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 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)
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.  

47 comments:

  1. Something nobody ever mentions is how sexy it was to take your girlfriend to the NYC store in the 60s. My girlfriend at the time, daughter of faux-aristocrats from Delaware, practically swooned as we entered the store on the Madison Avenue side. Then, on our way to the hallowed third floor, we made out in the elevator. I recall I didn't purchase anything; I didn't have to that day.

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  2. Lands End makes a better shirt than Brooks. I did not think it was possible. But the last shirt I bought from BB was expensive junk. Lands is also awful, but it's a better awful than BB....

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    1. I don't think so. As a guy who grew up with Brooks, no one is more disappointed in what's happened to the brand but I have returned everyone of about a dozen LE shirts. The fit is off, sized shirts had adjustable button cuffs, and the button down collars are luck to have 3" and don't roll.

      The previous generation of BB ocbd shirts were better than the current generation but either is vastly superior to LE shirts. A few of LE's Sail Rigger shirts are pretty decent, especially when purchased at one of LE's regular 40-50% off sales.

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    2. @Govteach: I emphatically disagree as well about Lands' End. I knew their quality was headed to the basement the very minute I heard they'd been bought by SEARS. To date, I haven't seen my prescience proved wrong.

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    3. I just want to jump in with a quick word about Land’s End. I have not purchased anything for myself or my husband there. However, our children attend private school with a dress code and Land’s End makes the most durable uniform clothes I have seen. My girls are at school from 8-3 and it is chock full of labs, art, sports, etc., and the clothes stand up to the abuse. I highly recommend their school clothes.

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  3. Thank God for Mercer & Sons

    CJM

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  4. In the 80's and early 90's I purchased some wonderful items even though their offerings for women were limited. The quality was exceptional. I had a few pairs of shoes that were classic and made in Italy. Now the shoes they offer for women are "imported" and not well made at all. Back then I lived in Connecticut and my husbnad and I shopped either at the New York store or the one in Stamford. In the mid-90's, we moved back to my home state (California), and the BB in Century City (L.A.) was starting to show their downhill slide. My husband gave up on them and switched to a wonderful store in Beverly Hills (Carroll & Company). Now we are retired in Virginia, and BB opened a store in Charlottesville a few years ago. Last week we purchased a belt there for my husband. It is made in Italy and seems to be of good quality. Our lives have changed, and we do not have the need for the type of clothing we wore in the past. My husband's suits and blazers purchased at Carroll & Company work for whatever comes up these days, and they will probably be the last ones he ever needs to buy. Last year I spent what I thought was a hefty price for a cashmere sweater at BB, and it pilled terribly after one wearing. It was very soft and looked great until I wore it. The help back in the day was very professional. I'm sure that probably depends on the location of the store these days, but I still cringe when I hear "No problem," "No worries," "Cuz, like, you know, it's like...." I can't help it. I'm from a different generation.

    Jacqueline

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    1. I buy from Aquatalia for leather loafers that are durable and still made in Italy! Try Everlane for Cashmere sweaters...they market to the minimalist millennial crowd but their cashmere can't be beat! I own several of their cashmere pieces and they have a basic crew neck sweater that is slim cut but classic. I have it in several different colors.

      - ER

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    2. Thanks for the tips, ER!

      Jacqueline

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  5. I've never shopped at Brooks Brothers, so I can't comment on it. But I recently bought a cashmere wrap from The Travelwrap Company. They are located in the UK; their wraps are made in Scotland.

    After several months of looking and "researching", I contacted the company via their website chat to ask a few questions. The girl I chatted with was prompt and courteous, and she said she would forward my questions to the appropriate departments. By the end of the day, I had two personal emails from the company with specific answers to my questions.

    When I decided to make a purchase, I ran into a snag because my bank card security prevented it from working at a UK site. I was in the middle of checking out when this happened. As it was the weekend, I figured I'd wait until Monday and go see my bank about it.

    Imagine my surprise when, within 20 minutes, I had a phone call from a company representative. She said she'd noticed that there was a problem when I attempted to check out, and she wondered whether she could do anything to help--that sometimes the issue could be corrected if they manually keyed in the bank card details from their end.

    We tried that, but it didn't work.

    As it was the last of its particular kind, they offered to hold the piece for me until could contact my bank and get it sorted out.

    Over a couple of days, I spoke to two or three people from the company, and received several emails. Every interaction was friendly, generous, respectful, courteous, and helpful. And I was merely a first-time customer purchasing a single sale item.

    From the comments about Brooks Brothers, I get the feeling that something similar was going on. The ones who worked with the customers were personally invested in their products and their company. That led to an honesty and integrity in their dealings. They were less likely to cut corners (either in products or service) because it reflected on them, personally.

    At some point, I think, companies simply get too large & too far from their roots. If you have a half-dozen employees, there is communication and accountability. If you have a dozen, it can still be done. If you have five dozen, it is much more difficult.

    Big companies offer very different services from small ones. WalMart is the most obvious example: HUGE selection of stuff (groceries, clothes, car parts, gardening, medications, jewelry...) but pretty low on quality, integrity, and accountability. There's nothing really wrong with that; it's just a trade-off. The consumer and the business must both choose what they prefer.

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  6. I spoke with David Mercer yesterday who was as helpful as always.
    In the early 19080"s a January sale at Brooks in DC offered many different suit fabrics, the highest quality button downs, and so many things to covet I never dreamed it could all end.
    I have bought some flannel slacks in recent years but the last cordovan loafers I purchased were noticeably inferior to their predecessors
    The cashmere sweaters do pill quickly so I've stopped buying them.
    The New York store was once a destination now I know that I can avoid it and not miss a thing.
    Looking back the basic flaw was it became so large they needed volume. There are more "outlet" stores selling even more inferior merchandise.
    This inorganic growth ruined LL Bean as well.

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  7. I remember going to BB NYC with my father and sister in the 80s. It was a place where it was not unusual for the sales staff to know your name. The one thing you noticed was how quiet it was inside. It was almost as if you had gone through a stargate from Madison Avenue. No cash registers in sight. The ceiling was voluminous; talking at a normal levels dissipated to a whisper and added to the staid English men's club atmosphere. They had a teeny women's section in one of the upper floors with just about as good quality clothes as men's. BB and Paul Stuart down the street in the 80s was beginning to offer a small women's selection; a result of the first waves of Seven Sisters/young women graduates of newly co-ed Ivy League schools storming jobs on Wall Street. My sister was one of those young women. My father took her to the only place he frequented in NYC to shop for clothes. The job was in summer so Sis acquired two navy blue poplin suits, one khaki, high collar blouses (remember the foulard tie?), two pairs of Belgian style loafers. As a string-along, I got a Gordon plaid skirt and a blouse. No-iron had not yet crept into retail consciousness in a big way so everything was 100% cotton. It was a memorable day because Dad didn't often take us shopping - in his universe that was women's stuff. I think he was proud of his first born girl going to work on Wall Street, but he was humorously lost and foot-tapping in the women's department. The women's 'department' was small - looking back, it had everything - just finely curated. Drawing from it's tradition of fine men's apparel, BB was offering the classic staples to women back in the 80s.

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  8. I really miss those made in the USA khakis. Tough pants that brought compliments.

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  9. Nothing stays the same.

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  11. I think the BB men's polo shirts are ok as are some of the casual shirts for men but the women's line is so awful I just walk around and around hoping I missed something to fill in the gaps of my wardrobe. I don't even understand some of the colors they offer and those dreadful prints. I can't figure out who they are appealing to with their women's line. It's very frustrating as so many of my go to brands are just garbage now. My wardrobe has some spots to be filled and I'm out of ideas of where to turn.

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    1. I completely agree. I don’t know where to shop anymore. I prefer classic styles and don’t mind spending the money on something of true quality, if I can find it.

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  12. Yeah I sadly have no experience with the company in its prime but I own some vintage sweaters from there I love. I tried shopping at the modern store but didn't see anything worth buying. I guess it was tempting to slash production costs and sell at the same price point but consumers aren't falling for that anymore. If something is $200+ I want it to last for a long time.

    I feel the same way about Pendleton. I love my vintage sweaters but the new stuff is so sad.

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    1. Agree about Pendleton, so sad. It was once top quality and everything made in America. Have several lovely skirts and pants, beautifully made several years back. Quality no longer there. PA

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  13. Well, Brooks Brothers shoes are made in England and they are gorgeous. Brooks Brothers has several factories where they make clothes, including the Southwick factory right here in Massachusetts, the tie factory in NYC, and a shirt factory, somewhere. So, their business clothes are as well made as ever. There are no issues at all with their quality.

    Their regatta ties are classics and indispensable. Also, they have the classic business suit, and somewhat of a banker's uniform (my industry). They are trending toward the shrunken suit aesthetic, and that is a mistake, I believe, and they have little variety beyond the narrow lapel. I now favor a bolder wider lapel that I buy in England. Nevertheless, the suits are wonderful as are the staff if you shop at their flagship stores in Boston and NYC.

    Where they are lacking is in their casual clothes, which are made in Asia and are of dubious style and quality. I will not buy them. There is no romance there; only a faint echo of more authentic style.

    I should add that I have been shopping there since the 1980s.

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    1. I ponied up and bought one of their "Made in America" OCBD shirts....it was far from a "work/business" OCBD shirt of old.
      No locker loop. No mid-sleeve button......and worst of all no breast pocket. I was in a "business" that required having a pen(s) at all times. The cut reminded me more of a shirt you would wear with a tux....Oh, in the latest online check,there was no white in the solid colored shirts...Grape, aqua, pink, and the more traditional for business/work light blue.( In my size 15 1/2-34, in traditional cut....I'm 60+ and don't need a shirt that fits like a second skin.)
      Oh, and within 2 months, two buttons had fallen off....Sorry, not impressed.

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    2. Most of Brooks Brothers' shirts , over 90%, are made in Malaysia - dubious style and quality to use your own term. A very small proportion are made in the USA. The classic sack suits are not available in my local store. If you like clothes that are made in England, there are much better than alternatives to BB at lower prices.

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    3. Funny that you both focused on shirts; the single item I referenced the least and made no representations or descriptions of, except that there are some -however small, that are made here in the US. That was my single point. For me, if you want a shirt made in America, go for Mercer every time.

      I travel to England fairly regularly since my wife is from there, and I buy much of my wardrobe there now. I like to have something a bit different, something that is more of a statement.

      I also do not judge clothing on price; I judge on value. If something is of superior fabric or construction, I am willing to pay more. I would rather have fewer clothes of higher quality.

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  14. I remember going to their store on 347 Madison Avenue in 1979 and the staff noticed me, a college kid, wandering around looking at the shirts and ties and told me I could go up to the top floor, where they sold their Brooksgate line of clothing. I got a business suit and six OCBDs with the Brooksgate label and was quite happy with them. I was in the store because of a book called Dress for Success and I had a list of things I wanted to buy, based on what this book recommended.

    Next time I went there was 2007 when they had a sale and I bought some dress shirts and some polo shirts. These were of OK quality. (I wore one of these dress shirts today.) Have been there for a few visits in recent years, but except for the feeling of nostalgia, I'm not too impressed anymore. I just wish I had a time machine and could return to the store for a 1980 shopping spree.

    I have a few BB sweaters I've purchased on eBay that were made in England. I think these were made by Alan Paine and sold under the BB label. They're top quality.

    Thank you for this article. I liked the comments as well.

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  15. It was worth a four hundred mile drive to shop the semi annual sales in the 70s,mostly because I liked everything in the store. The last thing I bought there was a new tux for my daughters wedding in 2010 and
    Thinking that I didn't like much of anything there and I certainly couldn't buy enough to make that drive worthwhile today.

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  16. I had a Brooks button down in every color in 1983. I bought my first white bucks from Brooks, made in England and truly outstanding; spectacular compared to the others in my circle. Great and unique sweaters, too. Great product and good value.

    I lusted after the "Peal" level products that I could not justify nor afford. I never bought a suit from Brooks.

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  17. I think you have to consider the customer base, too. The "old" BB was a single, well-sited store that had thousands of potential customers: well-heeled business and professional men who needed multiple high quality suits, tuxes, sports coats, etc. And their sons.

    Skip to today, and you have a male populace that only needs "a dark suit, I guess", and who thinks that the "Suits 'R' Us" shop can do him just as well, for less. Their sons wear jeans to weddings and funerals.

    NCJack

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  18. In the 1970's I was in a professional firm where BB was regarded in the same light as JC Penney, but for those insecure but lacking discrimination. We were strongly encouraged to seek a personal style with quality US, UK, and Italian suits. Clients we met who wore BB suits were readily identified as such, there was a very stodgy and unflattering aspect to much of their line. New recruits who interviewed in BB wear were encouraged to visit a few other purveyors and reach the desired presentation. Even better suits by HSM were considered more appropriate, but some London and Milan wear tended to be the choice of the upper ranks.

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    1. Please let me elaborate, I realize upon reading this post it does not sound as I intended. The principals were setting a culture of innovation and independent thought and analysis on behalf of our clients, and differentiated the firm from competitors who largely chose the safe and conventional wisdom, their engagements tended to be cookie-cutter and relying upon who they knew, rather than what they knew. Our leadership considered BB to be the conventional wisdom, cookie-cutter choice of the Eastern establishment and their old boys network. We hired more Jews, Italians, midwesterners, and others outside the private school/Ivy networks. The firm considered it important to display independence and merit through how we dressed and presented ourselves, while maintaining high standards that nonetheless fell outside the BB genre. Apologies for appearing to be irrationally dismissive of the BB look and its adherents, not my intent at all.

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  19. I don't think much about BB anymore. My wardrobe had many items from BB, and I would buy from them frequently. But, a few years ago I went into one of their outlets looking to by a new OCBD or two. Everything was a blend with wrinkle-free chemicals. It was the last time I went to BBs.

    Do I miss it? Not really. There are so many good options today from others like Mercer, M Spencer, J Press, Andover Shop, O'Connell's, Cordings, Dubary, and many more. Heartless, I know, but I really don't mourn the loss of BB.

    Aiken

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  20. Everyone reading this post should remain mindful that the 3 or more sales of Brooks Bros. over the last 30 years have contributed to its decline. However, the most serious and precipitous decline has come under the ownership of the incredibly arrogant and deliberately obtuse Italian business genius(sic) CLAUDIO DEL VECCHIO - the scion of the Luxottica eyeglass fortune.

    What most folks don't know is that most of the professional sales force at BB had been unionized and those who sold well did well financially. Their #1 and 2 Salespeople in the company regularly made more than $200K per year until the incredibly shortsighted decision by CDV to cut ALL compensation to a base $40K rate with pooled commissions.

    In the meantime, the #1 salesperson in the company at Newbury Street in Boston left. The #2 salesperson, located in the Short Hills, NJ store is now out on disability and many of the sales people are just PTers making $12 per hour. It's even worse at their outlets.

    As I've posted here many times before, the lack of a consistent supply chain which creates inventory shortfalls, the incredibly poor decision to create overly tailored metrosexual fits and CDV's repeated insistence that he knows better continues to drive off the great salespeople who contributed to the brand's iconic legacy as well as many thousands of formerly loyal customers like myself.

    The lack of quality in almost everything but men's suits is also becoming well known, especially the lack of consistency in fit.

    CDV has destroyed the once genial and collegial relationship the company had with ALDEN SHOES (makers of the BB calfskin and shell cordovan tassel loafers).

    Other areas of discontent include poor Point of Sale computers and software, the inability to provide reasonable delivery dates for special orders and a now increasingly high staff turnover rate.

    As a 50+ year customer of BB and retired career military and the son and grandson of officers who bought their dress and service uniforms at 346 Madison Ave., I am appalled and dismayed to see the decline of a company I once so loyally considered my only source of apparel.

    Claudio Del Vecchio has betrayed the company's loyal customer base every bit as he has destroyed the morale of his workforce. He doesn't care; he's a billionaire, albeit one not by dint of hard work, but because his daddy was (and is).

    If you want to see a classic Harvard Business School case study of how to destroy a brand, just look at Brooks Bros. from 2000 to the present.

    If there is any hope of saving this legendary bastion of American fashion, it would mean that the DEL VECCHIO family would have to concede they've failed and sell it back to Americans who appreciate it for what it was and could be again.

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    1. I wonder what it will take for him to concede defeat?

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    2. Word is there's a sale to a Chinese group in the works, said group is already a 20% owner of Brooks

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    3. @ Tommy: That is probably a false rumor since Brooks Bros. is completely and privately owned by the Retail Brand Alliance, owned outright by the Del Vecchio mafia.

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  21. Let us not forget how they have destroyed customer service. This past week I have sent three emails regarding a return of a Christmas ornament that they received and have not issued a credit. Nobody will return my call or respond to my email. They have destroyed this once great clothier

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  22. Although not related to Brooks Brothers directly, the changes described here coincided with the disappearance of both local independent college men's shops and some other retailers of American-made menswear. For most of these changes, it's difficult to date because the changes were always happening and usually with little notice when a store closed.

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  23. To get back to the initial question -- “Why did Brooks Brothers succeed for so long?” -- I believe it was much more than quality or service, although both, to be sure, were outstanding. Brooks Brothers were an institution, “the protectorate,” in the words of Alan Flusser, “of America’s traditional fashion” – a role they willfully and perversely abdicated, in search of…whatever.

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  24. Wilfred's comment that he liked everything in the store was spot on. I recall those days.
    The business model changed from limited stores and traveling sales persons to mass marketing. Much as with LL Bean that meant the true believers were ignored in favor of chasing everyone else.
    I've wondered about Alden I don't think those cordovan shoes are of the same quality.

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  25. I've given all of my BB work shirts to charity. Their buttons were not well-sewn and the material exhibited an undesirable sheen that might appeal to others. I'm thankful to have several "Vintage Sero" oxford and broadcloth shirts made in the USA from O'Connell's, in both all-cotton and blends. They are not top-drawer formal (which I do not require) but ideal for professional office work, with full collars that wear well with ties.

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  26. I shop at BB because it is one of the few places where I can find classic clothing for women. If there are any alternatives, I would appreciate knowing about them.

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  27. Brooks was always an aspirational brand for me. I visited the big NYC store for the first time in 1976. I loved the shoes and shirts. I quickly realized that the Norman Hilton clothes I had in my closet already were plenty good enough. I always loved the shirts and shoes and still do. It never occurred to me to buy a suit there. I was and have always been loyal to my local store for clothing.

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  28. I bought my first Brooks Brothers shirt in 1961 while in college. In 1968 I went straight from the bar exam to Brooks Brother to have a suit custom made - at that time I believe there were fewer than 10 Brooks Brothers stores. The tailor who did the measuring, who I always addressed as Mr. _________, befitting a highly qualified professional, had been sent to Atlanta from New York. He became a friend and for the next 30 years, a trusted clothing advisor - if the proposed purchase was off the rack and he did not think it fitted correctly, you could not buy it. The Del Vecchio crowd fired him shortly before he was due to retire.

    In my opinion the demise of BB began when it became a mass merchandiser. Perhaps that was an inevitable result of the decision in the 1990s by professional firms and other businesses to promote business casual. The market for the Brooks Brothers Own Make suits and sport coats shrank to the point that management decided to fill the void with lavender shirts and skimpy clothing manufactured outside the U.S.

    It isn't just Brooks Brothers - J. Press noticeably declined under non U.S. ownership. Chipp, Langrock, and other small stores disappeared. Cable Car Clothiers in San Francisco significantly downsized. None of this is surprising given the love of casual by Americans - just look around the waiting area as you wait to board your next flight.

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    1. I think another factor in businesses that "lose their way" is the nature of ownership. There are private equity groups that own several unrelated businesses. Top managements doesn't know any more about plywood than it does groceries, all it knows is finance and all it cares about is profit: return on investment. And typically, all the old-timers who do know those things are the first to leave.

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  29. It's sad to see BB's decline and the company's accompanying self-delusion.

    What made BB great? The extent to which it lived up to the promise of its founder, HS Brooks: "To make and deal only in merchandise of the best quality, to sell it at a fair profit only and to deal only with those who seek and are capable of appreciating such merchandise."

    I'm grateful for SWNE's choice to become a connecting point to niche producers who share the same approach to business as HSB and his brothers. Times change, companies change. Some values are timeless. Many thanks!

    AEF

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  30. These are all excellent comments. The clothing business is a lot like the newspaper business. As a customer, I don't have many options. However, I have almost everything I bought excepting shoes since the mid 80's. These days I occasionally find good items on ebay. I'm always on the lookout for the brooks own make made in the usa buttondowns. I find about 2 a year that meet my standards. I believe it would be relatively easy to make Brooks Brothers turn around. Cut the offerings in half, eliminating the gimmicks like non- iron anything. Offer free shipping. If you must make your shirts in Malaysia, hire somebody good to supervise. I still can't believe they lost money at $92 on buttondowns made in North Carolina. Bring bad tailors and commissioned salesman. I pretty much only use salesman over the age of 65. They tell me the truth.

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