Brooks Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection today, a move that has been anticipated by many for the past several months. There’s a lot of sadness floating around on social media as Brooks is a beloved brand by many including myself. I have to say however my initial reaction to the bankruptcy news was not sadness, it was disappointment and disgust.
I want it to be clear that I really love Brooks Brothers. My first real suit was from Brooks Brothers and the brand’s historical significance has had an immense impact on global menswear for generations. It’s the American brand now and forever. But I look at Brooks Brothers in 2020 and have to wonder why it has fallen to this point? I have to question the decisions that have been made and the path that has been followed to get here. I think a lot of these problems were obvious long before COVID-19 was floating around. Please forgive me for being a bit of a Monday morning quarterback.
Claudio Del Vecchio made a lot of smart moves in the past and should be given some credit for what he did with the company under his ownership. He’s also got a lot of money on the line which shouldn’t be overlooked. I also think at the same time through his ambition or desire to make a ton of money he pushed the brand into strange and ultimately risky places. This quote below is especially ridiculous to me.
“There are a very small percentage of our customers who told us they really care about ‘Made in America,’” he said. “The vast majority of customers care more about quality and service than where a product is made. When we look at the sales, we really don’t see a lot of reason to believe we would be penalized. I think we — I — am more sorry about closing the factories than the customers will be.”Claudio Del Vecchio in The New York Times
The reality is Brooks Brothers wasn’t delivering any of these things except Made in America. You have to give Del Vecchio credit for buying Southwick and keeping these factories going in the face of what must have been massive pressure. To his point, it’s very hard to have big clothing factories in the U.S. now. There are a lot of people who will spend money on quality and a lot who do care deeply about buying a suit made in Massachusetts or a shirt from North Carolina. But when you are trying to just move units at an outlet mall in Orlando or appeal to people with Targus briefcases shopping in an airport the whole made in America thing is probably not going to work out.
Now that these factories are going away it seems that all three of the brand’s pillars are gone. When it comes to service, I can say that I’ve had a lot of questionable shopping experiences at 346 Madison over the years. I almost always found it difficult to buy things from Brooks Brothers because of the product, the erratic service, or just the overall lack of quality. Go to Sid Mashburn in Atlanta and then walk into Brooks Brothers and compare the two. If I were Del Vecchio that would keep me up at night.
You could see the race to the bottom as the brand became more and more volume focused. Later a huge portion of the ground floor at 346 became a cafe a la Ralph’s Coffee on 5th Avenue — although the comparison stops at the inspiration. While Ralph Lauren executed a rich and beautiful experience, the Red Fleece cafe or whatever it is called just felt like an easy way to use up store space. It felt like something a failing department store would do. When I saw that for the first time I knew right then that Brooks Brothers was f/cked.
Maybe I struggled to buy from Brooks Brothers because of the brand’s attempts to modernize the design. The fit names alone —Regent, Milano, Madison— turn me off from the outset. Why was a pioneer of American style taking some much influence from Italy? (But we know why.) To me, Brooks Brothers should have been getting more British and more traditional. But making great products and having a few great stores wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted volume. Maybe no one stopped to think about the fact that maybe Brooks Brothers wasn’t meant to be a two-billion-dollar brand. J.Crew and GAP do that kind of volume — why would anyone want to end up like that?
It all makes me wonder, what is the measure of a good company? Why couldn’t Brooks Brothers be smaller, unique, well-made, potent, and interesting? Why couldn’t 346 Madison be the best store in the world and a giant f/ck you to every retailer who comes through New York City a few times a year? Why not be confident enough to be small and unique? That’s what Sid Mashburn is doing. That’s what Drake’s is doing. And let me tell you, people love those brands. But should Sid and Drake’s scale to be doing a billion in revenue? I sure hope not. Because then we’d be in JFK Terminal 5 shopping for buy-two-get-one free Drake’s non-iron buttondown that’s made in Bangladesh. No one wants that for Drake’s, and we don’t want it for Brooks Brothers either. We want it to live up to its heritage and be special. That’s where the world is headed anyway. People don’t need 25 dress shirts every year — they need a few good ones that they can wear a lot an feel good about.
All of this comes down to: Why is bigger better? Why does multibillion in sales make your company great? Why is that the goal when you are already rich? Even if I had a few hundred million invested in a business I would feel a lot better about the unlikelihood of doubling it if I were just making great things. If I knew I had the best store in the world at a historic address. If I was defying the odds and continuing to run factories across the U.S. when no one had the balls to do it anymore. But what do I know? I don’t have a few hundred million, I’m just a blogger. I hope Brooks Brothers sees this as a wake-up call and changes course. It’s obvious a lot of us still really care about the brand.