Photo by Muffy Aldrich
The Modern Guide to The Thing Before Preppy

Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Lifecycle of Clothing Companies (including those referred to as "Preppy" or "Trad/Ivy")

Chart and Definitions Originally Shown on my Blog 'The Daily Prep' Over a Decade Ago

The clothes I like stay the same.  The places I get them change all the time.  

This sentiment is why, fairly consistently, readers send 'Questions for the Community' that are variations of: 
  • "What are the new companies providing classic clothes?" 
  • "What are the great go-to clothing companies today?"  
  • "On what companies have you given up?" and 
  • "What brands that used to be great are now totally inert?"
In other words, don't focus on brands, but understand instead where companies of interest are in their journey - crucible, precious, iconic, new markets, cash grab, or company shell?  

For manufacturers and branded retailers of classic (including preppy or trad/ivy) clothes, here are the definitions of each stage:

  • A company serves demanding clients in authentic environments significantly better then competitors.  
  • The company’s founder is hands on.
  • Products rapidly evolve, with many failed prototypes.  The company typically does one thing very well. 
  • 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.
  • Not all start-ups begin in the crucible stage.  
  • Fiercely passionate customers, who are "in the know," are very loyal to the company.
  • The company has much higher prices than competitors, which fans are happy to pay.  Prices are fair and consistent.  

Precious companies have much higher prices than competitors, which fans are happy to pay.  Marketing is poor, and not a priority.  Web sites may be disastrous.

  • Quality is paramount. 
  • Customers can still call or email and get the owner (and often work through any problems).
  • New, great products are added, seemingly effortlessly.  The company has an aesthetic certainty, neither derivative nor capricious.  
  • 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.

Iconic companies worry about becoming trendy and stylish, something that cash grab companies are desperate to be. 

    • The company worries about becoming trendy and stylish.  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.
    • A short term flattening of growth can cause panic.
    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, often in association with getting infusions of new investment money.  
    • The new management begins to purge many of the old employees and suppliers/branded vendors that had contributed to the success of the company. 
    • Companies feel entitled to their traditional customers and markets. 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.
    • Outsourcing begins.  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 ramped up marketing, including social media.   Cheaper parts are swapped in wherever possible.
    • Marketing gets increasingly - often awkwardly - self-congratulatory.
    • The company makes big deals of changing the colors of successful products.  
    • Vendors open ancillary stores, for example, in this stage, which do not yet influence design decision making.  
    • No new great products are launched, despite expensive misfires.  Companies go after markets they don't understand.  New products are seemingly "Designed by chat rooms."
    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.  

    Transforming nothing into a great company is somewhat profitable. Transforming a great company into nothing is highly profitable.

    • Outsourcing becomes the rule, not the exception.
    • Companies co-design with social media influencers, often to less-than-ideal results for everyone involved.
    • Companies believe success comes when they can best distract from, rather than highlight, what they are actually selling.  Many peddle aspirational vulgarity.
    • 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.
    • Ancillary stores grow in influence over the direction of the company. Outlet stores open. Companies here may invest in "big data" programs.  The culture embraces short cuts to short term success.
    • Companies are desperate to be stylish and trendy.
    • A cash grab company further increase their PR budget, first spent trying to differentiate the company from their past and pushing new, very-high-margin products, then relentlessly trying to invoke their heritage when the new products flop.  The term "iconic" is used.  A lot.  Companies become louder and more strident. 

    Company Shell
    • The company's new owners think they can market their way out of their dropping sales.
    • 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 quality to shore up crumbling margins.
    • They shift, almost overnight from an external market perception, from relevant and interesting to irrelevant, tired, and over-exposed.  
    • Outlet stores and other bottom feeding strategies become highly influential in setting company strategies.  
    • Company shells use old black and white photographs that have no connection to the current organization.
    • 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.  Finally, customer service, typically the last point of pride and holdover from the once strong company, fades to squeeze out a few more dollars of profit.


    1. Thank you for reposting. Always a great message which I hope retailers take to heart.

    2. I am still coasting on some lovingly preserved classic items: LLB Cords, Country Flannels and Shetland sweaters. For chinos its Jack Donnelly. Shirts ties, blazers and most other dress up items, when needed, its J Press.

    3. Lands End has now fallen into the company shell part of this graph. It's nothing like the company I bought from in the past. I am now waiting to hear they are going out of business. A few times I thought they were going to turn things around, but now they are skiing down the hill with no poles.

      1. Ransomware Crackdown IIIMarch 20, 2023 at 9:27 AM

        Flo knows. I can still have some confidence in their chinos, and in some of the shirts, but most of the time a Lands End order must be undertaken with a spirit of adventure. And the catalog has begun to resemble a satire on pandering: Not only are they placing a heavy (no pun intended) emphasis on overweight models, they have even employed one female model with bad teeth.

      2. The LE women's clothing has been "vanity sized" - the smallest sizes are much larger than they should be.

    4. I agree with Flo. Lands End has descended into the abyss. Luckily, I can still find some solid items at LL Bean.

    5. This is spot on. I can sure think of examples of each part of the continuum, and I’m certainly sure others can as well. I especially enjoyed catching myself showing a knowing smile while thinking of some of my favorite companies’ atrocious websites.

    6. I have been keeping the "good old stuff" even longer, as while Bean has showed a mild rebound, still hard to trust them now. I agree that Land's End is finished, just as J. Crew is merely marketing. I still like Eastland camp mocs, but miss Willis & Geiger!

    7. While the shapes and phases depicted in the curves are reflective of trends, some companies have managed to stretch the curve horizontally and remain in a place of extremely high quality catering to a growing but still niche market at high but not exorbitant prices. Those tend to be the ones we like. Bosie, Arthur Beale, Mercer, and Quoddy come to mind among those listed on the right hand side of this page, although Quoddy ;has recently made some disturbing moves. A few not listed that I contend would be in the pantheon would be Alden, Gitman, and Gloverall. One that might, with longevity, be a contender, is Vermont Flannel. For bricks and mortar sources, I choose O'Connell's, The Andover Shop, Eljo's, and Cable Car Clothiers.

    8. This is an unfortunate, but all too common occurrence in business cycle of manufactured goods. In this case it's the apparel industry, but we see this happen in all industries; the boat building business, cars, power equipment (Lawn Boy mowers, Evinrude outboards anyone?!?!). Speaking of "changing colors of successful products", I like wearing bright red cotton (not blended) polo shirts and have done so all my life. Bright red is, or should be, a classic like white or navy that never goes out of style (same for Kelly green). It used to be no big deal to find one when I needed a new one. So much for that, because, for some time now, I cannot find any bright reds. The reds all currently have some form of dark, orange, or faded tint to them. I have one classic bright red left, bought several years ago from Land's End, oddly enough. They don't make that color and neither does anyone else that I can find (Polo actually makes one, but I don't like emblems on my shirts). I find myself not wearing that shirt often in order to preserve it because, if it's damaged, I can't replace it. Like so many things I buy, I should have bought two because odds are that they will quit making it when I want another. The hard collar golf shirts, like Arnold Palmer used to wear, are another example of going in and out of style. I read at one time even he had to stockpile the shirts he liked because the company was going to discontinue them...color, style, whatever!!! To end this on a good note, one company that seems, so far, to be doing things right and preserving their integrity is Tilley Hats. I have several in different weights and colors, and have worn them for years. A few years back, one of them got torn in the wash. I sent it back and Tilley stood by their lifetime guarantee and sent me a new one. Unless and until they start down the slippery slope of changing for the worse, guess where I'll go when I want another hat?!?!?!

      1. O'Connell's has a red polo. They also offer fairway green, not quite kelly but still a real green.

    9. A real tell tale sign of a company descending into cash grab territory is when they have outlet stores with items made "exclusively for outlet". If they've been made to sell exclusively in an outlet they've been made cheaper to sell cheaper. They've never been on sale in a flagship retail store. It's basically cheap junk with a designer logo on.

    10. Don't get me started. Ok, I'l start! From the waist up I'm a Petite and they are scarce. The only brand that fits me seems to be J Jill. When they began carrying linen shirts in the store I bought a pale blue one. It was nice and thick. The next year I got a red (faded red) and a white one. Well...the next year, they got thin. I don't want to be able to see the outline of my underwear thru a blouse so I passed. The same went for two or three more years. I told an older lady in the store why I was trying them on and not buying. She said, "Call and tell Customer Service." I did. Then they did get thicker but had odd things like side pockets in the side seams, or a deep inverted pleat that started in the upper back, trying to install fashion I suppose. I passed on that. My pale blue shirt is wearing very thin, but I can still wear it. It could be almost 10 years old. Finally two years ago they got thick again and with no "fashion" details. I bought about five in different colors.
      And then the lady next door complained of being unable to find a basic T shirt that you can't see through. I knew what she meant; now that somebody has figured out this very soft clingy stuff, short fibers or whatever, it's very see-through. I had several cheap T shirts (yard work back yard) from Kmart....wonderful! But...they went out of business. Now guess what....Hanes! Hanes online. 100% cotton. Only six or seven basic boring colors but you cannot see through them at least. It's a challenge to find the most basic thing. When you do, you stock up in a panic! I like a certain Gold Toe cotton sock style, black color. Bit by bit they got rid of a lot of the styles in the department stores. I like them super thin. I read the labels and they were mixed with a lot of synthetics. I looked online and in Amazon, lo and behold there were the Gold Toe socks....but with a lot more cotton and a lot less of the synthetic. You have to keep digging. It's a challenge.

      1. I remember the OLD J. Jill with their catalog with drawings (I started buying my own clothes in the 1980s and they were a fave). They used to feature simple print cotton dresses that had a unique tie-in-front self belt. I loved those dresses! I couldn't agree more on the adventure of the J.Jill linen blouses in the last 7-8 years. I'm glad to hear they've improved. Maybe I'll give them another try.

    11. I just stumbled upon your blog. I’m from the southeast and I’m not that kind of preppy but I do love simple classic clothing. More and more I’m finding it impossible to find clothes I like. Clothing manufacturers have immersed themselves into trendy and have left us classic dressers out.

    12. Amazing how quality will out!

    13. Bravo! Appreciate the update to the blog header: The Thing Before Preppy.

      This graph fixed SWNE in a category all its own when it was first posted so many years ago. The blog has only improved since. Top notch!

    14. There is a blogger who talks about the crapification of America... So, I buy tons of things used, not only do I save money but more importantly, the quality is so much better. These days, I live one block from a very wealthy and expensive town. A lot of people there are buying restored older cars instead of new because they like them better. I have a friend who bought a used 4 door Rolls with 45000 miles for $10K. He put $5K into it and it runs perfectly. I myself always bought older homes that needed work, and when it was done, I owned a real house. I've been buying used musical instruments since I was twelve. I did buy a brand new Steinway B in 2002, but that was because I liked it better.

      1. Totally agree. I've found fantastic items in thrift/second hand stores. Also great stuff to be found on eBay. Cheers!

      2. And there seem to be a lot of NOS and NWT items on Etsy. I have an old Chipp 3/2 herringbone and a vintage Corbin madras from there.

    15. Oh how I miss the days of Harold's and Britches of Georgetown.

    16. I noticed a post about how J Crew wasn't preppy. Yet there is defense and sadness at Lands End changing. This place is contradictory.


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