Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 04/07/2011

With collaborations between designers and retailers spiraling, Brooks Brothers is taking it cautiously.

This story first appeared in the April 7, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The retailer’s high-profile arrangement with Thom Browne, who designs the Black Fleece men’s and women’s collections for Brooks Bros., has become the focus, though initially, in 2006, Brooks Bros. said there would be a “laboratory”of guest designers creating capsule collections.

“As far as designer collaborations, this is the one we are going to stick with for awhile. We don’t have any plans to do any more guest collaborations,” noted Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Bros., during a panel on designer collaborations and the benefits of what’s become a burgeoning, industry-wide strategy.

However, Brooks Bros. is seeking additional collaborations on “certain classifications of product,” Amendola said. The chain has a co-branded luggage line from Hartmann; footwear from Peal & Co.; jeans from Levi Strauss, and children’s wear under the Fleece label designed by Nikki Kule.

While at Brooks Bros. such collaborations round out the overall offering, at Gant there seems to be an even higher purpose. The company’s collaboration with designer Michael Bastian has been “part of the rebuilding of a brand,” said Gant USA president and chief executive officer Ari Hoffman. “The way to speed up [the rebuilding process] was to do a collaboration. It really elevated and cranked up the creativity in the company. It created this feeling of competition, the whole creative process has changed so much.…Gant comes from a manufacturing background. It’s never been in the forefront of fashion. This taught us how to communicate better with the press, about fashion and about working with designers.”

The situation with Bastian “was not forced. When you let things grow naturally you get the best results…the criteria is that it has to be true to our own brand. I always ask, ‘Is it authentic for us. Is it right for us?’ That’s the start.”

Designer Steven Alan, founder of the company bearing his name, recalled when Virgin Airlines approached him to create “the perfect travel bag,” which was intricately designed as a carry-on with a laptop sleeve and several other features. More significantly, “it led us to kind of staff ourselves to making bags” and develop a network of tanneries, sample makers, factories and other suppliers to launch a handbag collection.

Alan has had a string of collaborations, including with Nike, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters and Dockers. But it’s not about soliciting collaborations, he said. “It’s really people coming to us.” Before pursuing a joint project, Alan looks for chemistry with the other party. “You really have to be able to get in there and have our team work with their team.”

At Brooks Bros., collaborations have emerged in different ways. With Levi’s, Brooks Bros. made the overture. “We decided that Levi’s fit our DNA,” since Levi’s makes the jeans in America and Brooks Bros. is an American brand, Amendola explained. “The people involved and the two companies or individuals really have to share some common ground and believe in the same principles to be successful,” Amendola said. “Thom grew up in Brooks Bros. clothes. He knew everything about Brooks Bros. and our DNA. So we knew right then and there this would be a successful collaboration.…In the beginning this was a p.r. venture. Now it’s a business. We are wholesaling [Black Fleece] selectively to retailers and we have a freestanding store.” In addition, Black Fleece taught Brooks Bros. it could sell slimmer suits at a time when they were lacking in the assortment.

The outcome with Levi’s was also unexpected. With Levi’s added to the assortment, said Amendola, “we actually said we will drop our current jean, that we don’t need two jeans. But when we introduced the Levi’s, sales of our jeans soared. All of a sudden we decided we didn’t need to drop our own jeans. It actually helped a classification we were not pleased with.”possible. That’s what data will help us do and that’s what we think is the promise of e-commerce.”

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