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.
Comments on “What is the Measure of a Good Company?”
Couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, it seems that Brooks Brothers, claiming that the shift to business casual was their downfall, still just doesn’t get it.
Well, bigger isn’t always better – obviously. You asked the question but the answer is self-evident. It isn’t always better. In many cases it’s not even a good idea. Many would argue that even though Apple is bigger than ever today, its best and most innovative years are firmly behind it (hope I’m wrong on that).
Bigger CAN be better. Using Apple again, as an example, they were far better in the early 2000’s than mid 90’s and the were much bigger in the early 2000’s.
This has seemed inevitable for at least 5 years. The Mashburn comparison is an interesting one in that they’ve built a loyal following in roughly a decade, with a defined point of view married to classic retail philosophies. BB has so much legacy they could have built on and leveraged as men became more invested in heritage brands (happening at the same time Sid built his book of business), but instead attempted to be basically an upscale Jos A Bank. Who wants that? Truly a case of throwing it away in order to slot in next to the Yankee Candle Co outlet, or, worse, Auntie Anne’s at the airport. As an aside, I will always have love for BB – in 2004 I had a misbegotten interview with a bank in NYC on St. Patrick’s Day (fortunately, late in the day). Flew in the night before, but the luggage didn’t make the trip. I stood panicked outside the Madison Ave store that morning while seemingly a thousand drunk teenagers stumbled past – once the store mercifully opened, the salesperson helped me find a suit, shirt, belt, and tie, get it altered and out the door in time for the interview. Thankfully I didn’t get the job, but I still have the suit.
Great last line Kirk!
Amen…346 used to be such a revelation, and, then, it just wasn’t. I will always be a Brooks Brothers guy in spite of themselves.
If only they could see how easy it could be to save such an iconic brand. Scale back. Stop paying ridiculous salaries to the people who do the least work.
As a former employee I saw first hand how poorly merchandising the store just encourage people to walk out empty handed. There was no consistency in product selection. We carried shoes but only a few sizes and hoped someone would go for an online order with out having tried their size on. We had ugly watches from 300 to 3000 dollars collecting dust because the average client has a 15 year old date just thats never left their wrist. The clothing fits were so wide that if you have even driven past a gym in the past decade you could safely jump from a 747 and not need a parachute if you were wearing a brooks brothers shirt.
It was such a shame to unpack sweaters in August knowing they would maybe gain interest just in time for Mark downs in November when it was cool enough to want them. Need a suit? The sizing selection was terrible and the lack of commitment to having say 3 or 4 on hand in each size to choose from didnt help. There would be days when a 42r had a choice say a dated gray heavier wool that looked like something from a 1960s car commerical or a dark navy that was so dark it looked black. Want a more modern blue, black, grey, stripe, check or anything visually interesting? Order online.
It basically just encouraged people to shop elsewhere.
I knew they were done for when I got in the 346 elevator and discovered the top floor had been repurposed and its elevator button was gone. Then Edward Green was gone. Then C&J (“Peal”). I think when they dropped Alden and the unlined LHS, the Good Lord had had enough and resolved to strike them down.
I work in the apparel industry and I remember when quality and Made in America meant something. I hope someone buys they and returns the brand to its original roots. With that said, who do we turn to now for Classic American looks?
Funny you mention Sid Mashburn, as he made the move offshore as well. He moved from producing chinos as Hertling in Brooklyn to exclusively producing in China.
BB stop offering high quality and kept the high prices. Is great to say “Made in the USA” in this country but the truth is, it doesn’t matter. High quality products can be and are made in other places too.
They need to take this opportunity to edit their locations to the few flagships and be happy with that. I also think that Todd Snyder should take the helm of the company after they reduce the size!
They don’t know what Brooks Brothers is, or means. They have Polo blue label price points, but the quality and style isn’t there to match. Do they want to be a high end, exclusive product? Or a mass market product that covers the gamut from outlets and airports to high end boutiques? I understand that they paid for a big huge multi-channel company, but they can’t compete with the big boys like Ralph or even Suitsupply. For NYC guys who wear a suit, Suitsupply provides a superior product with better fit at half the price, and will do alterations while you wait. The shoe selection used to be great, now they’re meh. Accessories, leather goods, etc. have all gone downhill. Sportswear is blah, no consistent sizing. I kept going to 346 when I worked nearby, never bought anything. I was excited they brought back the “Original” OCBD, but then they didn’t carry the the classic pink color. What’s the point?
I always look for provenance when buying nowadays. Didn’t always used to be that way before I started reading this site many moons ago. It converted me from J Crew and Brooks to J Press and O’Connels and sourcing US, Canadian and European made where I can, a few exceptions notwithstanding. I still have an ancient made in USA RL sweatshirt from late 90s that is still going strong. I even have an Old game day Jerzeez made in USA sweatshirt I bought at UT Austin Back in early 90s, nary a fray.
The Made in America by Brooks Brothers was a tiny percentage of their suits. Almost impossible to find Brooks Brothers made in USA dress shirts, even if you went to the flagship stores. Great article. I did miss their Black Fleece line.
How much $$ is enough?
I remember a business owner in Indianapolis about 30 years ago. He was asked in an interview why he hadn`t opened more stores. He said, “you can only wear one pair of boots at a time and drive one Corvette at a time.”
I am just as guilty. There are shirts in my closet that are still unwrapped from 2 years ago.
We all need to be leaner and meaner in so many ways.
Brooks Brothers stopped being Brooks Brothers years ago. Such a pity. Nothing is sacred.
“Made in America” doesn’t guarantee quality. Foreign manufacturers know quality, but build to the specs of the retailer. Most people wouldn’t know how to distinguish “quality”. Be sure salesmen are able to point out the lack of “bonding”, the hand felled collar, etc.
” Why is bigger better? ”
Because the people that run the company are people with careers which are measured in the same way as people in other companies.
This is an outstanding read. You have nailed so many fine points that are hard argue with. Hopefully the ship will be set back on course but I fear it will likely be bought by someone who simply wants the name and intellectual property. What will become of 346 Madison? Even real estate isn’t what it once was.
Wow lots of comments, I suspect someone has also mentioned that this reminded me of the fable of the fisherman and the businessman and the fisherman.
Mr. Comino is right. BB sipped bring BB a long time ago. A very, very long time ago.
Check out the book ‘Small Giants’ about companies that stayed small (relative) instead of trying to be huge. They manage to still have a huge impact, great company culture, and financially successful. Great stories. Also, I’d be remiss to not mention Martin Patrick in Minneapolis. One of the best men’s retail stores I’ve ever been in.
As a Brit with a love of everything Ivy League I am truly saddened by this news. I hope this is a wake up call to other “heritage” brands to take heed so future generations can enjoy classic styles by sticking to their roots and not chasing the greenback.
Well thought out post. I still love bb though they have done many disappointing things in the last years. But they can change course. I hope they don’t go the way of jaguar which is hardily recognizable any more. Let’s help them turn things around.
Blame Marks & Sparks. Blame Louis of Boston. Blame the real Filines Brothers Basement for abandoning their semi-annual Brooks Brothers sale. Bricks on Madison Ave. have to pay a huge amount of real estate tax, corporate tax, etc., and expansion & modernization was a way out. But what retail has learned in the last few years, commercial space has learned in the last few months. Office space as well as retail shops ain’t what they once were. Needs have changed. Everything is going to have to be peeled back–including current business ideology. If and when Jack’s World on West 32nd Street goes under, we’re all screwed.
To me, the measure of a great brand or store is walking in and feeling at home. Walking around and being comfortable in seeing yourself in 80% of the product line is what makes it tick for me. Lately, walking into a BB, it was clear that I was no longer their target market. I don’t begrudge a company for attempting to attract an audience that they wouldn’t otherwise have, but not at the cost of your loyal clients. Another brand that is is going down the same path is Woolrich, a terrific old American brand in the hills of north central Pennsylvania. Check out their website or catalog – who are they? Clearly lost.
Agree with all your points. Bravo. Except one. Someone whould wash out your mouth with soap. There is no need for f-word and other such profanity in an article. I cannot let my son read this. Brooks Brothers at its essence has always been a store and a lifestyle for gentlemen. No need for the potty mouth.
Sucks when quality long-standing brands surrender to the Tanger Outlet business model.
it was a slow death, but the stars too end up dyeing
Excellent article. When a company stuffs it’s supply chain with millions in low quality offshore product in styles their core customer doesn’t want, they’re probably going to go bankrupt.
Thank you for your thoughts on this. A great book on the value of smallness is “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher, 1973.
“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.”
What a perceptive comment.
So true – I work in a large financial corporation, and I need and want exactly that – a few well made, good looking dress shirts I can wear Monday to Thursday, and justify the cost because of their quality and durability.
BB lost me when it became impossible to buy a dress shirt that hadn’t been “no-iron” treated. Service at 346 was spotty at best, and I walked out of the store empty-handed numerous times because I couldn’t get any attention from a salesperson. Devolved into a mall store with little appeal. Got to the point the only thing I bought there anymore were undershirts. My fear is Private Equity will buy it out of bankruptcy, and then ruin (forever) what’s left of it…
As a European, I have walked in a BB store on every trip to the US. I wanted to buy a piece of American history, but the Made somewhere in Asia tags always put me off.
Let’s hope J Press continues to hang in there, always preferred them anyway. Three or four small stores in the US is probably all that is needed to support our dying breed of people that appreciate quality made East Coast style and shun fashion.
I do hope so.
The Black Fleece pieces were so great!
Excellent article with equally excellent comments.
“Can only wear one pair of boots at a time, can only drive one Corvette at a time.”
and “nihilo sanctum estne?”
@JDV Fixed it.
There are some products I truly loved and lived in that were from Brooks Brothers. Another American icon bites the dust. As a former LS&Co. employee who cries at the news of closing factories, I feel this loss.
The day that escalator was installed at 346 was the beginning of the end.
What drew me to Brooks Brothers first (besides a great white shirt, the brand had been much too conservative for me to purchase anything else) was the Thom Browne partnership. I love TB, but the fit, styling and price wasn’t right for me. The Black Fleece collaboration was amazing – at one point I think I had six suits, and a ton of other product from the line, plus you could see its influence on other products too. When that went away, the influence did too. The last thing I bought was a great navy seersucker bathrobe…
BB had a ton of debt and needed to sell a ton of crap to pay it off. Customers caught on to their crap and left. No longer able to unload their crap, the debt caught them.
You see this scenario repeat itself over and over again in the apparel business. I have to wonder why banks lend the money for these buyouts in the first place.
They had stores in outlets. That always seems to ruin a brand
This is a fantastic piece. I think you’re asking all the right questions. I have run a global business before and typically a conversation about being small and best-in-class isn’t going to make you any friends with investors, board members, or analysts. Of course, neither will bankruptcy. It takes a strong and committed leader to make a turn towards smaller top line revenue and a smaller customer base, and of course once that debt is created the only thing that matters is generating the cash to pay it off. There are examples of brands that were dead and taken in by passionate person who just understands from day one what makes it special and how to make a profit…Triumph Motorcycles comes to mind. I think we can all hope that such a person picks up BB and makes it special again.
I will say though, I feel like what you are asking here is that they become, essentially, J. Press or Paul Stuart. And they simply aren’t that and haven’t been in at least my lifetime.
I live in England and I go out of my way to buy Brooks Brothers shirts and I love the brand. They should follow what a lot of English companies have done, be small , unique and produce good quality. We have Sunspel, some of their clothes are made in Portugal, but to a high standard. John Smedley all made in England both companies move with the times, but do not sacrifice on quality. In Northamptonshire we have great shoe makers who cant and do not want to compete with mass produced poor quality and they take pride in their higher costs, because you get what you pay for.
I have shirts made in MAINE,and they are just great, lets hope BB get back to made in USA, or if they do have to go overseas make sure the quality befits the brand.
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