Earlier this week, Brooks Brothers, America’s clothier that has dressed men since 1818, filed for bankruptcy as it struggled with debts amid the coronavirus crisis. With clients ranging from Abraham Lincoln, Andy Warhol to Barack Obama, the Brooks Brothers suits were almost always present when history was being made.
A look at how the iconic retailer survived two centuries but eventually succumbed to the pandemic.
The ultimate ‘Made In America’ brand
A Brooks Brothers suit was trendy way before the question ‘who are you wearing’ started doing the rounds at red carpet events and elsewhere. Having dressed 41 US presidents, it has been the ‘unofficial couturier’ of the US government for a long time.
The clothing giant has its roots in a small family-run business, which started from a corner store in Manhattan, New York in 1818. Initially called H. & D. H. Brooks & Co, by Henry Sands Brooks, the clothing store’s mission statement was “To make and deal only in merchandise of the finest body, to sell it at a fair profit, and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise”.
In 1850, when the founding patriarch passed away, the name was changed to Brooks Brothers by his four sons who took over the mantle. The brand took great pride in using cotton — which at that point in time was harvested by slaves. They also made uniforms for some of the more high-profile regiments of the New York National Guard and officers of the Union during the American Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was dubbed a ‘loyal customer’ by Brooks Brothers and, at his second inauguration, Lincoln wore a custom-made frock coat, whose lining had a hand-sewn design of an eagle and the words ‘One Country, One Destiny’ inscribed. Lincoln was wearing the very same coat when he was assassinated in 1865 while watching a play.
Keeping up with the times
The clothing brand was the first to introduce ready-to-wear suits for those who were encumbered by the time needed to stitch a new one from scratch. The year was 1894 and the US was teeming with those who wanted to make their fortune with the Gold Rush. Over the decades, the brand introduced many new styles to the US, like the button-down collar shirts, Harris Tweed, Shetlandedd sweater and summer suits made of seersucker. Over the decades, Brooks Brothers cemented their place in American society and became the go-to wardrobe for preppies and yuppies. Brooks Brothers kept up with the times, with branching into casual, sports and womens wear.
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The company has changed ownership many times, with the likes of Julius Garfinckel & Co, and Marks and Spencer helming it at various points. Currently, Claudio del Vecchio, an Italian tycoon, owns the The Brooks Brothers Group, as a private company.
Falling out of fashion, finally
Facing stiff competition from online brands and a larger, global shift to a more casual style of clothing, Brooks Brothers saw their sales plateauing in recent years. With more and more people opting for business casual and casual chic as their go-to work attire, the need for stiff, formal work wear began declining. Between 2017 and 2019, the retailer made a total of one-billion USD. The brand had 210 stores in the US and 70 across the globe. In May 2020, there were talks of the clothing retailer seeking a buyer, and there were also rumours about them closing their three American factories.
On July 8, they filed for bankruptcy under the Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy code. They had attributed the move to the increasing decline in their sales and the economic slump caused by the pandemic.
Others also in trouble
The Brooks Brothers, who survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and 41 US presidents, could not survive the economic fallout of the pandemic. Globally, numerous fashion houses are trying to make sense of this new world order where people are forced to be indoors and no one is buying new clothes as they focus only on essential items.
Brooks Brothers is one of the many brands to be hit. Neiman Marcus, the luxury department stores chain, filed for bankruptcy protection in March, which resulted in them shutting down many stores. World over, luxury fashion houses are considering something they had never done before — a sale on their premium products. Fashion week calendars have been recalibrated and many designers are slowing down and producing fewer collections. Luxury offerings everywhere are taking a beating. Bed, Bath and Beyond announced they will close 200 of their stores over the next two years. Victoria’s Secret and Nordstorm, though they haven’t filed for bankruptcy, have plans to close many of their stores.
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