When the Pitti Uomo staff suits up for the latest edition of the fair in white button-down shirts, repp ties, American-made jeans, red sweaters and navy puffer jackets emblazoned with a special Brooks Brothers logo, it will be the first hint that something different is going on with the venerable American company. The second clue, even more noticeable, will be an 18-foot-high video sculpture in the shape of a Golden Fleece, the brand’s logo, at the main entrance to the show.
But the big reveal will happen on Wednesday night when the retailer stages a fashion show — its first — in the famed Palazzo Vecchio as the kickoff to the celebration of its 200th anniversary. Following the show, Brooks Brothers will throw the doors open to a special retrospective of its long history, an exhibition that will open to the public the next day.
It’s no coincidence that America’s oldest retailer would choose Florence as the site for the start of its yearlong party. Since 2001, the company has been owned by Claudio Del Vecchio, an Italy-born billionaire businessman and a member of the family that founded and is the majority shareholder of Luxottica.
Del Vecchio said he chose Pitti to start the celebration not only because of his heritage but also for the show’s standing in the fashion industry.
“From a practical standpoint, it’s the place that draws the most international press,” he said during an interview at his Manhattan office in Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship. “Plus, it’s happening in the first two weeks of the year and this will be a yearlong celebration, so put the two things together and if you want a unique place to launch something, that is the right place.”
He acknowledged that his family’s reputation didn’t hurt when Brooks Brothers moved to secure the use of the palace, whose own history dates to the 13th century.
“The fact that I’m Italian might help with the logistics, but it wasn’t the only reason,” he said. “But it was an additional benefit.”
Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer, added that although the actual anniversary of the opening of Henry Sands Brooks’ first store in downtown New York will be in April, using Pitti as the kickoff “reinforces the global commitment of the brand.” Today, nearly 30 percent of Brooks Brothers’ sales are international. Japan, where the company has had a presence for 40 years, is still its largest market outside the U.S., but the brand is now carried in 47 countries. China will soon overtake Japan as the fastest-growing market, Del Vecchio said, with India not far behind.
Brooks Brothers is different from most other American companies operating internationally because — with the exception of a few small markets where it still has licensees — the company controls its business in foreign countries either by owning the majority stake in a joint venture or owning it outright. Ralph Lauren Corp. and PVH Corp. have instituted similar models.
“It’s how we maintain consistency,” Del Vecchio said. For example, until two years ago, China operated under a licensing model, but Brooks Brothers now has a joint venture there where it holds the majority interest.
One exception is Greece, where the local licensee has proven adept at presenting a retail experience that mimics that in the U.S., so Del Vecchio has opted to remain with that partner rather than go direct.
Del Vecchio admitted that bringing Brooks Brothers to other countries is not an inexpensive undertaking and the company is self-funding the effort, believing it’s necessary to continue to grow the business.
In the U.S., Brooks Brothers operates around 110 full-price stores as well as a similar number of outlets, so it’s limited in how much it can expand its core operation in its home market.
Even so, Brooks Brothers is hoping that by mining its rich history, it can continue to expand its reach both at home, by attracting new customers who may need a refresher on the store’s heritage, as well as in emerging markets.
Since its founding in 1818, the company has been credited with inventing or popularizing a number of innovations. And while the ready-to-wear suit (1849), button-down oxford shirt (1900), madras tie (1902) and wash-and-wear shirt (1957) may now be considered men’s wear staples, it was Brooks Brothers that pioneered them.
Its fashion show at Pitti Uomo will be a modern interpretation of some of these more innovative pieces.
“Our show is not a retrospective, so it will not be defined by season and won’t be our fall 2018 collection,” Amendola said. “It will be a celebration of what Brooks Brothers was and is today on its 200th anniversary.”
Although born and raised in Italy, Del Vecchio has always had a healthy respect for the history of the company he purchased from Marks & Spencer for $225 million 16 years ago. Since taking control, he has worked tirelessly to upgrade the quality of its product and restore the luster to a brand that had, frankly, gotten a tad musty and lost much of its direction.
“I came here for the love and passion of the brand,” he said. “I just do what I think is appropriate. That’s what motivates me — being true to the original mission.”
He acknowledged that he has accomplished a lot over the past 16 years and is “happy with the effort.” But at the same time, he stressed, “I have nothing to prove to anybody. Our team has done a great job and I’m very proud to represent them and have helped bring the brand to the level it is today.”
With a history that dates back two centuries, he knows he’s merely a steward of the brand that sources say has sales of $1.2 billion. “If I can make the culture strong enough, then hopefully the guys who come after us can’t screw it up.”
Del Vecchio stresses he has no plans to exit the brand anytime soon and believes he still has lots of work to do. “The day I feel I can’t contribute anymore, then I won’t be here.”
But 2018 and the 200th anniversary have him energized.
While there are a few companies in the fashion world that are as old or older than Brooks Brothers — Hudson’s Bay Co., founded in 1670, and Caswell-Massey in 1752 are among them — Del Vecchio said there aren’t many that are still true to their original mission. “Some times weren’t as good as others, but it’s never really been bad,” he said of Brooks Brothers. “We’re a better company than we were 16 years ago and better than most of our competitors for 200 years. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t deliver consistent quality, updated style and performance.”
Del Vecchio said it’s an ongoing challenge for the company to get the message out that it continues to push the envelope in terms of technology and style, but in this monumental year, that’s a priority.
“‘Old’ and ‘innovative’ are not words that are used together very often,” he said. “So it’s hard for our customers to think of us on the edge of technology.”
It was for this reason that Del Vecchio tapped cutting-edge designer Thom Browne to create Black Fleece in 2007, a fashion-forward interpretation of the brand’s offering. The partnership continued for eight years. More recently, the company named Zac Posen creative director for the women’s collection. His first collection was unveiled in the spring of 2016.
The company has also continued to push the envelope on innovations, adding offerings such as washable merino sweaters, highly technical performance outerwear and a new Golden Fleece luxury footwear collection in recent years.
“It’s all part of the disruption,” he said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but it adds a new dimension. We need to continue to innovate and look outside of the box.”