The Sad Route of Brooks Brothers

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“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.


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Simon Crompton is a journalist and a style enthusiast living in London, who blogs at permanentstyle.blogspot.com. He has too many suits.

Comments

  1. Clinton says:

    Simon, a question from the states. Who are these tourists asking for the location of the A&F? I’m simply looking for reassurance that they aren’t Americans, looking for the A&F in London the same way they asked me for the Burger King in Hamburg when I lived there. I almost gave them the address of the Wurst stand, just to make a point.

    Incidentally, I have an anecdote that may be of interest. A friend of mine had a teacher once that shopped at Abercrombie back when “campus-wear” meant odd jackets, khakis, loafers etc. He bought suits there. Having not been there in several decades, when he found out that my friend actually worked there, he asked how the business had turned out, noting that he had “never trusted that Fitch fellow.”

  2. G. says:

    I live in the UK and had no idea that Brooks Brothers had any shops here, or that M&S had an involvement, which pretty much says it all…

  3. Mr. Flibble says:

    I think the only purchase I’ve made at BB over the last couple of years was a gamekeeper’s coat that had been discounted from $398 to $40. That’s about it. There is a BB outlet near where I live that I do go to regularly, although it primarily sells the inferior 346 line. So I do stop in to see what they have, but lately with little hope that I will see anything that will make me want to buy.

    I don’t know if it is marketing that is to blame for the weakening sales or the economic downturn (which is hurting almost all clothing retailers)–in my case it is neither. I just grew away from them (lost interest?) and their prices only rarely fell low enough to inspire me to say “what the hell” and buy. The same is true for Polo. In both cases the elite lines (Black Fleece, Black Label) have nice and interesting stuff, but that is beyond my means and the regular lines became rather stale–the same stuff year after year. I instead turned to SierraTradingPost.com and could buy high-end Italian clothing at the same prices as their discounted regular clothes.

  4. Fashion Style of Leadership says:

    When you can get a tunic shirt and detachable collar from E&R for $70, compared to $220 from BB. There’s your answer.

    Even WITH the egregious $40 shipping charge from the UK, it’s still a better deal to buy from Ede.

    Last Sunday I took a trip to that toddling town to pick up a Dunlap & Co top hat (and just recently won a bid on a nicer German top hat), and while there stopped into the BB at the mall. Not impressed.

  5. fashion trader says:

    Since the new owners took over the quality is amazing for the price and sales have reportedly quadrupled. Also the company has opened stores around the world. If the recent cover of American GQ is any indication, the brand is white hot. A little homework might have helped you with this story.

  6. Julia says:

    I’m in the U.S. and I rarely see marketing for BB. But last month I was on the lookout for a quality white button-down, so I turned to BB. The shirt is fabulous (wrinkle-free, too) and I bought on a good sale. Then they sent me their catalogue – and the prices…oh, the prices. Don’t they know we’re in a recession?

  7. Stephen says:

    Brooks Brothers. Where do I start. I am a devotee of their non-iron shirts. They fit well, wear like iron and selection is nothing to sneeze at. Their dress & casual trousers are also quite nice. Where they make me absolutely insane is their so called “sales”. They only have a sale, when inventory is such that only circus performers might fit into the offerings. My shirt size 17/36 is never on sale, and finding the one out of a stack of 30 shirts has become a Grail like quest for me. You see the big “SALE” sign in the window only to find out they are stocked for a freak show. Shirts in 14/38, 19/32 and so on. Very frustrating. Sport coats at 50% off abound if you are a 39 short or a 52 X long. The rest of us with reasonably proportioned Homo sapien forms can only gaze longingly.

    Although I have 12 or so sport coats and blazers, not one is a BB, not for lack of trying. Socks are nice but don’t hold up well to washing no matter how carefully. Sweaters tend to give way at the seams. After spending an hour the other evening slogging through literally a dump truck’s worth of sale merchandise, I managed to come up with one shirt in a pattern that would make Willy Wonka uncomfortable.

    Please BB, don’t send me anymore cards and emails extolling your BIG SALES EVENT unless there is something there I can actually purchase. When for instance Charles Tyrwhitt announces a sale, I can fill a shopping cart with quality goods at half price. You on the other hand, wait until your inventory is such that the offerings are only suitable for a network variety show chimpanzee act.

    Still like a battered spouse, I come back to you again and again.

  8. Will says:

    Actually, BBC is relatively respectable again. You should have seen the mess Marks & Spencer made of it.

  9. smooth says:

    If J Crew Men’s store in my opinion is creeping up on BB. I hardly shop at BB. Nothing there. Colors are blah, as well as designs.

  10. Great post.. I have never wanted to walk into one either

  11. Daniel A. Pizutelli says:

    I might be bias, (wearing Brooks Brothers from boxers to socks, to sports coats to shoes, from Phi’s to overcoats, from wallets, to pocket squares, to ties and belts, to swim suits and umbrellas,) however, I am with you guys when it comes to the price tags. What I failed to mention is that it took me over 15 years to build up my wardrobe. From the constant barrage of e-mail sales notifications, to the relentless catalogs at the door, I can’t help but pick out a few items that I would like. Oh, I’ve tried the Brooks Brothers credit card for those earned points towards your next purchase, but when the interest rate rose to 28%, I called it quits. Still, every time I head to the Short Hills Mall for an item or two, the cash register is 5 to 8 people deep waiting to purchase their items…sales or not!
    You can’t beat the quality and the timelessness of their clothing line, (except their Black Fleece collection. Who would actually wear those outfits in public?) Yet, the following of Brooks Brothers from President Abraham Lincoln’s coat to Cary Grant’s love of their shirts in the movie North by Northwest, to Steven Colbert’s complete wardrobe of nothing else but Brooks Brothers, you can’t help but feel good that your cloths will still be in style for the next hundred years. Sure they might be expensive, but with the replacement cost for inferior quality, it pays off in the long run.