Archives for January 2009

The Sad Route of Brooks Brothers

“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.

The Formality of Colours

In previous postings, I have explained why different aspects of a suit make it more formal. Broadly speaking, a material that is smoother, darker and plainer will be more formal. A dark navy worsted is smarter in all three ways than a mid-grey checked flannel.

This is an easy way to assess the propriety of a particular suit to an occasion. If your suits were to sit in the wardrobe in order of formality – from smart to sporty – it would be simple to pick the one that best suits that day’s activities.

What is often forgotten, however, is that the same guidelines apply to shirts.

It’s fairly obvious that a checked shirt is more casual (plainness), as is an Oxford-weave cloth (smoothness). But colour is often ignored – yet it is probably the most important of these three variables. White shirts are still more commonly worn for business in the US, because they are always and everywhere smarter than blue. In the UK, blue shirts are more accepted but then we have a tradition of sportier shirts against a background of simple ties and suits (hence Jermyn Street).

This is why coloured shirts traditionally had white collars and cuffs – nothing else would show off the very smartness of being able to keep material clean, crisp and laundered. It is also why pink, despite its reputation in the US, is more formal than blue as a shirt colour. Pink is paler (usually) than blue: a lighter and a smarter colour.

Even a yellow or cream shirt is smarter than blue (I was converted to the idea of a pale yellow shirt by the purchase of a Ralph Lauren Purple Label example in the sales last year). Essentially, the lighter the colour smarter it is.

And cream shirts bring me on to my next point. When shirts are worn casually, they need to be taken down a formality point or two. White is too smart to go well with jeans and trainers, particularly if it has other dress shirt attributes (French cuff, lack of placket on the buttons, stiff collar, cutaway collar, lack of chest pocket). A cream or khaki shirt is the first option to consider.

Let’s take an example – I often wear the jacket to a checked, woollen suit as a separate piece with jeans. The shirt to go with this ensemble needs to be casual; it cannot be white. Yet blue, to my particular taste, doesn’t suit the check of the jacket. I therefore nearly always go with a pale khaki or cream – it suits the check yet is one notch down from a formal white. It doesn’t have the high contrast of white; it doesn’t pop but recedes.

So always consider the colour of your shirt choice first. If worn casually, blue is the default but khaki, cream or even grey work very well.

Why the Fuss: Thom Browne

First in this series, I made evident my puzzlement as to why Abercrombie & Fitch received so much attention and custom; a piece which attracted more than a few comments, most of which echoed my bemusement of that peculiar reverence – a reverence I have recently been witness to as the velvet roped queue for the precious sales items at the Burlington Gardens store snaked around Savile Row. The subject of this piece is an altogether different kettle of fish, for there are no squeaky-clean-teens clamouring at the emporium’s door; no loud thumping music, soap-smelling oily doormen or poor parents, reluctantly removing credit cards from wallets. For Thom Browne, one of the most unconventional contemporary clothing designers, appeals to an entirely different group, although this ‘appeal’ is something which I intend to analyse thoroughly.

I was browsing the racks of sale and non-sale items at Harvey Nichols, temple of fashion and furnishings, when I came across the Thom Browne concession which was really a small number of racks. I had read a great deal about Mr Browne’s clothing and philosophy; the so-called ‘saviour’ of men’s fashion, revered for offering simpler but eccentric choices. He is applauded for the tailoring and construction of his items, notorious for their ‘overgrown schoolboy’ look; incredibly short trousers and now incredibly short jacket sleeves. Many credit this as brilliance; tasteful and unique. Unique it certainly is, as I am unaware of any other designers who have attempted the short trouser trick before, although whether it is fully tasteful is questionable.

Some see Browne as a fad, a reaction to the lack of invention in menswear over the past 50 years that has led critics of fashion to rally and chorus that our designers have run out of ideas. Browne, superficially, counters this suggestion but an ‘idea’ isn’t necessarily a good one merely because it is new. For one thing, although fashion is highly influential, the mass of choice for the consumer puts a good deal of power in their hands; gentlemen are unlikely to have their heads turned by a minor whim. ‘It’s not for the masses though’ screeches a Browne-ite chum of mine ‘it’s for people who are capable of being different.’ An admirable quality indeed but for me, Browne is a symptom of our artistic modernisation; frustrated at our lack of aesthetic evolution, we reach out for the new in desperation. A recent article in The Times argued that we are entering a century of rapid change; the internet will feed our constant hunger for the new. This, the writer argued, makes us well prepared for the tough years immediately ahead: ‘speed of change’, the mantra for the 21st century.

Browne to me is rather like something that appears in the Tate Modern that luvvies, other artists and critics go absolutely mad for, but that the populace at large considers irrelevant. The other similarity between certain items of modern art and the sartorial products of Thom Browne is that many consider them to be monstrously overpriced. A sleeveless cashmere cardigan in ivory could be found for £250 (£160 in the sale) in Ralph Lauren. At Thom Browne, though the design was no more avant garde, the cashmere not discernibly better, the same item cost £900. I saw a cashmere tailcoat in camel with grosgrain ribbon detailing for £6,225. It seemed to me that purchasing an outfit from Mr Browne could cost as much as a couple of bespoke suits from Henry Poole.

Those arguing for Mr Browne may defend his ‘vision’ – something which Brooks Brothers considered worth using – the fact that he manufactures high quality garments using good materials and that the Thom Browne man can always stand out from the crowd. I accept these advancements of opinion; I myself happen to think that ‘interesting’ and ‘expensive’ do not always need to go hand in hand. I also think that quirky as short trousers are, they will never become a serious alternative. I appreciate that ‘new’ fashions are very rarely well received when the curtain goes up. Virtually all major changes in fashion have been accompanied by responses of ‘it’ll never last’, tut-tuts of despair and in some cases (the top hat) persons fainting on the street. But there is a difference between shock-on-purpose and shock-for-purpose. I have a feeling that Browne’s items, lauded, sought after and highly priced, are not worth the fuss.

Reader Question: Further Sales Reductions

Dmytro, London: As a young professional who just started working here in the UK I find your advice really helpful, especially about basic wardrobe items: like shoes, suits etc. I have a question on sales in London shops – many of the more expensive ones (like Ralph Lauren, Reiss, Hackett) have 30% sales on their items maximum. Do you think the price can still go down, or should I accept the one they offer me today? Because I have already found some nice, but still quite expensive pieces.

Hi Dmytro, glad you find the blog helpful. As to your question, the short answer is no – it’s worth waiting. But it’s worth explaining why in a longer answer.

I don’t know where in the UK you live, or which branches of the various stores you mention you have been to, but my experience is that the shops have often already discounted more heavily than that. And they will do so more.

Let’s start with Ralph Lauren. In previous years, the standard discount in the RL sale was 30% off Polo and Black Label, 50% off Purple Label. That was certainly the first offer in the past two years in London.

There would be a ‘private’ sale just before the full sale – done by sending everyone on the RL mailing list an email and a flyer in the post, inviting them. You get to the stock a few days early, but essentially this is just a way for a brand to stagger the sales rush and encourage customers to give them their contact details.

The fact that this sale is no secret, or poorly organised, is evident from the fact that you can just turn up and ask about what’s on sale. No voucher required. And, as previously reported here (search for Ralph Lauren to find it) staff are frequently off message as to when there was or wasn’t a sale.

So. The RL sale proper this year started on December 27. It has now been running for just over a week and will run until almost the end of January. But around a week before then there will be additional discounts, pushing the total up to 50% to 75%.

These final reductions are also normally announced to customers by email. If you search for Ralph Lauren on my posts, you will also find reports of my favourite ever sale – the further discounts on Purple Label/Edward Green shoes, which bring a £550 shoe down to £230 normally.

The only risk you face in waiting this long is that the stock runs out. Given that discounts have generally been higher and quicker to appear this year (all RL stock was put on around 50% straight away) stocks will be running low. I asked about a particular black Purple Label shoe last week, for example, and they had already run out of my size.

Reiss also does a round of further reductions, normally just by putting a new set of prices in red pen on those little green labels. I’m not sure this is announced. In fact, a friend of mine who used to work at Reiss tells me they always discount by around 70% in the last week or so of the sale. But then, as she worked there she could reserve items and didn’t have to worry about them going out of stock.

The question of whether to wait for the further reductions, and risk stock running out, is really a question of how much you need or want a particular item. Once you have a reasonably complete wardrobe, it is easy to shop around late in the sales – because there’s nothing you really need. I don’t know whether you have that luxury.

I hope this helps. Good luck.

Sales Success – George Cleverley Bespoke

My philosophy has always been to buy classic items that will last me a long time, in the best quality I can afford. Over time, I will upgrade the clothes I have and give away the old ones, rather than merely accumulate. There’s nothing wrong with variety, but I want my clothes to be worn regularly. Buying something cheap that will rarely be used is not value for money.

Buying extremely high-quality clothes that won’t go out of style, and looking after them well, is almost a form of miserliness. Though I do seem to spend more and more money on clothes over time. Hmm.

I was pleased to prove loyal to this theory in the January sales. Having saved up a few hundred pounds in the preceding months, I was on the lookout for one of two classic items: a navy, double-breasted overcoat or a pair of black Oxfords. My only overcoat is not that suitable for business and I really need more than one pair of black shoes.

My luck struck at George Cleverley, one of England’s oldest and arguably best bespoke shoemakers.

It’s not the easiest place to find, or even to get into. Tucked half way down the Royal Arcade off Bond Street, it’s a small shop that requires a doorbell summons. I had been in once out of curiosity, but was lured in this time by the ready-to-wear shoes that were going for £225 down from £400.

Something much better was in store for me, though. (No pun intended.)

The sales assistant Andy pointed out to me that Cleverley was selling off a few bespoke and semi-bespoke shoes that had either not been picked up by clients or were ex-display. In the case of the bespoke shoes, that meant a reduction in price from £2000-£2500 to £300-£500.

The shoes are made by hand; the difference between the bespoke and semi-bespoke being that, with bespoke, the sole is also sewn on by hand. Apparently this adds up to £1000 to the price.

Of course, they were made specifically for someone else’s feet, not mine. But then any pair of ready-to-wear shoes is made for another pair of feet as well – the mythical average or standard proportions that no one actually conforms to.

Of the three pairs on offer, two were too wide and had too much arch support. The third fit very well. A little big across the bridge perhaps, but only a little.

Interestingly, I didn’t have my normal problem with any of the bespoke or semi-bespoke shoes. For those who haven’t read all about my feet and their oddities on this blog, the “normal problem” is that a narrow shoe crunches my little toe while a broad shoe, or a bigger shoe, leaves too much room at the back – there isn’t enough purchase to stop my heel from lifting out.

Bespoke shoes are generally made with narrower heels and higher backs. The heel can afford to be narrower because there is no risk of preventing some men from actually getting their foot in (a similar dynamic to suit sleeves always being a little too long – few people notice if they’re long but everyone notices if they’re short).

The back can afford to be higher for a similar reason – it can curve more to the shape of the client’s heel and not risk being too tight on anyone else.

This is one reason shoe horns have fallen out of use – it is almost impossible to get into a bespoke shoe without one, even if you’re in a hurry and don’t care about ruining the heel’s structure.

(In the book “Spies” by Michael Frayn, he describes life during the Second World War in England – a time he lived through. The hat stands in the hall are remembered as being “littered with shoe horns, clothes brushes and the like”. How many houses are like that today?)

Of course, the most noticeable thing about a bespoke shoe is the shape of its sole – particularly the waist. As the picture shows, the waist is far narrower than on a ready-to-wear shoe. The sole also does not mirror itself as it curves around the rest of the foot, turning outwards earlier and much more sharply on the instep. This reflects the actual shape of the foot more accurately.

Bespoke shoes are also a lot lighter (I don’t know the reason for this, if anyone does please tell me) and are rounded or “bevelled” across the whole sole. Sit them on the ground and they can rock slightly from side to side.

The reason ready-to-wear shoes have wider waists, flat soles and symmetric sides is economics – just like everything else in the manufacture of clothes. It takes longer to do it, so it costs more, so they don’t do it.

(As a side note, it does not do to follow this rule absolutely. Things that take more time and are therefore more expensive are not necessarily better. A seven-fold tie, for instance, is harder to construct but is arguably of no greater quality – different types of tie construction are largely a matter of taste and personal preference.)

Anyway, back to the shoes. I bought that third bespoke pair, as you have probably guessed. On the way out, one of the craftsmen (there is still work done on the premises) congratulated me on the purchase, mentioning that the shoes were originally made for a hedge fund manager whose fund went bust. Apparently he lost £80 million.

The craftsman also mentioned that the shoe trees alone normally cost £200, yet they were thrown in with the price. A pretty good bargain, and true to my philosophy of upgrading rather than merely adding to a collection. I may never be able to afford real bespoke, but having shoes made with that quality of craftsmanship is a significant step up.

The only problem now is I only get to buy one thing in the sales. No more browsing for the rest of January.