Brooks Brothers Eyes Black Fleece Stores

Claudio Del Vecchio, CEO of Brooks Brothers, believes Black Fleece can eventually stand on its own.

NEW YORK — Black Fleece may one day get its own separate stores.

The upscale collection of men’s and women’s apparel and accessories, designed by Thom Browne for Brooks Brothers, is so distinct that Claudio Del Vecchio, CEO of Brooks, believes it can eventually stand on its own.

“I’m convinced that it can be its own location,” Del Vecchio said last week. Although he doesn’t see a massive rollout of Black Fleece stores, “there are certain cities where it will work.” He declined to say where or when Black Fleece stores could materialize, saying it was too premature.

The line, which hit stores in early September, is expected to add $10 million to Brooks’ $800 million in annual sales. It is carried in 30 U.S. stores as well as six units overseas, and is Brooks’ most expensive offering, with prices averaging some 30 to 40 percent more than traditional Brooks Brothers merchandise.

Del Vecchio said that since the collection hit stores on Sept. 9, the strongest sales have been in categories that are different than originally expected. “We’re selling more shirts than we thought and we ran out of lightweight suits,” Del Vecchio said, noting that the line is “doing very well in Asia.”

He also said men’s is “doing better than women’s,” but accessories for both genders have been a standout.

One of the frustrations Del Vecchio faced early on was slow deliveries, a fact that will definitely cut into overall results for the season. “We lost three weeks in September and we won’t recoup that business,” he said.

Nevertheless, he remains “committed to the concept” and is pleased with the collaboration with Browne.

“We’re still learning, but now we have a better idea of the traffic we’re attracting,” Del Vecchio said. “We will spend the next couple of seasons fine-tuning our mistakes and then work on what the final concept can be.”

Del Vecchio, who said the contract with Browne is for four seasons, said separate Black Fleece retail stores can go forward with or without the designer’s input.

“The attraction will be Black Fleece,” Del Vecchio said. “It doesn’t have to be Thom Browne, it can be another guest designer. My wish is to work with a designer to keep the line fresh so that it will live past Thom Browne. We’re very happy with him, but we know it won’t work forever for us.”

That said, Brooks Brothers last Thursday presented its spring 2008 fashion preview with the Browne-designed Black Fleece collection representing a significant percentage of the mix.

“Spring was more of an evolution than a major change,” Browne said, pointing to “very classic” Brooks Brothers pieces in his line such as seersucker jackets and madras suits. “Every man should have a madras suit,” he noted.

Throughout the collection Browne constantly played with American heritage using red-white-and-blue in everything from ties and spectator hats to a Prince of Wales pinstripe suit and a tennis sweater.

There was a university/preppie feel that was prevalent but didn’t “cross the line or go too far,” Browne said.

Pieces included short white piqué tennis shorts, classic navy and cream linen blazers with red enamel buttons in an updated silhouette, and cashmere knit cardigans.

In the eveningwear component of the collection, Browne showed a classic cotton piqué dinner jacket, oxford tuxedo shirts, a morning coat merchandised with seersucker pants and a top hat, and a khaki trench tipped in black.

Del Vecchio said this Black Fleece collection was “even more Brooks Brothers than the first collection,” pointing to the seersucker and madras. “It’s very focused and it shows what we learned from the first collection. We improved the fit and the proportions.”

The CEO stressed that although the Brooks Brothers customer can find seersucker and madras suits in the regular line, Black Fleece offers a different fit and sensibility. “The proportions are different and it’s handmade,” he said. “There’s a customer for it and when they put it on, it will look different.”

Lou Amendola, Brooks’ executive vice-president of merchandising, added: “Black Fleece is taking our icons and giving it a new look.”

Black Fleece also works well with the Brooks Brothers spring collection, which vice-president and creative design director Simon Kneen said evoked a look of old Hollywood with its “heritage of the classics.”

There was a distinctive black-and-white story where the design team added several traditional Brooks Brothers pieces and offered them in black, including classic button-front cotton shirts, cardigans, linen shirts and leather bomber jackets. The slim-fit Regent suit was introduced in cotton in a charcoal gray, and The Londoner shirt, with its “very wide collar” to accommodate the new Brooks Brothers neckwear collection, made a reappearance.

Eveningwear included a white dinner jacket and a black tuxedo that was “very James Bond” with its satin lapel, Kneen said.

Seersucker and linen were also standouts in Kneen’s collection. Items that drew their inspiration from the past included open-pocket blazers, fine-gauge cardigans and linen/cotton tipped cableknits. “You can immediately see the connection to Black Fleece,” he said.

Brooks also showed some updates to its Country Club collection, which is housed in six separate stores with a seventh slated to open this week in Sarasota, Fla.

This line now includes a lot of technical synthetic fabrics for the golf and tennis set.