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[Note: half-way down article: "customers have qualms". Plus ca change...etc...I will forever rue that day in 1987 when models replaced sketches and watercolors in the catalog] - H.

The New York Times (1989)

HEADLINE: Pleats? Cuddly Cardigans? Brooks Brothers Unbuttons


Brooks Brothers, the staid, sedate, venerable, buttoned-down and buttoned-up clothing retailer, is taking the first step toward loosening its rep tie and cruising into the 90's. A $7 million facelift has added shiny escalators and bright lights to its flagship Madison Avenue store at 44th Street.

But there is more. A lot more. This bastion of the sack suit has put pleats in its trousers. It has taken its cardigan sweaters out of glass display cases so customers can cuddle them. It has made room for living-color cummerbunds next to the basic black.

The Iron-Pumping Set

For athletic-looking men who spend their lunch hours pumping iron in health clubs, Brooks Brothers now features suits that are wide in the chest and narrow in the waist. (For the flabby few who still spend their lunch hours sipping martinis in private clubs, it has kept the old wide-in-the-waist, narrow-in-the-chest standbys.) It calls all this ''the surprise of Brooks Brothers.''

But perhaps the greatest surprise arrives tonight. For the first time in its 171-year history, Brooks Brothers has scheduled a fashion show at the Madison Avenue store, complete with a runway and male and female models. It is a benefit for Phoenix House, the drug-treatment program.

Brooks Brothers does not think that its customers - who over the years have included Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson; Generals Sherman, Sheridan and Grant; the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and entire generations of Astors, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts - have turned into wild and crazy guys.

But it is trying to shed its stodgy oh-so-predictably preppy image. It hopes that doing so will enlarge what it calls its ''customer profile'' at a time when its closest competitors have spiced up the Ivy League look with a dash of Continental flair.

''It needed it,'' said William V. Roberti, an athletic-looking 43-year-old who has been president of Brooks Brothers since 1987. ''We didn't want to change it. We just wanted to make it fresher.''

But one man's freshening up is another's chaos. Some customers have qualms that the quality is not what it used to be. Some are still griping about a decision in 1987 to use photographs of models instead of genteel watercolor sketches in its catalogue. And some may find the made-over Madison Avenue store disorienting. The mahogany-paneled walls remain. So does the mirror that Abraham Lincoln looked into as he was being fitted for what turned out to be the coat he wore the night he was assassinated. But suits that were on one floor are now on another. The entire second floor, once a province of pinstripes, has been filled with sportswear.

''There was always that feeling of familiarity, of knowing just where the various items were and what floors they were on,'' Henry King, a Manhattan lawyer, said. ''And I think that was good. It will not be as familiar or as homey any more.'' And then there are the escalators. ''Escalators remind me of the 30's,'' the author Tom Wolfe said. ''That brings them up to within 50 years of the present day.''

'Little Less Pretentious'

A Brooks Brothers vice president, George Hanley, said the idea behind the renovations was to make Brooks Brothers ''a little less pretentious.''

''There are perceptions of us,'' he said. ''We want to be more accessible. We've got a lot more to show than button-downs. We've got tabs, too. What we want is to have people explore the store.''

Brooks Brothers hopes a lot of those people are women. Women's clothing, which used to share a floor with the boys' department, on the theory that a mother taking her toddler for his first fitting would buy something for herself, now has a floor of its own. And Brooksgate, traditionally a line of leaner-cut suits for paunchless postgraduates, is leaner than ever.

Watching the Store Next Door

''I'm an athletic-built guy with a 42 chest and a 35 waist,'' said Mr. Roberti, who played football and soccer in college. ''A lot of this stuff, I can't wear.''

But he walked over to a $595, size 42 regular Brooksgate suit. The paints were size 35. The size 42's that the store has long sold in its own-make department, he said, have 37-inch waists.

Brooks Brothers hopes that suits for men with trimmer waistlines will fatten its bottom line. The corporate parent, Marks & Spencer P.L.C., announced yesterday in London that in the first six months of the year, Brooks Brothers profit fell 50 percent, from $15.82 million to $7.9 million, compared with the same period last year. In the first six months this year, its revenues climbed, to $134.3 million from $106 million in the same period in 1988.

Marks & Spencer said the cost of the renovations on Madison Avenue had cut into the profits. The company expects Brooks Brothers to rebound, but there is more competition now. In the year since Marks & Spencer bought Brooks Brothers and its more than 50 stores nationwide, its competitors have applied some spit-and-polish of their own. J. Press, which is sometimes credited with inventing the ''Ivy League look,'' moved in right next door, on 44th Street.

Mr. Roberti seems unworried as he strolls through the Madison Avenue store, where suits still come in a rainbow of shades of gray. But now there are suede jeans, suede skirts and $150 leather book bags, too.

''You can get the cheap one for $65,'' Mr. Roberti said. ''The canvas one, I should say.''

GRAPHIC: Photo of William V. Roberti, Brooks Brothers' president (NYT/Eddie Hausner)

764 Posts
The most difficult element for the brand now, IMO, are all those mall stores. You simply can not offer quality made, long lasting apparel in a mass market mall environment. The necessary sustainable volume requires the shift to Chinese factories. There simply are not enough customers who know the difference to keep this scale operation afloat. Marks and Spencer doomed BB to its current outlook with this size.

There is no way you can ever again offer a predominance of American, Canadian, English, or Italian made goods and sell the volume BB must turnover. These customers want something slightly differentiated from a department store, but not so trendy as Banana Republic. Some would just as soon buy from the Gap if the product were offered.

Have you ever listened to some of the customers in the stores? You think the service is bad, but look at who they serve. The non-iron shirts are there because most never go to a dry cleaners save the rare occasion. They grew up shopping Gap and expect everything on sale all the time. If Brooks can't offer a "3 for $XX" on all its products, they will be out of business, and fast. Give it a year or two and suits will be made in China. Their scale will force the move.
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