Brooks Brothers’ mission statement has been around for nearly two centuries—since 1818, the year the company was founded—but not many people can recite it from memory.
This story first appeared in the March 21, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Claudio Del Vecchio knows it by heart.
“It’s one of the most beautifully articulated and longest-running mission statements in American business history,” he says of the retailer’s original guiding principles, which he quotes frequently: “To make and deal only in merchandise of the finest quality, to sell it at a fair profit and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise.”
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Del Vecchio has a deep appreciation of heritage—which makes him something of a paradox, since he’s also a bold innovator. Since 2001, when he bought the struggling Brooks Bros. from Marks & Spencer for the bargain-basement price of $225 million, he has worked aggressively to upgrade its merchandise mix, renovate its fleet of stores, expand the franchise overseas and spearhead the company’s first designer label, Black Fleece, created in collaboration with Thom Browne. Indeed, with Del Vecchio as president and chief executive officer, Brooks Bros. has undergone more rapid changes than at any other period in its history.
Later this year, in another unprecedented move, the company will venture into wholesale department store distribution. Del Vecchio recently formed a partnership with Nordstrom, which in July will begin selling Brooks Bros. men’s and children’s wear in about 30 stores as well as online. But don’t expect Brooks’ storied sack suit. Offerings at the upscale Seattle-based retailer will be skewed toward a contemporary customer, which calls for a modern mix of slim-fitting suits, narrow ties, less voluminous shirts and campus-inspired sportswear.
For an Italian to turn around an iconic but declining American brand could be the ultimate men’s wear business challenge. To meet it, he knew he’d have to look forward, not back. “We have a healthy respect for the past, but we’re not completely influenced by it,” Del Vecchio says, sitting in his corner office at Brooks Bros.’ Madison Avenue flagship in New York, with a gas fireplace adding warmth to the room. From the outset, he explains, his plan was to be “an innovator, not a conservator.”
Squaring all this with the tradition of Brooks Bros.—the company that made the coat Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night he was assassinated—presents certain difficulties. But, despite his low-key manner, Del Vecchio, 52, doesn’t have a go-with-the-flow disposition. He may live in a more-than-comfortable house on the north shore of Long Island with his wife, Debra, and their two children, Angelica, 8, and Cristian, who’s about to turn 11. He may love playing golf and watching soccer. Still, Del Vecchio says, “I’m not looking for an easy life. I enjoy challenges.”
He certainly could have had an easy life if he’d wanted one: Del Vecchio is a billionaire whose father has the real money in the family. Leonardo Del Vecchio—raised in an orphanage because his widowed mother couldn’t afford to support him—is the founder of Luxottica, the world’s largest eyewear company. Last year he ranked 59th on the Forbes billionaires list, which put the senior Del Vecchio’s net worth at $10.5 billion. That makes him the second richest man (after chocolate mogul Michele Ferrero) in Italy.
This bit of backstory often stuns those who hear it after they meet Claudio Del Vecchio, whose personal style—sometimes slightly rumpled, always down to earth—doesn’t hint at great wealth. But his modest air is genuine. Like his father, Del Vecchio worked hard and rose through the ranks, starting at a Luxottica factory when he was 14, and then joining the company full-time after two years of college and an obligatory hitch in the Italian army.
At 22, he was charged with heading Luxottica’s sales force in Italy, and two years later he was sent to Germany to establish the company’s first direct foreign distribution. Del Vecchio still remembers the date on which he accomplished his mission: “For nine months I drove back and forth, and on April 1, 1982, we opened the subsidiary.”
A week later, he was sent to America to help manage the company’s U.S. distribution. He was 25 years old and spoke little English, but within four years he increased U.S. sales from $28 million to $100 million. Then, in 1990, he spearheaded Luxottica’s public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. “We were the first foreign company to go public in the U.S. before we went public in our own country,” he notes. “We actually had to sit down with the SEC, since there were no rules for this type of thing.” (Luxottica later went public in Italy, as well.)
By then co-ceo of Luxottica with responsibility for the Americas, Del Vecchio had some business dealings with Brooks Bros. around this time when he negotiated the retailer’s eyewear license, the first in its history. “I got to walk into this building 10 years before I bought it,” he recalls. His awareness of Brooks Bros. came long before that, though. Even when he lived in Italy, the American brand intrigued him.
“It had no distribution there,” he says, “but Gianni Angeli, the chairman of Fiat, was a customer and he was considered a fashion icon. He wore Brooks Bros. shirts, so I had a curiosity about it. Why was he so in love with it when he could buy anything he wanted?”
When Del Vecchio arrived in the U.S. in 1982, he says, “the first store I visited was Brooks Bros.…I used to shop in Façonnable in Monaco, which was very inspired by Brooks Bros., so it was a natural step up. I didn’t have to change my style.”
The transition from customer to owner wasn’t even on the horizon at that point. But Del Vecchio’s life took a sharp turn after 1995, when Luxottica acquired U.S. Shoe, which owned the LensCrafters retail chain. (“It wasn’t a friendly acquisition,” he says with his usual matter-of-fact candor.) In 1997, he was named ceo of Casual Corner, a struggling women’s apparel chain, and he resigned from Luxottica. He was on his own.
His experience with the now-defunct women’s chain, which required major investment but lacked brand strength, prompted him to look elsewhere. “So I went to Marks & Spencer,” he says, “because my impression was that Brooks Bros. wasn’t being taken care of.”
Others had the same idea—Brooks’ potential suitors included Men’s Wearhouse, May Department Store Co., Polo Ralph Lauren and Dickson Poon—but that changed with 9/11. “After that, most of the other [interested] companies disappeared, and we ended up paying less than we thought we would,” Del Vecchio says.
Still, turning the business around would mean a massive overhaul. “From Day One, we knew that the benefit from adding systems and improving the sourcing could justify the acquisition,” he says. “But the biggest question mark was, would the customers come back—or were they gone forever?”
By now, the answer is unmistakable: Not only did old customers return, but Del Vecchio also found new ones—especially overseas. Today, the retailer operates more than 116 full-price and 101 factory outlet stores in the U.S. and some 175 stores in other countries, with the highest concentration in Japan (77), China (32), Hong Kong (13) and the U.K. (4). Brooks Bros. has also opened stores in Milan, Paris, Athens, Chile and Mexico. This year, the company will pass $1 billion in sales and turn a tidy profit.
“Claudio has done an unbelievable job in reviving this iconic American brand and globalizing its market,” says Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo Inc., an investment banking company. “He was able to understand the heritage of Brooks Bros. and go back into its archives…to use the past and translate it to the present and the future.”
Bill Roberti, a former Brooks Bros. ceo, remembers Del Vecchio’s passion for the brand when he negotiated the eyewear license with Luxottica. Since buying the company, Roberti says, the current ceo “has done a fantastic job of improving the quality and delivery of the product.”
Also impressed is Joseph Gromek, another former Brooks ceo, now president and ceo of Warnaco Group. “Claudio has a great deal of respect for this great American institution,” he says. “I admire much of what he has been able to accomplish.”
No doubt his boldest accomplishment was the launch of Black Fleece, a collection that combined classic Brooks Bros. fabrics and tailoring with the edgy, shrunken silhouette of Thom Browne. After a shaky start, the label gained traction, and its sales were expected to hit $10 million last year. Although some viewed Black Fleece as iconoclastic—especially in 2006, when it was first unveiled—Browne sees it otherwise. “Claudio has truly embraced the heritage of Brooks Bros.,” the designer says, “and evolved the brand and business in a very respectful way.”
In fact, experimentation is an integral part of the brand’s tradition. Brooks is the source of many men’s wear innovations now taken for granted. It introduced seersucker in 1830; the first ready-made suit in 1845; the button-down collar in 1896; the repp tie in 1920, and argyle socks, in 1949. Despite its conservative image, the retailer has a remarkable instinct for change.
So, clearly, does Del Vecchio. In 2008, he bought Southwick, one of the U.S.’ last remaining men’s wear manufacturers, which had fallen on hard times—a move that saved 300 jobs. Last spring he inked a long-term deal with Scotland’s celebrated St. Andrews Links golf course to produce a line of golfwear. Del Vecchio has also collaborated with Janie Bryant, the costume designer for Mad Men, to produce clothes for the show as well as a Brooks Bros. Mad Men Edition suit that sold out in 10 days. “Claudio has found a way to restore the nostalgia we all felt for ‘our father’s Brooks Bros.’ while making the brand entirely relevant and modern,” says Bryant.
Given his Italian accent—he was born in Borgo Valsugana, a small town in northern Italy—Del Vecchio might not be expected to have his finger on the pulse of American culture. But he is proud of the roots he has planted in this country. As he likes to point out, he bought Brooks Bros. on Thanksgiving, his American wife was born on Columbus Day, and his son Matteo, from a previous marriage, was born on the Fourth of July. “I’m a very patriotic man,” he says with an understated smile.
Debra was vice president of operations at Luxottica when they met. (Del Vecchio jokes that it was actually he who “married the boss,” since she was “a manager and she spoke English and was very influential.”) Today, she concentrates on raising their children and working for many charities—such as Helen Keller Services for the Blind and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation—about which both Del Vecchios are passionate.
Another passion is good food. Del Vecchio isn’t shy about admitting he’s “an excellent chef”—he even opened a restaurant in the Nineties, when he lived in Hartford because the local eateries failed to meet his high standards. Called Spris, after an Italian aperitif, the place was “very social, like when I was growing up in Italy.”
“My mother’s family was in the hospitality business,” he explains, adding: “Both my grandmother and my mother are unbelievable cooks, so I got very spoiled.”
Spris is now closed, but Del Vecchio doesn’t rule out the possibility of opening another restaurant. Until then, he plans to stay focused on expanding Brooks Bros.—just don’t ask him how large he wants it to grow. “That’s my last motivation,” he says. “I don’t want to become the world’s biggest company, or even a really big company.” Although $1 billion is an impressive milestone, it pales next to retail giants such as Macy’s ($25 billion) or Men’s Wearhouse ($2 billion).
But Del Vecchio views it from another perspective. “This business doesn’t end with us,” he says. “When they look at this business 100 years after we’re gone, I hope the chapter they write about us will be a good one. The only thing we can take with us is our reputation and hope that the people who come after us will remember us.”