Brooks Brothers has been around for longer than most brands in the retail industry. The all-American brand started in New York City in 1818 and has been a proud proponent of ‘Made in America’ ever since. To date, 40 out of 45 of the United States’ presidents have been outfitted by Brooks Brothers, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In a way, Brooks Brothers is more synonymous with the United States of America than a hamburger is.
Yet, with such a storied history and a presence spanning two centuries, there were still firsts for Brooks Brothers to draw on to celebrate this year’s milestone. The brand flew to Florence, Italy in January for its first runway show anywhere in the world, showing off both menswear and womenswear harmoniously. Fifty-one models walked to the tunes played live by the Italian Philharmonic including of course, Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State of Mind’.
“Brooks Brothers has never been a [solely] wholesale business. And normally, a fashion show is done as part of a selling process for brands that do wholesale—that’s the reason why we never did it before,” chairman and chief executive office Claudio Del Vecchio explains. But with a laugh, he goes on to say: “Now that we’ve learnt how to do it, we’re definitely not looking at having four shows a year. If we do [a fashion show], it’ll be some kind of annual event.”
Del Vecchio is also the executive director of Luxottica Group, the world’s largest eyewear manufacturer—producing for brands including Prada, Ray-Ban, Burberry, Oliver People’s and Coach—and a business his father, Leonardo Del Vecchio, founded. It was during his full-time tenure at Luxottica that he first encountered Brooks Brothers on a visit to New York at the age of 25.
“I fell in love with the aesthetic and what they were doing. It wasn’t my only choice [of brands] but I started buying a lot of products there more and more,” he expresses. Del Vecchio was so taken by Brooks Brothers’ American style that he convinced the brand to licence its name to Luxottica for a range of Brooks Brothers eyewear. “Ten years later, when they decided to put the company up for sale, I felt that it was a good opportunity to come and try to rescue what I felt was something,” he continues.
And rescue he did. The Brooks Brothers store in New York City’s One Liberty Plaza was damaged by the 9/11 terrorist attack due to its close proximity to the collapsed World Trade Centre complex. Del Vecchio, having acquired Brooks Brothers months after the attack, took it upon himself to reopen the store at the same site. Like the indelible tough spirit of a New Yorker, the store resumed operations a year later.
It seems dramatic to say that Brooks Brothers has survived more than just a terrorist attack, yet in essence, the brand has. Within its 200 years of existence, Brooks Brothers has weathered through the American Civil War, both World Wars, multiple economic recessions and the politics that come with them. And through it all, Del Vecchio notes the effects they have had, and continue to have, on consumers.
“I think the goal that we have to have is adapt. We’re not going to be driving new changes, but we need to responsibly adapt and follow customers’ needs and make sure that our mission is to make them feel comfortable at every occasion,” he explains. “And if the occasion changes, we have to learn what they are and adapt. So it’s a continued and consistent adaptation.”
Del Vecchio cites the evolution of how he’s been seeing customers making use of the Internet as a prime example. According to Del Vecchio, half of the customers who walked in to a Brooks Brothers store five years ago would have already researched online what they’d want to buy. Now, customers would come to the store first, try on their sizes and then buy the products online.
“And of course, some people are better at adapting, while others are slower. I say, ‘make sure to not throw the baby out with the bathwater’—you have to be careful because not all customers move at the same speed. You have to take care of a wide range of changing attitudes, so that’s probably the biggest challenge that we have today,” he goes on to explain.
What makes it tougher is that Brooks Brothers is not your typical trend-driven fashion brand. Its mainly classic menswear offering is a double-edged sword—great for the discerning gentleman who’s been loyal to the brand for decades, but not so much for the streetwear-loving youths of today. In place of moving away from the time-honoured aesthetic of Brooks Brothers, the brand has included more casual pieces over the years. The 200th anniversary runway show was also a showcase of how the brand has evolved its interpretation of classic menswear. There was a lesser emphasis on ties, coats and suit blazers were cut to be less rigid, and the styling was more contemporary than the expected suit, tie and shirt combination.
Del Vecchio calls this the Brooks Brothers mission. This idea of putting the customers’ needs and wants above how the world at large is changing might be seen as slow, but it’s what Del Vecchio feels has worked for 200 years “and hopefully will keep working for another 200 years”. Change is constant, but knowing when and how seems to be the formula to steady success and survival.
This article was originally published in the August issue of Esquire Singapore.