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The New York Times
March 18, 1990, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

HEADLINE: Ivy Covers New Ground

BYLINE: By MARY LISA GAVENAS; Mary Lisa Gavenas has written about fashion for magazines ranging from Elle to Family Circle.

TRADITIONALLY, THE MAN WHO FAVORS THE IVY League look is a man who comports himself according to the Protestant work ethic. He values steadiness, reliability and industry. For decades, his uniform has been a Brooks Brothers suit, rep tie and button-down shirt. ''It's what sociologists call 'an instrumental orientation,' '' says Ruth P. Rubinstein, a professor of sociology at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. ''It's a look that says, 'Hey, I can perform the job. I am always going to interact in the way that's appropriate.' ''

The 1980's were not especially kind to this man. On Wall Street, his ancient stamping ground, interest turned from blue chips to junk bonds. Traders, the street's trend-setters, made flashy amounts of money and dressed accordingly, scorning serviceable $500 sack suits in favor of foreign models with $1,000-plus price tags. ''You didn't see traders in Brooks Brothers,'' says Gregory Luther, 30, a vice president at J.P. Morgan. ''I associate Brooks Brothers with accountants.'' Nor was the decade a high point in the store's long and illustrious history. Since its founding in 1818, Brooks Brothers has prided itself on its innovations, which run the gamut from introducing button-down collars to the United States at the turn of the century to conferring respectability on Dacron- and cotton-blend dress shirts in the 1950's. (Among other distinctions: Abraham Lincoln, a regular customer, was assassinated while wearing a Brooks Brothers suit.) Milestones were missing from most of the 80's. The store, which has 53 outlets nationwide and a hefty operation in Japan, had also changed hands three times during the same period. It went to its present owner, the British retail giant Marks & Spencer, in 1988.

Meanwhile, the man who shopped the neighborhood had begun to change. He may still align himself with the attitudes of America's upper crust, but he's less than likely to have hailed from it, or even to have attended an Ivy League college.''Brooks Brothers has a certain image of old money and conservative views, and I'm comfortable with that,'' says Michael Sarlin, 43, an Ithaca College alumnus who is now an insurance executive. ''I want my clothes to say I'm a man of sound judgment and experience.'' Richard Press of J. Press Clothiers says: ''Our customer could have gone to CCNY or Oklahoma. He ends up at Goldman, Sachs. He's gotta blend in.''

Brooks Brothers now seems well aware that its business is not tied solely to scions of old WASP families. The president, William V. Roberti, still sports a big red-stoned ring from Southern Methodist University, where he received his M.B.A. in finance. ''I'm certainly not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and I'm running the place,'' he says.

To signal a shift from standard operating procedure, Brooks Brothers unveiled a renovation of its Madison Avenue flagship last October. While the face lift did involve reorganization and refurbishment (not to mention finally installing escalators in the 1913 building), it may be most noteworthy as a $7 million metaphor for the store's strategy: to draw new customers in a dignified way and, at the same time, reassure the regulars that Brooks Brothers will never betray them.

''This is 1990 - you can't afford to ignore your customers,'' says Roberti. Which implies keeping up with the fads and fancies that flourish within even the most staid spheres. Late last year, for the first time since the 50's, Brooks Brothers offered pleated pants with suits. Roberti almost winces when he admits, ''We were a bit slow in recognizing that as a trend.''

A similar slip-up is unlikely. Brooks Brothers is already poised for the coming vogue in English-influenced clothing, as softer Savile Row suits replace strident striped shirts and strong shoulders as the ''power look.'' among financial movers and shakers. ''In a financial area, you tend to dress like your superiors,'' observes Luther, whose own tastes changed after a stint in J.P. Morgan's London office. Luther classifies his own clothing as English-influenced. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the current CEO of his company, Dennis Weatherstone, is English.) Likewise, even though the forthcoming film of Tom Wolfe's novel, ''Bonfire of the Vanities,'' is set in the Reagan era, Ann Roth, the costume designer, plans to dress Tom Hanks, the star, in suits with double vents and high lapels, ''strongly influenced by Savile Row.'' The sack suit, she says, ''was not worn by the high-profile guys who defined the 80's,'' whereas ''the stripey shirt and slick suit is already too much of a cliche.''

Brooks Brothers' take on all this, the ''English model,'' ranging from $400 to $600, renders the costly Savile-Row silhouette with slightly padded shoulders and a darted front in either a three-button style with a center vent or a two-button version with side vents. Both come with pleated pants. What's more, the store sells shirts to go with them. Tab-collar shirts were introduced last Father's Day. ''Then I noticed that the Jermyn Street-style spread collar was one of the best-selling dress shirts in Europe, so we introduced our own on November 1,'' says Roberti. ''That's the kind of thing we have to do.''

Even the cut of the clothes was re-examined. The store had always offered suits with a five-inch drop. (Translated from tailors' jargon, a drop is the difference between chest and waist measurements.) That meant that a man with a 42-inch chest was expected to wear 37-inch pants, an inch or two more than most other makers allowed. A little over a year ago, when the store began to offer alternatives, sometimes the difference wasn't enough. Scott Dunn, 21, a computer analyst, fell head over heels for the ''moneyed Republican look'' of Brooks Brothers, and then couldn't find a suit that could be altered to his 10-inch drop. ''I was so frustrated,'' he recalls, ''that I considered bribing the guy to break a suit.''

As of this spring, Dunn won't need to. Brooks Brothers now offers the ''Wardrobe'' option, which includes unpaired jackets and pants in matching materials, so that a man can shop for a suit the same way a woman does. Says Carlo Quintilliani, the vice president of clothing: ''We're getting away from the restrictions on who can buy our clothes.''

Sportswear is under scrutiny, too. Taking Tiffany's, the 153-year-old American retailer, as his inspiration , Roberti is trying to develop items that stretch the Brooks Brothers image without shattering it. Particularly dear to his heart is the success of last fall's $595 leather field jacket, which was advertised with a large color photograph. ''It was sold to younger guys,'' he crows. ''You never would have thought Brooks Brothers would have leather.''

Says Annie Brumbaugh, an image consultant who owns the Manhattan-based Wardrobe Works: ''Brooks still signifies a very comfortable, hail-fellow-well-met, straight and narrow man. But they're smart to realize that fashion is much more of an issue. They have to worry about what the guys down the block are doing.''

Around the corner, if not down the block, J. Press is reveling in the exact image Brooks Brothers is trying to shed, offering only suits with plain-front pants and natural-shoulder jackets. According to Richard Press, an expiring lease and a ''shabby premises that was starting to look like the beer room of a fraternity'' inspired the opening of the present location on September 11. ''We wanted it to look like the admissions office of an Ivy League school,'' says Press, who runs the store for Onward Kashiyama, the Japanese owner. Given to carping at his competitors, he notes: ''They offer inappropriate modes of fashion . . . striped shirts with a striped suit and a striped tie. It's simply wrong.''

Across the street at Paul Stuart, Clifford Grodd, the president, dressed in a striped shirt with a striped suit and a polka-dot tie, explains that his store began updating its merchandise as early as 1958. At the privately-owned business, fashion is still a four-letter word, although Grodd admits he hears it often to describe his whimsical window displays and international inspirations. ''We change much more subtly than the word 'fashion' suggests,'' he asserts. ''After all, our symbol is the man on the fence.''

Up the block at F.R. Tripler, a specialty store owned by Hartmarx, the giant men's wear company, the clientele ''is not of the entrepreneurial ilk, but of the corporate ilk,'' according to David Butler, the sales manager. ''Marketing studies show that our customer is a 52-year-old corporate executive,'' he says, describing his typical best seller as a darted Hickey-Freeman wool suit with unobtrusive shoulders and lapels. Nevertheless, Tripler is planning to reintroduce a $450 to $500 sack suit in the fall. ''We're trying to create a niche for the aspirer,'' Butler adds.

Back at Brooks Brothers, Roberti is already betting on a return to more down-to-earth values. ''We went through a phase where the yuppies were buying Rolexes and BMW's and Armani power suits,'' he says, ''but I think now we're going back to the 60's, when, instead of a sports car, everyone drove a Volkswagen.''

GRAPHIC: Photos of Brooks Brothers storefront (Nick Vaccaro) (pg. 62); At Brooks Brothers' refurbished headquarters, the customer can buy clothing with a softer silhouette and accessories with more style. Shown here, an unconstructed linen blazer, slouchy cotton cardigan sweater, slightly bold shirt and tie, pleated khaki pants and a leather knapsack; J. Press has a new, sleek location that is nevertheless steeped in tradition. The merchandise adheres to the classics, as seen in this tropical-weight wool suit and oxford-cloth shirt. The ties offer a subtle flair (Mark Platt) (pg. 63)
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