NEW YORK — For Brooks Bros., this fall won’t be a make-or-break season, financially speaking. Yet, in terms of image and customer acceptance, it’s as crucial as any in the retailer’s 185-year history.

The $600 million specialty chain, bought by Retail Brand Alliance Inc. in December 2001 from Marks & Spencer for the bargain price of $225 million, is returning to its suit-and-tie roots. It’s added $50 million in inventory for the fall, projects an 8 to 9 percent comp-store gain for the season and by mid-September, virtually 100 percent of the inventory on the shelves will have been remade through different sourcing and designs, a process that to a limited degree was first evident in the stores last spring. Gone are the two-ply Mexican-made cashmeres, replaced by Italian three-ply wool versions.

“Absolutely, we looked at everything — from socks, underwear, down to the belts and hats,” said Claudio Del Vecchio, president and chief executive officer of RBA.

Certain personnel were included in the overhaul. Soon after the acquisition, Del Vecchio disbanded the Brooks Bros. design team and began relying heavily on suppliers for design creativity, including Martin Greenfield, considered a master suit maker. Otherwise, the “spine” of the management team remained on board, he said.

Other specialty retailers are also on a mission to return to their roots. J. Crew has brought back its iconic barn jacket, rollneck sweaters, and a cleaned up, less heavily merchandised catalog. The bankrupt Eddie Bauer plans to emphasize its original active, outdoor lifestyle appeal. Lord & Taylor is closing 32 of its 86 stores to once again focus on its Northern roots and higher-grade fashion, while Gap is back to basics.

Gap is furthest along in its transformation, though this fall, all eyes also will be on Brooks Bros. as it gets deep into its own revival, reemphasizing such items as men’s Shetland sweaters, priced at $69.50; Fair Isles for $89.50; three-piece suits at around $1,400; camel hair polo coats, $1,200, and goat suede vests priced at $198.

In women’s, there’s a reemphasis on navy blazers, priced at $298; camel hair blazers, $398; gray pinstripe wool suiting with pants, $168, and jackets for $278, and novelty sweaters in wool and cashmere at various prices.?Asked if this is a pivotal season, Del Vecchio replied: “From a consumer standpoint, yes. From a financial situation, no, even if we don’t have a great year. If we can get confirmation from customers that we are on the right path, from that point of view it will be a great season. Eventually, the economy will get better. Today [the company] is in great shape. The only thing we don’t have is the final confirmation that we are going in the right direction.

“We are very optimistic about having a good season, projecting high-single-digit increases on a comp basis, 8 to 9 percent. People are certainly dressing more formally now than three years ago.”

In addition to the merchandise, the spotlight is on Brooks Bros. retailing. Twohigh-profile openings happen next month, a two-level unit in the Americana Manhasset on Long Island on Sept. 8, and on Rodeo Drive around the middle of September.

Down the road, Brooks Bros., which operates 80 retail stores and 80 outlets, might rethink having two flagships in Manhattan. There’s the 40,000-square-foot Madison Avenue unit and the 22,000-square-foot Fifth Avenue unit, which cannibalize revenues from each other. The more traditional Madison Avenue store once generated $60 million in annual sales. It’s down to between $45 million and $50 million, and the two stores do a combined $70 million in volume. For now, however, there are no anticipated changes.

Asked about the dual-flagship strategy in Manhattan, Del Vecchio replied: “For now, we have no choice, but they are both very good stores,” with Madison being representative of the brand’s heritage and Fifth Avenue still attracting lots of customers. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with [the strategy],” Del Vecchio said. “Both stores are profitable.”

Outside Manhattan, “there are probably a couple of stores that need to be closed, but in most cases, we are very happy with the real estate,” Del Vecchio said. Other openings are slated for Richmond, Va.; South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, Calif., and downtown Seattle. “We don’t have any immediate closings, actually,” Del Vecchio added.The Madison Avenue flagship on Sept. 9 kicks off the company’s 185th anniversary celebration, which will benefit the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance. Hosted by Katie Couric and Del Vecchio, it will feature an in-store performance by Wynton Marsalis. Other stores in top Brooks Bros. markets will participate, as well. Commemorative scarves and ties have been designed. Twenty percent of sales of the scarves and ties will be donated to the charity. Also, a charity shopping card will be distributed, with 10 percent of all purchases going to the charity

“There are different aspects of the remaking of Brooks Brothers — product, real estate, image and service, but the number one priority was to fix the product,” explained Del Vecchio. Of the various aspects, “product is probably closest to where we want to be. Our fall collection for men’s is beautiful, we just reintroduced Brooks Boys a couple of weeks ago. Boys is very much a mirror image of the men’s collection,” with similar colors, fabrics and yarns. About two weeks ago, the company mailed out 250,000 editions of a boys’ catalog. Boys’ is usually just included in the regular Brooks Bros. catalog.

Discussing women’s wear, Del Vecchio said that part of the business has improved probably the most by using fabrics and construction closer to the men’s caliber. “Prices in the women’s are going up. Before, we had jackets in the Ann Taylor range. We are not as high as bridge yet, but we are not as low as Ann Taylor. We’re kind of in between, at lower bridge from a price standpoint, though it’s really a bridge quality.” Basic black separates, gray flannel suits, “things that were not in the line lately,” have been reintroduced. Women’s, as a percent of the total volume, remains at 15 percent, the same as a year ago, and growth goals seem less ambitious. “Of course, we expect women’s to increase, probably to 20 percent and to be more consistent with our allocation of space in the store today,” Del Vecchio said.

In men’s, Del Vecchio said the company has made “a major effort to come back to major staples — jackets and suits. Suit prices start at $600, and with the luxury collection, called Golden Fleece, are priced at $1,000 to $1,500. It’s all hand-tailored, made in the U.S. by Martin Greenfield, or in Italy, with various makers. Brooks Bros. also is investing in a made-to-measure program. In that service, fabrics typically cost $100 a yard, meaning suits will have about $1,000 in fabrics. By the time they’re cut and put together, the suits can cost $2,500. In most men’s categories, Del Vecchio said prices didn’t go up since production is now with fewer vendors, enabling the company to negotiate lower prices off bigger orders.The company’s turnaround largely rests on a return to formal dressing, and declining casualization. Del Vecchio believes casualization in the work place has maxed out. “The question is how fast the pendulum goes the other way,” he said, adding that in New York, some financial companies, like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, require suits again. Del Vecchio said he met some younger workers at financial companies who, on their first job interviews, didn’t wear a suit. Brooks Bros. recently started to tap corporate customers and human resource departments to help them develop new dress codes, and has been in talks with Deloitte Touche, as well as small law firms and banking firms.

Discussing some of the other Retail Brand Alliance properties, he said the economy affected Casual Corner more than other brands, but, in the last couple of months, seems to have gotten better. For the fiscal year which closes at the end of July, the division was down in the single digits.

At Adrienne Vittadini, 25 stores were opened in the past year, and three more should open this fall. The first three clearance outlets also are expected to be opened. Just a couple of leases have been signed for 2004 openings. There won’t be more than five. “The brand is doing very well,” he said, with total volume at about $70 million to $80 million, with retail stores accounting for about $20 million. The company wholesales licensed Vittadini products.

For RBA overall, “we are not concentrating on the numbers,” Del Vecchio contended. “We are more concentrating on what we put in the store. We have the big advantage of being a private company.”

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