For a 196-year-old brand steeped in traditional, Brooks Brothers can climb out of the box.
This story first appeared in the April 3, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We like to surprise customers with something a little different once in a while. Even if it doesn’t sell, even if they cannot afford it. If it’s beautiful, they will appreciate it,” said Claudio Del Vecchio, the chairman and chief executive officer of Brooks Brothers. “They are going to dream and wish someday they can afford to get it.”
Within its long history, there has been some elasticity in the Brooks Brothers business model, thanks to Del Vecchio, who bought the company in 2001 from Marks & Spencer. He quickly rebuilt the designer team, elevated the quality of the merchandise, carried the company through the recession and accelerated its international expansion.
On the more surprising side, he started the Black Fleece collection designed by Thom Browne, purchased the Southwick suit manufacturer when it was faltering and has decided to go into the restaurant business. He’s even put a golf simulator inside the flagship on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, a reflection of his philosophy that retail must move beyond product, service and image — it’s got to be experiential. “We give free lessons. You don’t have to shop. We just like to see people happy to be there. The experience is not enough. The product is not enough,” he said. It’s the combination that makes it happen.
Thom Browne wasn’t really top of mind at Brooks Brothers. However, in 2007, when the company was looking to stimulate traffic and create some buzz, Del Vecchio went to one of the designer’s shows, which was staged on an ice rink. “A lot of the details reminded me of some old Brooks Brothers archival pieces,” Del Vecchio recalled.
Back at the office, discussions about Browne were short-lived; priorities were elsewhere. Eventually a breakfast meeting with Browne was set up and Del Vecchio gained a favorable impression. “I saw a lot of passion [about Brooks Brothers]. His father always dressed up in Brooks Brothers. Brooks Brothers was an inspiration for a lot of his ideas,” Del Vecchio said.
Soon Browne would create a capsule collection, which Del Vecchio initially perceived as a public relations event with a guest designer, that would also stimulate the regular collection. Unexpectedly, Browne has been designing Black Fleece for seven years. It’s turned into “a real business,” Del Vecchio said. “For seven years, we have had the same guest designer.”
The “new baby” in the growing Brooks Brothers family of product is Red Fleece, which again represents a strategic shift. It was launched officially this spring to address younger men in a consistent and clear way, and to differentiate from the regular collection with a different, more modern fit.
With international expansion, there’s also an open-mindedness. “We don’t care about the business model,” Del Vecchio said. “We care about the experience for the customer.” An overseas store could be owned, licensed or franchised. “The experience has to be consistent.”
Turning to Southwick, Brooks Brothers had been buying soft-shoulder suits from the company for 60 years, but several years ago, the manufacturer began to struggle. “In 2006 to 2007, they were doing very bad,” Del Vecchio said. “They were not investing. They were not buying new machinery or training new people. We felt they weren’t going to be in business for very long, but felt it would be a good asset. It was not an easy time to make an acquisition.
“Now Southwick is in a brand-new building, filled with new machines and over 500 people,” compared with the 300 employed before the deal was done. “Southwick is making a lot of suits for us and other people.”
Del Vecchio believes retail must be more experiential, partly because he is a foodie: “My grandmother was a chef in a small hotel where I grew up. I always had this passion for food.” He thinks his core customers — often lawyers, accountants and bankers — are always looking for a place to eat or to have a meeting, which is why he will be in the restaurant business, probably this fall, with the launch of a steak house called Makers & Merchants, near the Madison Avenue flagship. The concept could be rolled out elsewhere.
Asked what his long-term vision is for the business, Del Vecchio said, “My mission is to be the person who takes care of Brooks Brothers, and have fun.” When the thrill is gone, he’ll turn over the reins to his son, Matteo, who recently joined the company as chief administrative officer. “I guess my son will figure out what to do.”