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Wardrobe: Brooks Redux

William Kissel

Italian entrepreneur Claudio Del Vecchio was among the legions of Brooks Brothers loyalists who watched with disapproval and disappointment as the American menswear brand abandoned classic tailored clothing in favor of contemporary sportswear during the 1990s. Having been a customer for decades, Del Vecchio even commiserated with those who mockingly labeled the chain “Banana Brothers,” a reference to the business plan of former British parent company Marks & Spencer, which was to target the younger, budget-conscious Banana Republic audience. Now, as owner and chief executive of the 187-year-old retail giant, Del Vecchio is determined to right what he considers to be more than a decade of tactical miscues.

“This is a company with almost 200 years of history, and that’s all that kept it alive when it wasn’t always delivering the best product,” says Del Vecchio, whose company, Retail Brand Alliance, acquired Brooks Brothers in 2001. Del Vecchio, the son of Luxottica eyewear founder Leonardo Del Vecchio, immediately set out to restore the brand’s aristocratic image, which it had earned by outfitting many of the last century’s best-dressed men—Cary Grant, the Duke of Windsor, J.P. Morgan, and Gianni Agnelli, among others.  “For 10 years, all our contractors heard was ‘price, price, price,’ so they adjusted their production to meet that request,” says Del Vecchio. “We went back and said, ‘quality, quality, quality.’ ” The shift in directives has succeeded in elevating Brooks Brothers’ product selection.

With the recent relaunch of the company’s premium Golden Fleece label, the retailer has enhanced its tailored clothing offerings with a collection of off-the-rack suits made from superior English wools and produced by prominent New York tailor Martin Greenfield. Del Vecchio points out that Brooks Brothers offers great value because it manufactures much of its own clothing and does not sell wholesale to other retailers. He maintains that the quality of a $1,700 Brooks Brothers suit compares with that of a $4,000 suit carrying a designer label. Similarly, cashmere knits now are made with finer cashmere yarns spun in Italy and knitted in Scotland, as opposed to the previous two-ply sweaters, which were finished in Mexico and China. Even the store’s world-renowned shirt selection has been upgraded and expanded.

Further indication of Brooks Brothers’ commitment to regain its luxury standing can be found on Rodeo Drive, where a 20,000-square-foot store opened two years ago. Del Vecchio also plans to expand the brand’s profile internationally. Last year, the chain inaugurated its first two European stores in the menswear capitals of Milan and Florence, and a third shop is planned for Paris’ Place Vendôme in spring 2006. But Brooks Brothers’ intention to cater to connoisseurs may be most evident at its recently opened store in Tokyo’s Ginza district, where ready-made wool suits priced at $5,000 sell alongside other four-figure fashion items.
 
Unlike the previous management, the current Brooks Brothers regime is not seeking an entirely new audience for the brand. “We’ve always had a luxury customer,” says Del Vecchio, adding that many loyal patrons, himself included, simply became disillusioned by the company’s mixed messages of recent years. “All we are doing is returning Brooks Brothers to its roots.”

Brooks Brothers, 800.274.1815, www.brooksbrothers.com

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