“You know I’ve never been in Brooks Brothers. I always see it there but I’ve never had quite enough curiosity to venture in.”
So said a colleague of mine as we were walking down Regent Street earlier this week. We ended up walking in, browsing through the rather sparse sale and walking out again, a little bit disappointed at the selection and the small discounts.
It reminds me of the sale that Marks & Spencer made of Brooks Brothers, for $225 million back in 2001, at a significant loss to its original purchase price of $750 million. Apparently the chain made a loss in the first half of that year to September of $3.7 million.
It’s a sad history for the icon of American apparel from then to its relative obscurity in the UK now. But then, most of the references that people make to Brooks Brothers are to do with its iconic status, rather than anything particularly inspiring or interesting they have seen there.
The brand certainly represents good value, at least in the UK, as you can buy better quality goods for far below the prices of trendy high-street chains like Reiss or French Connection. And it isn’t as embarrassing as M&S itself.
Their socks, in my personal opinion, are particularly great value. In the sale they are £6 each yet definitively luxurious in the cotton and handiwork employed.
Yet in the UK I think my colleague’s reaction to Brooks Brothers is prescient. He was vaguely interested in a large, American brand that he had heard of somewhere, somehow. But never enough to bother to go in. No advertising, campaign or recommendation had given him that last push he needed to walk through the doors.
The employment of Thom Browne as the designer of a new line in Black Fleece was brave, and ambitious, but it doesn’t seem to have done it many favours, at least outside the US.
The contrast with Abercrombie & Fitch is stark – although I can and will say many awful things about the quality of A&F merchandise, you can’t fault their marketing. The first store opened in the UK, on Savile Row, to much fanfare and had queues around the block during most of these sales. You get very irritated at tourists on Bond Street asking you where Abercrombie is; but there is sneaking respect for such a runaway business success.
So I hope very much that the new owners of Brooks Brothers revitalise it here and bring us bigger and better things in American prep. But I can’t say I’m surprised at its fall from grace.