By and  on August 27, 2007

NEW YORK — Will the sales match the hype? That inevitable question is about to be answered.

After months of press and preparation, Thom Browne's Black Fleece collection for Brooks Brothers will make its debut on the sales floor on Sept. 10, meaning the financial success or failure of the line will soon be measurable. "Now it comes down to ringing the register," said Lou Amendola, Brooks Bros.' chief merchandising officer.

Initial projections call for Black Fleece to add $10 million to Brooks Bros.' $800 million in annual sales. The collection of men's and women's wear, which will be carried in 30 U.S. stores as well as six units overseas, will be the retailer's most expensive offering. Prices for Black Fleece will average some 30 to 40 percent higher than traditional Brooks Bros. merchandise. For example, the top suit price in the Golden Fleece collection is $1,900, while Black Fleece suits will range from $2,700 to $2,900.

Brooks Bros. already has tried out the collection in a trunk show held Aug. 21 to 23 on the sixth floor of its Madison Avenue flagship here. Between 40 and 50 customers made personal appointments with Thom Browne each day. This was an opportunity for customers to buy pieces from the first delivery as well as preorder for the later fall deliveries.

"We were very pleased with women's reactions to the collection," said Amendola. "We saw many of our existing customers as well as many new ones. Women typically bought head-to-toe looks. There was very little price resistance as she really appreciated the quality and construction of the clothes with their full canvas construction and handmade detailing."

Bestsellers included a sleeveless pencil button back dress in herringbone wool, priced at $1,500; a double-breasted herringbone pantsuit, priced at $2,300 for the jacket and $800 for the pants; a dove grey cashmere coat dress with a grey flannel and voile accordion pleated skirt, at $1,900 and $1,800; a long cashmere cardigan sweater, $1,000, and a pleat-front high-waist skirt in navy pinstripe wool, $900. There were also several preorders on a Donegal tweed pantsuit with "fleece" embroidery, $2,900 and $1,500.

As for men's, "the reaction has been very, very strong," said Amendola. He noted that on the first day of the preview sales of Black Fleece on its own equaled the daily sales goal of the entire Madison Avenue store. He declined to provide a figure. In addition, on the second day of the preview, the top sales associate in the store was a Black Fleece associate.Amendola said that only about 30 percent of the collection was available in inventory at the trunk show, so many customers left orders for the future. "There was an enormous amount of pre-selling," he said. That was especially true in women's. "Women wanted the entire outfit, so they ordered it."

Amendola said the customers attending the preview broke down into about 50 percent Brooks Bros. customers, with the balance either Thom Browne's current customers or those who have admired what he did but had not had the occasion to purchase it in the past. "Black Fleece is more slender than what we do, and it alludes to [Thom's] expression without being severe," Amendola said.

And although the advance viewing was only available in New York, "all of our stores were getting calls," said Claudio Del Vecchio, chairman and chief executive officer of the 189-year-old retailer.

Browne is also planning to make personal appearances in several cities, including New York; Chicago; Beverly Hills; San Francisco; Boston; Manhasset, N.Y., and Short Hills, N.J. — as well as in London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Milan this fall.

Calling it "an international project," Del Vecchio said the collection has garnered "tremendous visibility in Italy, France, London and Japan. In fact, Isetan in Japan liked the collection so much that it will have a dedicated Black Fleece boutique. We won't even have one in our stores."

Del Vecchio said that now that he and his team have actually seen the finished product, he's "more optimistic" than he was when the company announced the collaboration. Noting that the association with Browne was hatched as a "p.r. effort" designed to "attract new customers and support from the press," it has become much more. "We got all of that and a real solid collection," Del Vecchio said.

Browne was also pleased with the way the 150-piece collection turned out. "This was a year in the making, but I'm really, really happy," he said at the preview. "When you go into production with something like this, you never know for sure. But the quality is terrific, and the fit is just the way we wanted it to be."In September, Black Fleece will get its own home on the third floor of the Madison Avenue store, with both men's and women's merchandised together. "It's a collection, so it should be housed together," Browne said. "I'm glad that it's going to be shown and merchandised on the same floor."

Brooks Bros. is spending a reported $7 million — the largest print ad campaign in its history — to promote Black Fleece and the Brooks Bros. brand this fall. Twenty-four-page inserts will run in the September issues of Departures and Vogue, and there will be one million inserts in newspapers around the country, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. Of the 24 pages, 18 are devoted to Brooks Bros.' traditional merchandise and history, while seven are dedicated to Black Fleece. A 12-page insert will run in Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ and other magazines.

The same newspaper inserts, printed on coated stock, will run in European newspapers for the first time, Amendola said.

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