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Brooks Bros. Finds Fresh Niche for Southwick

Thanks to its new deep-pocketed parent, Southwick has been given a new lease on life.

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WWD Men's Collections issue 01/15/2009

NEW YORK — Thanks to its new deep-pocketed parent, Southwick has been given a new lease on life.

In July, Brooks Brothers bought Southwick Clothing LLC through an acquisition subsidiary and over the past six months has worked to reinvigorate the company. The fruits of that labor will be unveiled at The Collective on Sunday when Southwick reveals several new models and hundreds of new fabric choices targeted to independent specialty stores. Complementary shirts and ties will also be offered for the first time.

These offerings are separate and distinct from the goods Southwick will produce for Brooks Bros., its largest client, and will be priced well below high-end European goods. Suits will retail for $895 to $1,495; sport coats, $695 to $1,195; shirts, $105 to $225, and neckwear, $95 to $125. The highest-priced product in each category will be the new Southwick Gold line.

“This will compare to suits from Italy that would retail for $1,700 to $1,900,” said Claudio Del Vecchio, chief executive officer of Brooks Bros. “And there’s no currency risk,” added Joe Dixon, senior vice president of production and technical.

Despite the lower prices, Southwick suits will use only European fabrics from Italy and England, including fabrics from Loro Piana, Piacenza and other luxury brands. The suits will sport a cobranded label calling out the name of the mill as well.

A state-of-the-art factory in Haverhill, Mass., will open in February, enabling Southwick to significantly increase its production capabilities.

In the past few years, more than 80 percent of Southwick’s production was for Brooks Bros., and although the company has 150 specialty store clients, those customers often found themselves waiting for product while the manufacturer concentrated on its larger customer. “Southwick was running to keep up with the demand,” Dixon said. “But with the new facility, we can service Brooks Brothers and other specialty stores as well.”

Del Vecchio added: “[Specialty stores] used to order in January and get the shipments in October when they were already marking down. Now, if they need it in August, they will get it in August.” Del Vecchio said this will be possible because of the upgrades to the factory, which is 97 percent new. “When we bought it, the youngest machine was 25 years old,” he said.

But all 300 of Southwick’s factory employees were retained and are being trained to work at the new facility, which is located about 15 minutes from the old plant. “That’s what we bought,” Del Vecchio said, “the people. We kept nothing else.”

Brooks Bros. did, however, retain Southwick’s legacy, the soft-shoulder suit. “It’s a true natural shoulder,” said Peter Dermer, vice president of sales for Southwick, who was retained to spearhead the sales effort. “It’s timeless and never goes out of style.”

The Lawrence, Mass.-based Southwick was founded by Italian immigrants Vito and Nick Greico in 1929 and was sold in 1990 to Bayer Clothing. Master tailors, the Greicos convinced Brooks Bros. management some six decades ago to transition to a natural-shoulder garment and has been producing the signature Brooks Bros. suit since then.

Now the goal is to reestablish its position with smaller specialty stores.

“We have relationships with them already,” Del Vecchio said, “but if we were selling them eight suits before, now we’re hoping for 25. The economy won’t be helping us, but there may be some opportunity to give their customers a reason to walk in the door.”

Dermer stressed the models and piece goods being offered to specialty stores are different from those being used for Brooks Bros. “There will never be a Southwick label on a Brooks Brothers suit,” he said. Del Vecchio added: “The only thing that is the same is the shoulder because that’s what Brooks Brothers is and that’s what Southwick is.” At The Collective, Dermer will showcase the new offerings, which include the Lawrence, an updated model targeted to a younger customer with a trimmer silhouette, narrower lapel, more body and waist suppression and a smaller point-to-point measurement. There are three options: a two- or three-button, side-vented model; a single-breasted peak lapel and a double-breasted six on two.

Next up is the Sinclair, a new softly constructed sport coat that is french-faced and yoke-lined with a smaller sleeve head. It is available in a two-button, with side vents and three open patch pockets.

A third offering is the Dorset, a “great work suit” that is “still Brooks Brothers’ best seller,” Dermer said. “It’s the classic American business suit.” This model comes in two or three buttons with center or side vents.

The Douglas, which is the first model Southwick ever made, will also be available: a non-darted sack coat, three buttons and a center-vent. “You can’t find this in a department store,” Del Vecchio said.

In all offerings, the fabric selection will be expansive, Dixon said. It will include subtle additions of color and a variety of weights to service stores around the country.

Southwick will also offer made-to-measure. “We will have a lot more variety,” Dermer said. “And the turnaround will be under four weeks.” Dixon added: “As we get better, we see this as a real competitive advantage. Our goal is 10 days.”

Another advantage, in their view, is that the entire collection is made in the U.S. “The prices of Italian goods are sky-high, and specialty stores are looking for U.S.-made product,” Dermer said.

That includes the shirts and ties that will be produced for Southwick in Brooks Bros.’ existing factories in Garland, N.C. (shirts), and Long Island City, N.Y. (ties).

Del Vecchio declined to provide a projected volume number for Southwick. “Brooks Brothers is running a healthy business, and we’re in this for the long term. What I care about is that we do this the right way, and the business will come.”

Down the road, Del Vecchio said, there’s the possibility Southwick could produce private label goods for larger department stores and expand its small international business. But for now, “Southwick will dedicate 100 percent of its efforts to the smaller stores.”

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