How to bring Brooks Brothers back from the brink

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A friend of mine used to say that a blue Brooks Brothers suit was like a fridge. When you become an adult, you buy one. When it wears out, you buy another one. And so on until one of them survives you.

For a particular type of man – my type – this remains true. I got married at Brooks Brothers, and I’d bet my dad was too. The power of this ancient, starchy, Anglophile, Ivy League-ish brand for professional-class Northeastern American men of my generation is hard to fully explain. But part of that is that the Brooks used to be both standard kit (a set of tools meant for adult life) and special (hardware was expensive and high quality, and getting to the shops was a big hassle ).

It’s over now, though. The costume, and the conception of male adulthood that went with it, were pushed into the recesses of American life – interviews and funerals primarily. Such is the challenge facing Ken Ohashi and Michael Bastian, who recently became chief executives and creative directors of the brand following its bankruptcy buyout by Authentic Brands and Simon Property Group.

Their problem is bigger than the near obsolescence of the brand’s flagship. The company grew tremendously before it ran into trouble, adding hundreds of branches and many low-to-average quality products. The item that came to define it was a machine-washable, iron-free shirt, typically purchased in three sales for $150.

It’s a handy item, which I’ve owned several of, but nothing special about it. The decades-long mass commercialization of Brooks Brothers eventually overcame the efforts of several good designers it employed, including Thom Browne, and an otherwise smart and committed owner, Claudio Del Vecchio.

So what should Ohashi and Bastian do? Obviously, if the brand wants to regain its former power, it needs to shrink, improve quality, and charge more money. This may not be possible. I don’t know what return the new owners are demanding on the $325 million investment. Perhaps the only way to meet these demands is to be a mid-size sportswear brand with a preppy flavor. Certainly, Simon Property Group, owner of a shopping center, will want to fill the real estate. But such a company would have nothing to do with what the company once stood for.

What might a classic, successful American men’s clothing store look like at this point in history? Is there room for something that isn’t a luxury boutique or mall? Here are some (possibly fantastic) ideas:

Reduce the number of products, but try harder to get each item right. The Brooks store on Madison Avenue may seem like an encyclopedia of adequate things. Make a few choices for me, please.

You’d have to bet that when most men only own one suit, they’ll pay more for a good one that really fits. He would sell them in even and odd breast sizes (i.e. without jumping from 42 to 44) and in extra-shorts and extra-longs.

He would live or die on three items: shirts, shoes, and outerwear. Shirts are what we see at work every day; shoes are the one thing most men are willing to spend on because they last; Coats and jackets is one area where (for reasons I don’t quite understand) more men are willing to try cool things.

His shoes will come from England (as Brooks used to do), and will be mostly derbies and oxfords, not Oxfords. Oxfords are like suits at this point. No one needs more than one pair (in black).

The shirts are offered at a price: upper-medium. When I buy a Brooks Brothers shirt, I need to know it will look good and last, but I don’t need luxury and I won’t pay luxury prices.

On pants, it would give men semi-casual options that aren’t khakis, which is awful.

Share your proposals

What are your ideas for bringing Brooks Brothers back from the brink? Post your comments below

He wouldn’t try to sell me $300 sweaters.

The accessories counter (socks, belts, watchbands, cufflinks) would be fun and change a lot.

There would be a rotating store within a store, where young designers and companies would get some distribution, and the parent would find inspiration.

Finally, his signature items would be made in America. I think it’s important for romantic reasons, but it could also allow management to have more control over quality and style. Again, this may not be possible. Brooks closed its last three US factories on the eve of bankruptcy. The equipment is probably sold off and the workers dispersed. But for a quintessentially American brand, made in the USA must be the goal.

Robert Armstrong is the FT’s US financial editor. Email him at [email protected]

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