By  on June 30, 2008

There's nothing sheepish about Black Fleece at Brooks Brothers. In fact, the approach seems bullish.

The first Black Fleece by Brooks Bros. freestanding store will open in mid-October at 351 Bleecker Street on the corner of 10th Street in New York.

And the agreement with Thom Browne, who launched Black Fleece in fall 2007, has been extended so he continues as the collection's guest designer through the spring 2011 season.

"This has been a highly visible project for us. From the initial concept through the product development, Thom has helped us achieve our goal of bringing a new dimension to Brooks Bros.," said Claudio Del Vecchio, Brooks Bros. chairman and chief executive. "He has a great talent for reinterpreting our iconic products in a very modern manner."

The decision to advance the collection is rather surprising considering year one wasn't entirely smooth. Women's sales didn't live up to expectations, and Thom Browne Inc. was dogged by reports the high-profile designer was seeking an investor as a solution to cash-flow problems. A spokeswoman for Thom Browne Inc. on Friday said the reports were only half true. Browne is interested in finding an investor to grow the business, but there's no financial pressures requiring that he find one, she said.

"There really is no financial problem," the spokeswoman said. "Certainly, he has reached a point where he would like to have an investor, and has had several opportunities. If it's going to be a partnership, it has to be the right fit. He's not interested in huge volumes, but would love to grow. The idea came from potential investors. They had been coming to him."

Black Fleece, Brooks Bros.' most expensive and fashion-forward collection, is currently sold at 30 of the chain's stores in the U.S. as well as at the company's international flagships in London, Milan, Paris, Hong Kong and at Brooks Bros. in Japan. There's been success on the men's side, and good reaction overseas, particularly in Japan at a Black Fleece shop-in-shop in Isetan.

It's the impetus for opening the 1,700-square-foot freestanding Bleecker Street unit, which will have signature design elements inspired by the Black Fleece department inside the Brooks Bros. flagship at 346 Madison Ave., including antiques, ebonized furniture, black decorative objects and custom gray flannel upholstery. However, the product will be presented in a more simplified format than what's seen at Brooks Bros. locations.Del Vecchio said Bleecker Street was chosen for Black Fleece because there's "a charm, sophistication and historic atmosphere to the neighborhood that lends itself to the spirit of Black Fleece."

The store is a test, and until it proves successful, there's no expansion planned, though the Americana Manhasset shopping center on Long Island, where Brooks Bros. operates a store, and Los Angeles are being considered. "We are looking at other locations, but we don't have a formalized plan for a rollout. Our number-one priority is to develop the label in our Brooks Bros. stores," said Lou Amendola, Brooks Bros.' chief merchandising officer.

Asked to characterize the performance of Black Fleece in its first two seasons, Amendola replied: "We have been very pleased with the overall results of the project, and actually very happy in total, when you take into account international, specifically Japan."

Initial projections called for Black Fleece to add $10 million to Brooks Bros.' $800 million in annual sales, but Amendola declined to comment on volume.

He did acknowledge "the breakdown in men's has been stronger than women for the first two seasons. If you remember, we thought it could be 50-50 or 60 to 40. The business has been about 80 [percent] men's, 20 [percent] women's for the first two seasons. Obviously, we have some very, very strong sell-throughs on the men's side, in regards to suits, shirts and ties. And this spring, the knitwear and the sportswear have been strong, as well."

Brooks Bros. men's suits range from $600 to $2,400, whereas Black Fleece men's suits start at $2,700, with plaid suits being the bestseller. Seersuckers and all-cotton khaki suits have also sold well.

In women's last fall, "We did find that some of the fabrics were a little too heavy and the construction details were also heavy in women's," Amendola said. "We started to make changes this past spring and [for] the fall season and we have noticed a much stronger reaction. The silhouette and the looks are more iconic Brooks Bros. and the proportion and the fit is a little more youthful, but the look is still very much Brooks Bros.""In any new project, you have to make changes along the way," Amendola added. "Brooks Bros. and Thom Browne said things need to be changed, but they are easy to change and we are both in agreement. Brooks Bros. is committed to Black Fleece."

This spring in women's, bestsellers in Black Fleece include navy cotton pique regatta jackets with red and white tipping, $2,100; white cotton cricket vests with black trims for $500, and Black Irish linen button-back crop sleeve tunics and matching skirts, for $1,500.

For fall, Black Fleece is banking on long double-breasted Chesterfield camel coats for $3,500; argyle knit cashmere capes for $800; hooded navy wool duffle coats for $2,700, and button-down sleeveless cape dresses, for $1,900.

Aside from bringing a designer cachet to Brooks Bros., Black Fleece has given "tremendous positive awareness of the Brooks Bros. brand internationally, especially Japan," Amendola said. The shop in Isetan, on the designer floor, "has exceeded its sales projection, and also editorially, it gives us something more to talk about."

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