Brooks Brothers: Now What?

I can’t decide what I hated more: the bankruptcy announcement from Brooks Brothers, or their transition to a non-iron, characterless bloated catalog over the last ten years.

The Brooks Brothers I remember was a bit romantic. The only access I had was the shop at Lenox Square Mall, which I remember being a great store. It took one visit for me to start transitioning all of my dress shirts from the left chest Polo player to the thick oxford cloth pocket. That became my standard. I remember all the suits and sportcoats were so handsome. The shoes and socks were elegant. The ties were the tried and true regimental stripe collection that Brooks Brothers was known for. The salesmen and women were extremely nice, even though I was a college kid with limited funds. My visits to the Brooks Brothers store was an excellent experience.

I can’t say I’m surprised by what happened with Brooks Brothers. The office environments became much more casual, and men wanted better fitting clothes. Brooks Brothers reaction was pretty typical for the time. Lots of non-iron shirts. Different fits. Fabrics that were somewhat sub-par for the price. Their suits and jackets diverged from the Brooks Brothers ‘look’, in favor of a more Euro-feel. Their tried and true USA stuff was still there, but in a limited capacity, and pushed to the back burner.

In my estimation, this was purely a financial play. Make a TON of products at low(er) cost, and rely on discounts to move the majority of the products. Why? There is a share of customers that yearn for the classic Brooks Brothers catalog, only in updated fits.

So they’re now swirling in the Bankruptcy boat, hoping that a buyer will emerge and keep the ship afloat…and possibly brings the back to life.  Eesh.

Here’s what I would do:

1. Brand – the brand is already in place. Brooks Brothers didn’t earn the moniker ‘The Mothership’ for nothin’. They’ve been around forever and generally have a good reputation. For those of us who pay attention, we still believe in Brooks Brothers, but they have some work to do to get back to a leader of the pack. However, a decision needs to be made on who they are. They can’t be everything to everybody, as it just doesn’t work. Guys don’t buy their entire wardrobe from one place anymore. I would build a very refined vision of what Brooks Brothers is:

“We dress men who care about dressing well, both now and moving forward”

Something like that. Guys that care about looking good, understand style, and understand the value. I think that is the brand’s sweet spot. Guys who walk through the door or shop online know that they are going to get high-quality classic menswear that doesn’t go out of style. A nice mix of Trad/Ivy/Prep, but the mature versions. Very little pastels and funny socks. Fit will be key. Off the rack, but the option to tailor. Guys that aspire to run the company, and look the part.

2. Product Line – Limited. There isn’t any need to offer forty different plaids each season. There isn’t any need to carry multiple styles of sport coats. Or twenty shades of sweaters for each neck style. What I would do is build a foundation of outstanding oxford shirts and dress shirts, chinos, dress pants, and 5-pockets, three standard sport coats (navy, plaid, and seasonal), a few suits, GREAT fitting Golden Fleece polos, a few belts, and your standard shoe run (loafers, cap toes, some shell cordovan)…you get it. Then build from there. Keep it simple, but be the best at what is on the shelves. Guys should have confidence in knowing that whatever they buy is top quality. It’s hard to put a value on that…because they’ll keep coming back.

Here’s a net-new: Build a way to order online alterations. I’m not sure if this is a ‘come in and get measured’ and apply that to your online account, or if it is an ‘enter your measurements online’ method (or both), but charge a premium to have your stuff tailored prior to delivery.

3. Celebrate USA – Made in the USA still has a ton of value. It does add cost, but in line with Michael Williams’ perspective: buy three or four shirts a year and wear them well (vs 20 cheap ones). If USA-made compresses margins, so be it – but up to a point. Businesses still have to make money, but there IS a cost to keep your character. This is the choice the most businesses have to make. If products have to be made offshore, ensure that the quality meets a standard, and priced accordingly. I believe that for US-based companies to succeed, they need to embrace US-made goods. Otherwise, it has a disposable feeling. That’s not what Brooks Brothers should go for. Opt for those OCBDs that your son will steal from you. And you’ll be pissed about it.

 

4. Focus – A laser focus on the brand. Be obsessive about the Brooks Brothers message. Hire a really good, diverse senior team who are all committed to the long-term success of the company. Define success, but only partially in terms of financials. Worry more about character, relevance, and leading vs. huge margins and discounted prices. On stores, use the Orvis model and be extremely limited in where you open stores. Big cities. No outlets. Be where the guys are that wear the clothes. And make those stores insanely cool. Hire the right people that truly care about clothes and customer service. Pay benefits so those folks can make it a career, and not an hourly gig. Look at companies who do this well, and build a plan that works best for Brooks Brothers.

The stores should be more like a club vs. piles and piles of clothes under fluorescent lights. Make sure that sizes are in stock – if someone walks in the store and wants to buy, don’t make them ‘order it online’. Brooks Brothers should embrace regionality – stores in the Southeast shouldn’t look exactly like stores on the West Coast. The shopping experience should be fun: like shopping in the pro shop at an exclusive club…you know that feeling.

5. Collaborations – Host an annual capsule collection with a great USA designer. Brooks Brothers have done this in the past with brands like Social Primer, and I thought it was a smart move. Not for everyone, but it shows that they are paying attention. LL Bean is doing a collection with Todd Snyder, which I think is brilliant. It brings a different element (and a new shopper) to LL Bean. Black Fleece is an example. Do a footwear capsule with Oak Street Bootmakers. Brooks Brothers should do the same. By doing these collaborations in limited quantities, they can create demand with smart marketing and not be left holding a bunch of unsold products. While these collaborations don’t drive a lot of revenue, they make up for it by driving a lot of attention.

These are just my ideas. Unfortunately, I didn’t hit on Powerball, nor do I have the stomach to assume the current level of Brooks Brothers debt. I hope whoever does read this and doesn’t laugh out loud…but who knows. I’m optimistic.

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16 Comments

  1. S
    07/16/2020 / 9:24 AM

    Great points. Basically you are suggesting them to do something like what Drakes does – a great curated selection of capsule clothing along with wonderful lookbooks.

  2. Brad Wesley
    07/16/2020 / 10:06 AM

    While it’s an important component I wouldn’t be surprised if both the number and size of their physical locations are reduced. Obviously it’s still a rocky time for all brick and mortar retail. Our BB is in a prominent downtown location (very close to Orvis, as you referenced) and I know it was not doing well in the recent past. I’ve had good interactions with employees there but the rest of the store ‘experience’ is lacking. I’m particular about trying clothes on in person so in-store experience is very important to me. Of course, the more they trim down their crowded range of offerings with fewer fits the less of an issue this becomes.

  3. ALT
    07/16/2020 / 11:02 AM

    I bought a suit from the Perimeter Mall location in March. They were going to alter it for me but a week later the shut down happened. I had been trying multiple times to reach someone with no success. . The store number rang to an automated message and corporate replied with a stock “we hope to be back soon” email I received a email just this Monday from the store manager offering to FedEx it to me. I asked if they had any idea when the would reopen and they still don’t know…

  4. Daniel
    07/16/2020 / 11:07 AM

    WELL said. Brooks Brothers has always been a generational marketplace. I remember the well-tenured older businessmen that would frequent the store where I worked on a semi-monthly basis their normal everyday wares. I built a great relationship with those gentlemen. I always took a lot of pride when they would come in on a Sunday with their bed-headed grandsons who were bound for an Ole Miss or Sewanee in the fall and left it up to me to make them look like an established member of society suggesting the basics that wouldn’t wear out after just a month of college wear and tear.

    It was when the slimmer Regent and European Milano fits, as well as the began taking the place of the Traditional Madison fit in all of the basic shirts and suits is when you would begin to see the 50-year loyal customers not make their way into the store quite as often. Try telling someone like that that the only way that they could get the same fit and style of broadcloth dress shirt that they had been wearing for five decades was online.

    Getting back to their roots all the while incorporating an occasional brand collaboration here and there as you stated, (a Social Primer/ WM Lamb) is how you save this retail relic. As soon as I win the lottery I’ll tie you in for partnership.

    Thanks for great content always!

  5. B. Scott Robinson
    07/16/2020 / 11:08 AM

    Your suggestions are spot on and align with my thought.

    Leaner, meaner, targeted, made in USA, go all in on meeting an ideal and let the cards, and $, fall where they may.

    At least a real effort at something sustainable should be made vs. more of the same old….

    A group funded take over would be interesting. I would put in a few grand.

    Cheers,

    BSR

  6. Ryan
    07/16/2020 / 11:16 AM

    Very similar to what A Continuous Lean proposed. BB was not meant to be for everyone and they should not try to be. They don’t need 200 store fronts, they aren’t a billion dollar company, they need to stop acting like they are. They will likely be acquired by a Japanese firm, a la J Press. The J Press owners at least have the finger on the pulse of the brand. They expanded their offerings without alienating their existing, loyal clientele. Would be nice if the future owners of BB took notes.

    • David Kirkpatrick
      07/16/2020 / 10:04 PM

      50 new boutique prep brands popping up daily it seems to compete they need to be more flexible & adapt on their casual stuff. Still the best logo around

      Hope it survives

  7. MJS
    07/16/2020 / 12:58 PM

    You hit the nail on the head with this one.

    Their sport coat selection needs to take after a j press/ben silver. Sturdier classics that don’t change, Something like what I imagine they used to be…

  8. Dennis mingyar
    07/16/2020 / 2:19 PM

    Great ideas. I remember clearly my first time purchasing items in Brooks Brothers. Made me feel successful. I particularly liked the idea about staff. Always helpful to shop with someone who knows you.

  9. CVL
    07/16/2020 / 3:54 PM

    Great post RCS. Sort of like playing golf at a country club…people are willing to pay more, but the experience better be top-shelf. And I agree, shut down the airport stores, maybe close the outlet stores, and restore the romance of the brand. Offer a couple of really good discounts a year, reward loyal customers and nix anything that’s a poly-blend!

    Always enjoy the content. Cheers.

  10. SFM
    07/16/2020 / 4:17 PM

    Top notch post. Relating to point number 1, I recently heard someone say the best consumer brands are something we see our full potential in. This stuck with me as it is more than “aspirational”;it is personalized to what we think we actually can be. I think BB could really dominate in this sense because i might see my potential in a BB suit with a trad tie, but i don’t see it in a Euro Fit spandex contraption, and what do clothes really sell us other than the best image of ourselves.

    Point 4 about the regional focus/curation and limiting stores to place people actually buy BB is spot on. . It’s too easy to get the southeast look, or synthesize the High WASP culture of yore through a variety of sites, often the same one will sell both. Needless to say we don’t need another player in that crowded field.

    I think focusing mid market on quality pieces that someone can be counted on to loyally buy w/out getting into the $150+ shirt stratosphere is wise.

  11. JRF
    07/16/2020 / 4:22 PM

    I completely agree this would align the brand to its target market. Unfortunately, marketing doesn’t steer the ship, finance does. Without knowing the debt structure and margins it is impossible to really know where BB should go. I agree they should cut their outlets because the quality is awful, but what if that branch has a 50% higher markup than mainline stores? The calculus changes.

  12. JDP
    07/16/2020 / 8:21 PM

    Had the exact same experience my first time in Brooks Brothers … as a younger guy, these are some really weird times were living in

  13. JSP
    07/17/2020 / 10:21 PM

    I have been a BB guy for years and agree with this post. Shut down the airport stores. Close some outlets as well. Get back to what made them great – the classy, All American brand

  14. Cliff
    07/18/2020 / 4:10 PM

    Agree on all points- well said.

    I remember when J. Crew had decent, preppy men’s clothing in the 90s, and now the cuts and fabrics have gone to pot. Not say J. Crew and BB are in the same league, but they both became shells of their former selves.

    My fear is that the new owners of BB will rely solely on the history of the brand, using the brand to push clothing that is not in line with the brand (take for example the second iteration of Duck Head some years ago, which was way off the mark; current owners nailed DH re-launch).

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