By  on November 16, 2005

Claudio Del Vecchio is a master of the juggling act.

After purchasing the venerable Brooks Brothers chain in 2001, the president and chief executive officer of Retail Brand Alliance Inc. took a giant leap forward to return the battered chain to its former glory while never losing sight of its nearly 200 years of history.

In the past four years, he has significantly upgraded the merchandise mix, spiffed-up stores, expanded overseas and added several product categories. Although he acknowledged there's still work to be done — notably in the women's wear arena — his determination is paying off in higher-quality offerings and a more efficient shopping experience.

In a presentation titled "Brooks Brothers: 187 Years of Innovation and Change," Del Vecchio said the company is not good because it is old, but rather old because it is good. "At Brooks Brothers, we have a healthy respect for the past," he said, "but we're not completely influenced by it. We view our history as ‘an inventory of experience' to be drawn upon to meet the challenges of today."

Brooks Brothers is "a vital, dynamic, living organization," he added, with "very good genes."

Founded by Henry Sands Brooks in 1818 — "a time of tremendous change and opportunity" — the company was a pioneer in the transatlantic exchange of merchandising ideas and fashion trends. That connection still exists today, with Brooks Brothers stores currently in operation in Asia and Italy and on the drawing board for the U.K. This month, Del Vecchio said, Brooks will open its first store in London, with a second one on tap within the next year. "It might have taken us almost 188 years to get there, but it was inevitable and, at last, we made it," he said.

Del Vecchio attributed the company's survival over the years to "one of the most beautifully articulated and longest-running mission statements in American business history: "to make and deal only in merchandise of the finest quality, to sell it at a fair profit and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise."

In the late 1840s, the first American department stores sprung up in New York, and by the end of the century they dominated American retailing. Not to be outdone, Brooks opened its now-legendary flagship at 346 Madison Avenue, which Del Vecchio called "the final step in the elevation of Brooks Brothers to iconic status."

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