By  on March 19, 2007

Trading up is getting contagious and Brooks Brothers is the latest to catch the bug.

Nordstrom and Blooming­dale's continue to add designer offerings, Lord & Taylor has dumped moderate offerings in favor of better and bridge and J. Crew keeps pushing the envelope with higher prices while maintaining its openers. And, if they're not doing it by price, retailers are doing it in image, from H&M to Wal-Mart and Target.

Brooks Brothers has been raising its standards over the last few years. The next step in the process will come on Tuesday when the retailer unveils its first designer collection, created by Thom Browne and called Black Fleece.

Black Fleece will consist of about 50 looks; half men's, half women's. Initially, the collection will be sold in about 30 Brooks Brothers stores in the U.S. starting in September, and several overseas. Trunk shows will be staged in many more locations and will have special items.

Brooks Brothers expects Black Fleece to crack $10 million in sales its first season, though the projection could change, considering decisions on pricing and how the collection is presented in the stores have yet to be made. The label won't bear Thom Browne's name, though in-store signage or hangtags might, to explain the collection was designed by him. The Black Fleece moniker for the collection was adapted from the Golden Fleece, which is the Brooks Brothers logo, and a label on men's dress suits and ties, and women's blouses in the store.

This is the first time Brooks Brothers has brought in what executives call a "guest designer" to create an exclusive collection, and they say, if it's a winner, other guest designers could be included in what Brooks Brothers considers "a design laboratory platform."

It's also the first time that Browne, an influential men's wear designer who won the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award last year, has attempted a full women's collection, though he's designed for a few private customers at his shop in the Meatpacking District. His men's line sells at a small group of high-end specialty stores, including Bergdorf Goodman.

"This is an added dimension to our business," said Claudio Del Vecchio, chairman and chief executive officer of Brooks Brothers. "It's priced in line with what people are used to spending on designers," with sweaters at $800 and up, and women's and men's suits from $3,000 to $4,000. There also will be eveningwear pieces retailing for more than $5,000.Citing a higher quality of fabrics, details and workmanship, Del Vecchio said: "From a manufacturing point of view, it's really couture. It's a dimension that, if you really think about it, reflects where Brooks Brothers was when it started in 1818. But we are not transforming Brooks Brothers into a couture business."

"The collection is very classically inspired in regards to fabrics, even with the proportions and the use of navy and gray together, but I made sure it wasn't always too classic, in regards to its personality," Browne said of the Black Fleece line overall. "I wanted to make sure it had a reason for being, and that it feels younger. It's very much a Brooks Brothers feel, with a younger sensibility and some iconic American looks presented in different ways. It's a full collection, really from shoes and handbags through daywear to eveningwear."

Del Vecchio has been steadily repositioning Brooks Brothers into the bridge-to-designer price zone since the company he owns, Retail Brand Alliance, purchased the retailer from Marks & Spencer in 2001, when the brand's women's wear was more apt to be compared with Ann Taylor.

Del Vecchio said Browne has a contract for four seasons, and beyond that, he sees "a very long-term commitment to Black Fleece as a label," whether Browne stays on longer or another designer steps in.

The Browne-Brooks Brothers link is like establishment meets antiestablishment, with Brooks Brothers synonymous with preppy, American classics — button-down shirts, seersuckers and Shetlands — and Browne sometimes identified with geek-chic with narrow suits and tight fits, though there also is a vintage character and, consistently, a fresh quality to his looks.

"If you look at the European fashion collections, you see a lot of Thom Browne inspiration," Del Vecchio said. "In the designer business on the men's side, he's very, very well known. He prepared himself very well for this project. He studied our archives, our catalogues and brochures. He grew up in a Brooks Brothers family. His father dressed in Brooks Brothers; his mother dressed her kids in Brooks Brothers. He grew up with that sensibility and he's never hidden the fact that he has been influenced by Brooks Brothers. That's a very important reason for us to be confident. He's got the same love of details, fabric and construction."Within Black Fleece, "you will see the influences of Thom Brown and Brooks Brothers," said Louis Amendola, the retailer's executive vice president of merchandising. "There will be a great balance of the two."

Brooks Brothers hopes Black Fleece has a halo effect on its women's business, which Del Vecchio said has been the fastest-growing category for the last three years and has evolved into "a full lifestyle brand."

Women's has grown to represent in excess of $150 million of the $800 million total Brooks Brothers business. That's roughly 20 percent of the volume, up from 12 percent five years ago. Women's occupies about 20 percent of the selling space, and is very productive, according to Del Vecchio, who noted that, at the Brooks Brothers flagship on Madison Avenue and 44th Street, the 6,000-square-foot fifth floor, which is devoted to women's, generates $7 million in annual sales. He called it "a destination area."

At Brooks Brothers on Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, the 2,500-square-foot women's area also generates $7 million, though it's on the main floor and far more visible. All new Brooks Brothers stores merchandise women's on the main floor.

"In three years, we hope to double the business," Del Vecchio said. "Thom Browne is probably going to speed up the process. At first, we thought we would just get our feet wet with Black Fleece, but we liked what was happening and took a more aggressive approach."

Brooks Brothers also wants to operate additional women's-only stores. There's just a handful so far, in Westport, Conn.; St. Louis; Hackensack, N.J., and Houston. Another will open in Tucson, Ariz., this summer. "It is one of the growth initiatives over the next three years," Amendola observed.

Over the last few years, prices and quality steadily have risen at Brooks Brothers. The core men's suits business retails in the $900 range, though suits go as high $2,000, with a made-to-measure up to $6,000. A few years ago, the core suit business fell between $398 to $598.

Handbags start at $398, and the core is $598 and $698, whereas in years past, handbags averaged $98 to $148. Blouses range from $79.50 to $228, up from $59.50 to $118. Knitwear ranges from $100 to $498, up from $59.50 to $150.The highest-priced item in the store currently is a soft alligator handbag for $8,000. "There's absolutely no price resistance as long as the quality and value associated with the product and she definitely wants the right look," Amendola said.

The message is similar to what J. Crew ceo Millard "Mickey" Drexler said last week: "There is a trade up to quality in America that has been going for awhile, whether it's cars or homes, you name it. We feel very good about moving into a marketplace that trades to a very affluent audience."

Brooks Brothers does, too.

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