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The button-down girls of Brooks Brothers

Brooks Brothers, which celebrates 200 years this year, brings together quality, rebellion and the Audrey Hepburn effect for its women's line

Audrey Hepburn in a pink Oxford cloth button-down. Photo Courtesy ‘Brooks Brothers: 200 years of American style (Rizzoli)’
Audrey Hepburn in a pink Oxford cloth button-down. Photo Courtesy ‘Brooks Brothers: 200 years of American style (Rizzoli)’

She prefers a pair of tight red slacks and a pink Brooks shirt to anything in her closet.

It is this line from one of the many 20th century style profiles of Audrey Hepburn (“The Secret To Audrey Hepburn’s Charm", Contact, July 1954) that informed my visit to the Brooks Brothers’ flagship store on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. I knew I had to leave the store with the pink button-down Oxford shirt.

I ended up leaving with multiple shirts—including a “fun shirt", a multicoloured creation from the 1970s when scraps of cloth found on the factory floors were used to teach workers how to make the Brooks Brothers polo shirt—but with far more stories than shirts, not all of which related to the women’s department. From a new coffee-table book, Brooks Brothers: 200 Years Of American Style, published by Rizzoli, I already knew, for instance, that the brand that prides itself on its all-American heritage has dressed 40 out of 45 American presidents. But at the store was the “Lincoln mirror", a majestic oval mirror mounted with a swivel to capture the full span of the 6ft, 4inches statesman, a regular customer. The Fitzgerald Fit? It was named after JFK. And what about the literary Fitzgerald? I ask a store manager. “He almost exclusively wore Brooks Brothers.... We did all the clothing for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby too," he says. I remember the pastel shirts being thrown around by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the iconic scene from the movie, meant to be an extravagant demonstration of his wealth. And in the television series Mad Men, the lead character Don Draper, played by actor Jon Hamm, wears the classic Brooks Brothers No.1 sack suit, which is on permanent display in the store window.

Since opening its doors on 7 April 1818 in New York City, Brooks Brothers has grown from a small family haberdasher to become a global brand. America’s oldest clothier turns 200 this year, and, two weeks ago, I was in New York at the invitation of the brand to witness the celebrations. Later that evening, I would attend the black-tie gala in Jazz at Lincoln Center for 1,000 of its most prized customers, friends and celebrity guests. It was meant to be America’s original music art form for America’s original clothing brand: The jazz programme, produced by the Center’s artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, was a good enough draw. But the evening turned out to be an ensemble of several exceptional musicians, including Alison Krauss, Jon Batiste and the Dap Kings...and a surprise performance by Paul Simon! Almost all of them were dressed in Brooks on stage.

Before the trip, I had met Darshan Mehta, president and chief executive of Reliance Brands, which retails the brand in India (the first Brooks Brothers store opened in 2013 in Delhi and there are at present 10 across the country), at his office in Mumbai. Mehta, who is as particular about his bow ties as his bottomlines, had pointed out that the best way to judge the quality of a shirt brand is to inspect its striped shirt design. “See if the stripes on the body, placket and pocket align seamlessly with each other." Mehta was measuring out coffee with such precision as he said this that it just reinforced his comment.

At the store in New York, I was confronted with an array of dress shirts, now available in about 1,000 varieties (yes, the striped shirts pass Mehta’s test). While the brand offers the whole range of menswear, shirts account for about 30% of sales in the US. The number is higher in India, at 45%. In keeping with contemporary trends and a younger, more silhouette-conscious clientele, dress shirts for men come in four fits: the Traditional, the Madison, the Regent, and the slimmest, the Milano, priced from $80 (in India, the dress shirts range from Rs6,990-9,990). If the prices appear surprising, it’s because the brand has always believed it’s “not for the rich but for the successful". You can get the shirts monogrammed on the shop floor for a small fee—a feature that is available gratis in their India stores.

Raiders of the men’s department

The first floor of the four-floor flagship store is now dedicated to womenswear—suits and dresses apart from shirts, which come in Classic, Fitted and Tailored (the brand does not offer womenswear in its India stores yet). But this wasn’t always the case. In the book, the brand’s official historian, Kelly Stuart-Johnson, recounts how, when the polo coat was introduced in 1910, girls from the upscale Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut began buying them in the boys’ department and wearing them oversized. Over the next three decades, women began raiding the men’s department with alarming frequency, with girls from East Coast colleges adopting the trend for men’s sweaters and “mannish jackets in misses sizes". It wasn’t until 1949, after recognizing that women were buying men’s pink button-down shirts by the dozens and depleting their stocks, that Brooks Brothers finally relented and fit the classic polo shirt to a woman’s size. It is a delightful story of women’s collective sartorial perseverance.

“In the end, after months of soul-searching, we resolved to risk a restyled pink shirt for women," John C. Wood, then president of Brooks Brothers, told his customers. “We are definitely not in the women’s clothing business. Thus far shall we go and no further." Vogue was roped in to fine-tune the pink shirt for women. It appeared on the cover of the magazine’s college issue in August 1949 and an instant best-seller was born.

But despite Brooks Brothers’ efforts to appeal to the female customer with resized silhouettes, women kept crashing the boys’ club, buying everything from Indian Madras shirts to flannel robes, knee socks, silk shorts and Bermuda shorts. Silk pocket squares began to be printed in new patterns as a concession to women’s tastes (worn as headbands or scarves). “In many ways, the story of how the women’s collection came to be is the story of how women convinced a store that had been called ‘the last stronghold of the American Male’ to sell women’s clothing. Depending on whom you ask, this war of attrition began in 1949, when we introduced the pink shirt, or in 1976, when we created a dedicated space in our Madison Avenue flagship to women’s clothing. Neither date tells the whole story," writes Stuart-Johnson. There was Audrey Hepburn, of course, who bestowed an iconic status on their shirts but the patronage of other icons such as Katharine Hepburn (a frequent visitor to the slacks department) and Marlene Dietrich (partial to the dressing gowns) also fuelled the craze.

The original disruptors

To better understand the pink button-down Oxford shirt, we have to first understand the Original Polo Button-Down Oxford shirt. One of Brooks Brothers’ most enduring disruptions to menswear has been the soft-collared button-down polo shirt. It was revolutionary at the time for being comfortable and washable, unlike the detachable linen collars and cuffs worn then. John E. Brooks, the founder’s grandson, had spotted the style on a polo player in England in 1896. Players tacked down their collars so they wouldn’t flap in the wind. Brooks replaced the stitched-down collars with small buttons. The objective was to get the “perfect bit of collar roll that distinguishes the ultimate Oxford refinement". The shirt was introduced in white, but by the 1920s, pastel colours had become fashionable, with pale blue, yellow and pink taking off.

Though it is known today as a “classic" brand, it is interesting to note that the brand’s founder, Henry Sands Brooks (1772-1833), was no traditionalist. A dandy himself, he was always on the lookout for the newest styles. Most of the items labelled classic today were the result of innovation for their time. Brooks Brothers is responsible for the introduction or popularization of iconic items such as the navy blazer, argyle socks, foulard ties and the polo coat. The brand created what we now know as the Ivy League look. They were also the first to sell ready-to-wear suits, born from the need to cater to people migrating from one coast to the other during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. More recently, they have introduced non-iron shirts and the incredibly flattering “shrunken tuxedo" silhouette. For the company itself though, the introduction of womenswear was possibly one of the biggest disruptions.

The morning after the gala, I meet Claudio Del Vecchio, the brand’s chairman and CEO, at the headquarters on the upper floors of the flagship store. A young male office assistant stands with a tray of coffees for people getting out of elevators. It’s back to business for the team that has spent close to a year planning the gala. There are, after all, apart from product and strategy, other bicentennial parties to plan, including one this month in China. “We need to be successful in India and China...those are the countries that can drive bigger growth for us," says Del Vecchio, who bought the brand from Marks & Spencer in 2001 and nursed it back to its former glory, reversing a low period in the late 1990s.

Why did a historic and constantly self-innovating brand like Brooks Brothers need a fashion magazine to learn about women’s fits? I ask Del Vecchio. He laughs. “I can only guess as I wasn’t there then...but in the mind of the consumer, the magazine had credibility and knowledge and it helped seal the image," he says. Del Vecchio, on his part, is responsible for hiring Zac Posen, who has been the brand’s womenswear designer since 2016. “We were happy with what we were designing but we realized that this company has a men’s heritage and a men’s DNA and although we think we know about women, it’s not at the level we need to be if we want to be successful. So we started at the top," he adds.

Whether it comes to its newfangled experiments with womenswear or other innovations, Del Vecchio pins it down to always having been “a curious brand". “That’s the reason we are here for 200 years, because we have always taken risks. We might have a great past but we have to create our future every day," he says.

A big surprise while walking around the store was dress sneakers in the shoe department and the BAGA (buy anywhere get anywhere) approach that allows store managers to pull inventory from anywhere. It is evident that the historic brand is eager to be au courant. The brand’s coffee shop in the basement of their Flatiron store in Manhattan sells cold brew coffee from the hip brand Stumptown on tap. Online sales are now one of the company’s fastest-growing categories both in the US and in India.

Under Del Vecchio’s charge, Brooks Brothers has expanded to 280 stores in the US and more than 700 locations internationally in 47 countries. Till 2002, it operated internationally only in Japan, which is still its biggest overseas market.

While material sourcing and manufacturing is spread around the world, the Oxford shirt remains a highlight. It is “Made in America", manufactured in one of the brand’s three factories in the US, in Garland, North Carolina, where 250 workers produce the classic $140 (around Rs9,430) shirt.

I ask Del Vecchio if walking the tightrope of capitalizing on heritage and innovating continuously is a business challenge or an asset. “I see it as an asset, especially in today’s social media driven world which is all about telling stories...we actually have the stories," he says.

The story of how women broke down the walls of an all-male haven is my personal favourite.


The India Imprint

Brooks Brothers was the first brand to introduce Madras prints and seersucker suits to the American market, both of which became preppy staples. They imported Madras, a cotton fabric, from India in the early 1920s. And, later in the decade, they began experimenting with lighter-weight fabrics like seersucker, which they called the “Palm Beach" cloth.

“Seersucker (a portmanteau of the Persian words for milk and sugar to describe its crinkled texture) was something the brand didn’t invent but they were the ones to popularize it," says Darshan Mehta, president and chief executive of Reliance Brands, which retails Brooks Brothers in India. “It’s absorbent, lightweight, breathable and perfect for Indian weather conditions but it’s still not very popular here." A third, more tenuous link, is the Bengal stripes print, so called because the pattern mimics the stripes of a Bengal tiger.

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