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Brooks Brothers, R.I.P.

The brand's demise became inevitable when it abandoned the traditional, quintessentially American style that made it great.

Male model in striped vest of imported silk with pearl buttons and Brooks Brothers suit. (Photo by William Grigsby/Condé Nast via Getty Images)

Upon Brooks Brothers’ founding in 1818, the international center of men’s fashion moved from Regent Street, London to Madison Avenue, New York. Sure: Milan might be still be capital of haute couture. And that’s fine, if you’re an androgynous bulimic lizard-person with a leather fetish. But, for the sort of clothes that a respectable, well-adjusted gentleman might wear with pride, Brooks Brothers has been setting the trend for exactly 202 years.

And perhaps no longer. Local papers report that Brooks Brothers is permanently closing stores all across the country. They may even shut down their three factories in Massachusetts (suits), New York (ties), and North Carolina (shirts). Late on Monday evening, Fox News reported that the company was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and is looking for a buy-out. 

Of course, Brooks can be salvaged. Some investor will pick it up and strip its assets. And yet, for the first time in two centuries, they’ll probably have to surrender their “Made in America” boast. It will be a “Maker and Merchant” no more, but a merchant only. 

That should grieve all patriotic Americans. The history of Brooks Brothers is intimately bound up with the history of our republic. They have outfitted every president since John Quincy Adams. Ulysses S. Grant commissioned them to make uniforms for his Union officers; Theodore Roosevelt did the same for his Rough Riders. Abraham Lincoln was dressed in a Brooks suit the night he was assassinated; it had a custom lining worthy of an MMA fighter: an eagle carrying a banner that read, “One Country, One Destiny.” Brooks Brothers designed the very first athletic-cut suit especially for John F. Kennedy and named it “the Fitzgerald” in his honor. Barack Obama and Donald Trump have little in common, but both were inaugurated in one of their signature navy suits (though not the exact same one).

Even if you’ve never set foot in one of their stores, the odds are that you, too, own a garment that was pioneered by Brooks Brothers.

The button-collared dress shirt is indeed “the original polo shirt.” It was designed for men to wear on horseback, so the wings of their collars wouldn’t flap up and smack them in the face. Brooks Brothers invented the repp tie, whose stripes run down diagonally from right to left—the opposite of British school or regimental ties. Hence the stupidity of Brooks authorizing its historic Repp No.1 to be used as the “official” school tie in Gossip Girl.

They were also the first to bring the Fair Isle sweater and the Argyle sock to the United States, and turned madras cotton into a staple of American casualwear. And they pioneered the pink dress shirt as a more forgiving alternative to white, which stains easily and doesn’t compliment a ruddy complexion. This was before pink was deemed to be a “girl’s color,” which is why the pink Oxford remains a staple of the conservative’s wardrobe.

***

Yet Brooks Brothers’ final decline was probably inevitable. The company has suffered through several different phases of management and mismanagement, but the decline has been chronic since British retailer Marks & Spencer acquired the brand in 1988. They nearly ran it into the ground themselves, implementing disastrous changes meant to “modernize” the brand, which included removing the iconic Golden Fleece logo from their polo shirts (the short-sleeved, three-button variety), coming out with a line of leather jackets, and ditching the factory that made their suits.

Thirteen years later, Marks & Spencer finally sold the company to its current owners, the Retail Brand Alliance, at a seventy percent loss. British papers mocked M&S’s misadventure; even the conservative Telegraph of London positively sneered at the brand’s “dreary formal ranges” and “fuddy-duddy” aesthetic. Of course, Brooks Brothers is anything but dreary… unless you’re a Brit, of course, and prefer something in fluorescent blue that bulges around your hollow chest. But the sturdy, sober Yankee gentleman can ask for nothing better.

One might have hoped that the new owners would undo Marks & Spencer’s stupidity. And they did, to some extent. The Golden Fleece logo was restored to the polo shirts—and was recently seen on the gentleman who brandished an AR-15 at Black Lives Matter protestors in St. Louis. They also opened a new suiting factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

But the Retail Brand Alliance is owned by Claudio Del Vecchio, son of Leonardo Del Vecchio. Del Vecchio the Elder founded Luxottica: the world’s largest eyeglass empire. Forbes names him as the 50th richest man on earth. Some dads help their kids build lemonade stands to keep them busy; Del Vecchio père bought his boythe most historic menswear company in the United States.

So, instead of abandoning M&S’s disastrous “modernization” campaign, Del Vecchio fils just took it in a more Italian direction. Its hallmark is the Red Fleece line, which is just dreadful. It has a sort ofAnna Wintor-meets-William F. Buckley vibe. Designed for the modern urban prepster (all twelve of whom recently dropped out of Columbia and now work as “consultants” at their fathers’ investment firms), Red Fleece emphasizes tight fits, effeminate patterns, and other goofy parodies of “preppy” style.

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I’m a third generation Brooks Brothers shopper myself, and I loved the brand more than just about anyone had ever loved it. The salesman I worked with when I was in high school was just a few years older than me, and he became one of my best friends. In fact, he was a groomsman at my wedding. But eventually Signore Del Vecchio’s bungling became too much even for him. He left to start his own custom-clothing business. Speaking to industry veterans, I could see why. 

For one, Brooks Brothers did away with commissions for most of their salesmen years ago. The clerks at my local store would make the same hourly wage at the nearby Macy’s, and both stores pay less than Nordstrom. So, when all the experienced salesmen left to find jobs that would allow them to support a family, they were replaced by the kinds of people who are willing to work in retail for minimum wage—namely, students from the local high school. Needless to say, lifelong customers weren’t overconfident in the 16-year-old girls fitting them for $1,500 suits.

Then they started tampering with all the cuts. Their Traditional Fit shirts (the widest) were axed completely, while the Fitzgerald Cut suits—that quintessentially American slim fit—were replaced by a British-style slim called the Regent. Ask anyone who has worked for Brooks in the last ten years and they’ll have stories of customers coming to them with tears in their eyes. “I’ve been shopping at Brooks Brothers since my dad brought me in for my first suit sixty years ago,” they’d say, “but nothing fits anymore. What am I supposed to do?” They’d leave, crestfallen, never to return.

Finally, Brooks rolled out this line of boring emblematic ties. They look like Canal Street knockoffs of Vineyard Vines. That, to my mind, was the point of no return.

Still, the decline probably became chronic under Marks & Spencer. As my old boss Damian Thompson wrote in a moving panegyric for The Spectator, while the “original polo” had many imitators, “only Brooks Brothers knew how to balance the length of the collar with the positioning of the buttons so that the material rolled into a distinctive ‘S’ shape.” Then something went wrong:  

For reasons I still can’t fathom, at some point in the 1990s it shortened its collar lapels so that they sloped straight down to the tiny buttons. This had the effect of flattening the elegant roll so that it virtually disappeared, making Brooks Brothers shirts look like the run-of-the-mill button-downs sold on the British high street. With one snip of the scissors, the Ivy League look was gone.

 “For reasons I still can’t fathom.” Spoken like a true Brooks Brothers devotee. 

***

America first overtook England in the fashion industry when the Edwardian morning suit became démodé and was replaced with the modern “sack suit”—that is, the three-piece ensemble whose coat, waistcoat, and trousers were all made of the same fabric. At the heart of this revolution was a single, family-owned clothier: Brooks Brothers. 

And it was a quintessentially American revolution. Their ready-made sack suit, bringing tradition and refinement to the masses. For centuries, they met the demands of a changing world, not by destroying our heritage (like the French), but by making that heritage more available to the people. When they abandoned their American-style slim fit for a British-style one, they effectively brought a close to the American Era in fashion.

Of course, the insufferably woke Mr. Del Vecchio doesn’t understand any of that. He doesn’t understand Brooks Brothers at all.

With all due respect to him (and to Mr. Thompson), Brooks isn’t “preppy.” That stereotype has seeped into European pop culture, but it’s wrong. It isn’t supposed to be pompous or ostentatious, as prepsters tend to be. Nor is it “Ivy Style”—which, properly speaking, means boater hats and raccoon coats

No: Brooks Brothers is American style, plain and simple. To call it “preppy” or “Ivy” is to dismiss the entire history of New England and New York as WASP, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: the race of bucktoothed lizard-people whose memory we find charming (though not too charming) only because they’re now so inbred they can no longer effectively function as an oligarchy. 

I’m no blue-blood. But, as a proud Swamp Yankee, let me say: my culture is not your costume.

Oh, well. As Father George Rutler once told me, “If God wanted men to shop at Brooks Brothers, he would not have given us J. Press.” I’ll see you there, friends.

Michael Warren Davis is editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).

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