As it celebrates 185 years in business this fall, Brooks Brothers is determined to deliver a traditional image and a return to a higher level of quality.
Founded in 1818, the company has enjoyed a long-standing reputation as the be-all and end-all in the American suit. But it's definitely been a long, winding road.
For almost two centuries, Brooks Brothers has clothed everyone from President Abraham Lincoln to a legion of Wall Streeters and preppies. It has debuted entire genres of clothing, from polo shirts to boxer shorts.
But it has endured a series of takeovers, too. For example, in recent years, British retailer Marks & Spencer bought Brooks Brothers and tried to woo a younger, more casual crowd. Then, in 2001, Retail Brand Alliance purchased the Brooks Brothers name with an eye toward returning it to its former buttoned-up glory.
Here, COO Mark Shulman ponders the past - and the future - of an American institution.
APPAREL: What differentiates Brooks Brothers from its competitors? What has given the brand such extraordinary longevity?
SHULMAN: The customers who have shopped the store for years and years and years have brought their kids. We get letters all the time that say, "My grandfather took me here to buy my first suit," or "My father brought me here to buy my first pair of long pants." There are generations of customers who have believed in Brooks Brothers and trusted it to give them the right fashion, the right quality and the right service.
APPAREL: What's the biggest challenge the company has overcome in recent years?
SHULMAN: We [Retail Brand Alliance] just bought the company a year and a half ago from Marks & Spencer. Unfortunately, Brooks Brothers had gone through some major ownership changes and major changes in philosophy of how to run the business. The new owner, Claudio Del Vecchio, wanted to try to restore it to what it was in its heyday. He's tried to go back to its heritage and back to its roots. The challenge for us has been to, number one, get the product back to where it should have been, and number two, re-educate and re-familiarize the customers who were disappointed in what had happened to the business over the last 10 years or so. I can happily say that we are really, truly seeing a turnaround in the business and seeing the customers coming back. Brooks Brothers customers have a real love for the brand, and they feel it's like a second home for them in a lot of ways.
APPAREL: What exactly was it that Retail Brand Alliance wanted to fix?
SHULMAN: With the casualization of America, the previous management misread the customer a little bit. They went more after what J.Crew and Gap and Banana [Republic] were doing, and walked away from their true customer, who still wanted to be able to buy a suit in the store. When they positioned themselves that way, it confused the customer. . They also traded down the quality. The quality was not as paramount in importance as it should have been. With everything that we do today, we try to make sure that it's the very, very best quality. We make sure that all the manufacturers that we deal with know that [quality] is a priority for us, and that we don't want them to in any way skip or change quality or shortchange us in that respect. For example, before, Brooks Brothers would find a fabric that it liked, then go out and have someone try and knock it off at a lower price. Today, when we find a fabric that we like, we buy it directly. We don't try to interpret it or have it made cheaper.
APPAREL: Having made those changes, what's the biggest challenge you face now?
SHULMAN: The greatest challenge, unfortunately, is that the economy is tough. It's not a great retail environment out there. We're not seeing the traffic that we'd like to see in all of our stores. Having said that - I'm superstitious, so I don't want to put a jinx on it - we've had one of the best Junes the company has had in a long time. I think finally the customer is coming in and realizing that they have their old Brooks Brothers back. It's made us very encouraged about what we're going to be doing for fall.
APPAREL: What's on tap for the fall?
SHULMAN: [To] celebrate our 185th anniversary, we'll be launching a major advertising campaign, and staging several major events. We're also opening a brand-new [flagship] store in September on Rodeo Drive. We're taking the old Tommy Hilfiger space and converting it to a Brooks Brothers store. It's almost 20,000 square feet.
APPAREL: In 2001, Brooks Brothers rolled out a new body-scanning technology in its Madison Avenue store. How has that initiative fared?
SHULMAN: I have mixed feelings about the bodyscanning. It's sort of neat and cool and fun, and the clothing that's been made from it is very good quality. At the same time, though, I think the true Brooks Brothers customer wants to see a tailor with a measuring tape around his neck. So I'd say bodyscanning has been moderately successful, but I don't think that's really who Brooks Brothers is. We'll be focusing more on made-to-measure, where the guy comes in and picks the fabric and it's done the old-fashioned way. We think that's what our customer expects from us.
APPAREL: How else will the purchase by Retail Brand Alliance affect the way Brooks Brothers does business?
SHULMAN: Brooks Brothers used to have three sets of merchants. One group did the 80 retail stores, another group did the 75 outlet stores, and another group did the catalog. There was tremendous confusion and duplication of efforts, so we merged them all into one merchandising group. Other than that, we've made very few [personnel] changes. We were very pleased with the people who were with the company. It was more a matter of redirecting, [rather than] changing, people.
APPAREL: You want to keep the loyal, traditional, suit-wearing customer. But how do you simultaneously keep the company's image fresh and grab the interest of today's tastemakers?
SHULMAN: This spring we introduced a new collection called Country Club, which is geared toward the sportswear customer who would not want to wear what's in Gap. It's pitched a little bit toward golf and tennis - just what you'd wear in a country club. It's very different from the kind of casual clothing we were carrying before. The quality level of the shirts is exceptional. And we actually have white tennis outfits, which you can't find anyplace else. It sounds crazy, but you really can't. That has been very well received. It's in all 80 of our stores, and we feel really good about it.
APPAREL: In the past, Brooks Brothers has set goals to expand by a certain number of stores per year. What's your philosophy on expansion now?
SHULMAN: We don't want Brooks Brothers to be the biggest stores in the world; we want them to be the best. Expansion plans are going to be only in markets where we really feel we can support a Brooks Brothers. We're not going to add stores for the sake of adding volume, which is often the strategy when you're a public company. If a great opportunity presents itself, like the great Tommy Hilfiger space on Rodeo Drive, we'll do that. But we're also going to spend a lot of time going back into some of the stores we own today that need a lot of renovation. For example, we have a fabulous store in Detroit's Somerset Mall that we're going to renovate from top to bottom. We also need to get our hands on our Boston store. It needs work. And we're completely renovating our Pittsburgh store. So it's more about taking the good locations that we have now and making them even better. And finally, we've started to refixture a lot of the stores. We've gone back to what Brooks Brothers fixtures should look like, which is beautiful furniture with gorgeous product on it.
APPAREL: What are Brooks Brothers' goals for the next five to 10 years?
SHULMAN: We want to be known as the finest men's store in the world. We had that reputation at one point, and we have to re-establish it. We also want to be able to say that we've expanded our business into the women's category, because we think that's an opportunity for us. We will also be expanding our offerings in the boys' business. We want to get them when they're real young, so they feel that generational loyalty. The letters we get from longtime customers are amazing. You get goosebumps when you listen to people's stories. It's a great heritage.
JAMIE SWEDBURG is a free-lance writer based in Athens, GA. She specializes in writing articles for textile, apparel and business publications.