. I often get compliments on its superior craftsmanship and outstanding beauty. (Comment, January 19, 2012) 
Can't get enough of Lotuff's quality and craftsmanship. (Comment, August 8, 2013)
My Lotuff English briefcase is the most beautiful bag I've ever owned. (Michael Rowe, January 12, 2014) 
I have been using a zip-top Lotuff brief in Chestnut for almost a year, for daily work and commuting. I have found it to be immensely satisfying to use, and very functional. The leather is substantial. (BantamInChicago, October 13, 2014)

Quoddy


I bought my first pair of Quoddy boat shoes at the beginning of this season, and love them. I suspect they will be in use for a very long time. (RR, October 17, 2012)
My Quoddy shoes are the most comfortable pair of shoes I own. (Comment, October 17, 2012)
Great shoes! Expensive, USA- and well-made goods with top quality materials are like nothing else. To buy anything else would be to downgrade. I love things that will last for 20 years because each time I wear or use them, they evoke great memories from the years past. They become like an old, familiar friend. (Comment, October 17. 2012)
I have Quoddy's in several styles. Love them all. The Vibram sole on the boat mocs is quite durable, and really allows a nice grip on wet decks. (Charles Dryton, June 20, 2013)
Quoddys are made to order. If shoes are important to you, they are worth the wait. They are not cheap, but the price is what you pay and lasting value is what you get. In many of their models, Quoddy uses top quality Horween leather from Chicago. The Horween website describes in detail their treatment of leather for fine shoes, jackets, etc. One of the great things about having a custom set of shoes ordered, is that they can usually accommodate varied widths and sizes. If you are one of the fortunate ones whose feet are exactly the same size and a medium width, this is not a big deal, but for the rest of us, it is... Buy from them while you can. This is American craftsmanship at its finest.  (June 22, 2013)
 I ordered a pair of Quoddy boat shoes and have worn them now for a few months. Hands down, these are the best boat shoes I have ever owned. (Gary, August 14, 2013)

Mercer


A great value... Thread count and feel of the 100% cotton is the real deal. totally gotta iron, not a hint of no iron plastic. Something that only a true purist cares about is the collar roll on the OCBD.  Absolutely the best, IMO. Others have tried to take the shirt apart and copy the collar, but the roll that competitors come up with never approaches the perfect "bell shape" of the Mercer roll. (wf, April 8, 2011)
I only have six or seven of them in my closet right now, but that's because they wear so well that I haven't needed to replace them. They make the nonpareil, archetypal, classic OCBD.  (Michael, November 24, 2014)
Own some tattersalls. First rate shirts. Reminds me of vintage B2 with collar roll & full cut. Old school grownup shop. Definitely not for J Crew -AF hybrid metrosexuals. (Comment, November 25, 2014)
I've been purchasing from Mercer for years and I don't believe the shirt has any competitors. The Mercer shirt is a completely different garment than (for example) anything on offer from Brooks. And I mean anything. The blogger Heavy Tweed Jacket did an in-depth analysis of Mercer vs. Brooks (for all you left brained folks) and the differences are substantial. Now, whether those differences are worth paying extra for is up to you. As for the full cut: I've noticed that they no longer include the slogan "Baggier Is Better" on the label of their shirts, but I hope that this is their only concession to current fashion. A bit of bagginess in an oxford is essential. (Sartre, November 25, 2014)

Dubarry


Dubarry of Ireland - Their boots and boat shoes are expensive but have been well worth the money. (Comment, May 8, 2013) 
Second the recommendation of Dubarry as great quality.(LP, May 8, 2013) 
Go Dubarry! I live in those boots all winter long! (Comment, May 9, 2013)

Wool Overs


I purchased several Woolovers sweaters this past season and we absolutely love them. Very timeless styling, right down to the ribbed sleeves. Nothing fancy or clever, or anything to "update" them. (Holly in PA, July 16,l 2014)
I have enjoyed ordering from them on several occasions. Their products are high quality and reasonably priced. I have ordered from them for gifts as well as for myself. (Comment, September 3, 2014)
We like Woolovers very much. We've bought the Fisherman, Aran, Norweigen, Guernsey and Cashmere/Merion cable. All have been excellent in color, fit and make. (Comment, September 4, 2014)
Good looking sweaters at a fair price. (Comment, September 4, 2014)

Patagonia

A Patagonia Snap-T
I am not a big fan of any kind of "fleece" never worn by a sheep; call it what they will, it's still polyester, and has nothing like the warmth or wicking properties of natural wool. (Greenfield, November 27, 2011)
Patagonia [has a] continued commitment to quality and to reducing consumption by promoting repairing, reusing and recycling to reduce our environmental footprint. (Bitsy, November 27, 2011)
In the past I have purchased a number of items from Patagonia--including Snap-Ts, Stand Up shorts, insulated vests/jackets, etc. As many of these original items were constructed of "Synchilla", a product of Malden (MA) mills and Polartec, Patagonia has truly gotten away from their roots. Not only were the fabrics quite often created in U.S. mills, but the construction of garments was completed in the U.S. as well.  Patogonia's acknowledgement that such construction would currently be virtually impossible is certainly a sad state of affairs, but a little chicken and egg--which came first the lack of U.S.factories/workers or the shipping of jobs overseas for cheaper production and increased profit margins by companies like Patagonia. (childdoc, May 13. 2014)

Barbour

Barbours are Repaired, not Replaced
Functional, long-lasting, outdoorsy, classic. (Michael, August 23, 2013)
These were always just coats we found at the tack shop and wore at the barn!  (Sungish60669, August 23, 2013)
Barbour is well-entrenched modern preppy, been sold at the Andover Shop since at least the early '80s. English origins don't negate its preppiness nor does the fact that people besides Sloane Ranger types wear it. Still great for damp weather. Wish it all was made in England and Scotland like before. (August 23, 2013)
It's worn on every continent by people who value quality, craftmanship and tradition. (Bernie,  August 24, 2013)
 The quality of Barbour has gone downhill in the last 5-8 years. Several years ago, I went shopping for a Barbour coat for my wife and I was shocked that outside the traditional oil slicked coats, most of their merchandise was mass produced in Asia. (Pete, August 26, 2013)
Though expensive to purchase, are indeed an example of being frugal in the long run. I have several Barbour coats. The two oldest are a Beaufort which was purchased in 1981. My fly fishing Spey jacket (no long made) in 1983. Both are functional garments, both have been repaired and both represent outstanding value. Plastic, polyester or any type of synthetic outerwear cannot meet the criteria of long life, value and reparability. (Sean W., August 27, 2013)


J. Press

If you want an ancient madder or challis tie or a three button sack, Press is the place. Plus their salesmen know what they're talking about. My problem with Press and your chart is that they have made themselves into two companies: J. Press and York Street. (Cranky Yankee, May 8, 2013)
 A shopping experience at J. Press is still a pleasure, and the quality is generally very high. A few disturbing trends that have been noted elsewhere, but on the whole the main brand remains fairly secure. (John, May 8, 2013)
The cynicism, ineptitude and greed demonstrated by the York Street line screams cash grab. (WRJ, May 8, 2013)

Brooks Brothers


BB had good quality clothes at a fair price during the 1980s.The quality and style have declined over time. Now they are just a sad joke. (Comment, August 23, 2013)
My wardrobe includes many good items from BB: sport jackets, pants, ties, sweaters, OCBD shirts, polo shirts, etc. Although, many of these items were bought years ago, I continue to buy their clothing. I just stick with the traditional apparel and look. (Gary, August 23, 2013)
For their all-cotton sure-to-wrinkle OCBD's and repp ties, or their Alden-made shoes, sure. Otherwise, Brooks Brothers has been wandering in the wilderness for quite a few years. (Michael, August 23, 2013)
The brand cannot be relied on to provide consistency, and all purchases have to be scrutinized, including BB. Which is annoying. I find BB confusing--literally, I am often confused when shopping online or in stores. There seem to be dozens of fits for pants, suits, jackets, and shirts. There must be thousands of combinations of dress shirts available, between the various collars, patterns, colors, fits, and chemical coatings available. Most of these combinations are undesirable. Quality varies widely--some stuff made in the USA, some in Italy, some in Asia. It's cacophonous.  I really only consistently shop at BB for OCBDs, ties, and socks. (WRJ, August 23, 2013)
 I would not buy anything from them for casual wear but I still buy my suits and must-iron shirts from them. (Bernie, August 23, 2013)
I'm afraid that all I can manage these days from Brooks Brothers are the original fit button-downs, the socks and underwear, the ties, and the shoes. Their khakis feel like design rejects from The Gap, the suits and blazers are all tricked out, and are identical to any good suit sold all over America.  I have a pair of khakis from BB which I purchased in 1991, and I treat them like gold, because the cut, the fabric, the hook-eye tab closure, aren't made by BB anymore. Again, if we're going to talk about the loss of preppy aesthetic, we have to address the dumbing-down effect of marketing to a wider, middlebrow, middle-American audience.(Michael Rowe, August 23, 2013)
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 profits...no 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, September 17, 2013)

L.L. Bean



I have been a frequent Bean customer since the late 1960s. There is no question that the quality has dropped dramatically over the past 5-10 years. I still try but end up returning most of what I order. (December 20, 2012)
Bean's quality has declined at a breakneck pace. (Comment, April 22, 2013)
LLB should find [a new CEO] who understands that they cannot continue to produce poorly made products that are way overpriced and still make the kind of money that they have made the last few years. That trick may be used up. People are starting to wise up. (Comment, May 19, 2014)
There is nothing at Bean today that appeals to me and anytime I visit their website, I feel as though I'm looking at a Walmart flyer. I visit Ebay in search of traditional quality made Bean items made prior to 2007 more often than I visit the Bean website. Bean doesn't seem to be carrying many, if any, products that would appeal to a value-minded traditionalist. I will buy the Bean totes and Bean boots but that's it. I once loved their oxford shirts but won't buy them now because they are treated. The rest of their clothing seems extremely over-priced for cookie cutter, cheap, trendy style and poor quality. (Mollie's Mom, August 5, 2014) 
I have never experienced anything but the highest quality customer service from L.L. Bean. (Patsy, September 27, 2014) 
I don't expect the Bean family to correct this when it was the Walton family that ruined their own legacy as well. My recent Bean jacket purchases are unworn; they sit in limbo as I decide to return them or not. I've already returned their completely disappointing Oxford shirts, which would could live up to their "wear like iron" claim as they already feel like something akin to metal against the skin. (James, September 27, 2014)

Some relevant quotes about L.L. Bean's evolution - their past and their current state - come from two L.L. Bean CEO's, past and present, 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 (current 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."

Ralph Lauren

RL makes a a number of great items and many awful items, which puts it in the same category as pretty much every other multinational clothing company in the world. Fits are generally predictable--there are two for shirts, classic and custom, and you know what you're getting with each. Non-iron is the exception and not the rule. Colors are consistently good. Tailored clothing is very expensive, but very high-quality. Still selling soft-shouldered jackets. Ties are made in Italy and are a league beyond Brooks Brothers in drape and design. I have a dozen or so of the classic cashmere sweaters that I wear 9 months of the year, and the quality is great, for the same price on-sale as a Shaggy Dog. I can't recall having a serious quality issue with any purchase, even items made in Asia--which I attribute to Mr. Lauren's reputed obsessive quality control. However, I tend to only buy on sale because (1) almost everything is marked down twice a year, (2) the higher-end items, particularly those that are made in Italy, are very expensive, and (3) I have set a low ceiling for what I'm willing to pay for items coming from the country of "Imported". (WRJ, August 26, 2013))
I haven't forgiven RL for the Olympic uniforms made in China. (Rachel, August 26, 2013)
I think Ralph Lauren was preppy. But now they have too many off brands and even a factory store. If you walk in any TJ Maxx or Marshalls they always have Ralph Lauren shirts there to buy. I feel that its too out there now, and I feel it kind of lost its luxury appeal. Now they have these oversized logos and this year they highlighted their "downtown prep" theme and its just seems wild to me and too phony. I'm sure there are staple items, but I don't know how long its going to last. (Berniex, September2, 2014)
Looking at Ties in their NY Store

Vineyard Vines


I worked at VV during college and in my experience outside of the ties nothing in the store was of very good quality. Their shirts are either plastic feeling or far too thin,... The best summation I have heard of VV is that they are mockery of preppy. They are over-the-top garish at times. (Zach, August 23, 2013)
VV is not preppy or traditional. It’s a cash grab. (Ice Matty T, August 23, 2013)
Shep and Ian are laughing all the way to the bank. I like and have a couple of their ties, but most (if not all) of the rest of their stuff is overpriced and of much lower quality.... And yes, a lot of their stuff is so over the top that only young teens and undergrads at southern colleges and universities dare wear some of the more garish colors and patterns. (Paul Connors, August 23, 2013)
I would consider them tourist/resort/cruise wear. (Susan R, August 23, 2013)
It's what non-preppy thinks preppy should be. (Bernie, August 24, 2013)
 I always feel sad for grown adult when I see them wearing VV, as if they've been duped! As for the younger set, their grown adult parents have also been duped in to buying for their children. (August 26, 2013)
Copycat clothing for Copycat preps (Seas-the-day, August 26, 2013)
Some of Vineyard Vines' First Products

Lilly Pulitzer

An indicator...?

From 2011

Vera Bradley

I cherish my older VB bags, totes, and accessories because I preferred the patterns. They seemed to be based on Provencal fabrics and I liked them better. (Carole, September 23, 2010) 
Not impressed with Vera for the last 10 years, they have become too trendy in design and color selection which is geared toward the tween, teen and coed market. (HipWaldorf, April 6, 2014) 
Unfortunately, they have strayed from their French Provencal inspired fabric from the past. The fabrics now seem to be channeling psychodelic prints from the 60's. Some color schemes are pretty horrendous. (April 6, 2014) 
I own a nice selection of Vera Bradley totes and zip around wallets that have been well taken care of, all purchased new many years ago -- in shades of pink, apple green, pale yellow, red and navy. I'll occasionally find something in a nice old pattern on eBay. However, I've purchased no new Vera patterns for a long time.  Like other companies, I wish they'd get the message that we'd like to see a return of traditional colors and patterns from the past. Over time, the collections have become so hideous and ghastly that they look cheap. (April 7, 2014) 
I recall purchasing a tote shortly after they moved production overseas; the difference in quality was most noticeable in the number of loose threads at the seams.(Mary, April 7, 2014) 
Not only has Vera Bradley decreased in quality and design (though not in price), it's no longer made in the US. I refuse to pay top-tier prices for an inferior, foreign made product. (April 13, 2014)
Vera Bradley Vintage Bags From Their Precious and Iconic Phases