Of Brooks, via Plimpton

Via the always well-stocked, if only occasionally well-worded Ivy Style web log… “Under the Golden Fleece,” by George Plimpton:

Asked to check out Brooks Brothers on its 175th anniversary, I thought it best to outfit myself for the visit from head to foot in their clothing. It was not too difficult, since I have been a patron for years, as was my father before me, and his father before him. I missed out only on the shoes. I have an unnaturally wide foot, a triple E, and their shoe department stops at a single E, shoes that would have caused a wince at every step if I could have squeezed into them.

But the rest was all theirs — socks, underwear, tie, a white button-down shirt, and a slightly rumpled seersucker suit, which was appropriate because it was a hot summer day. The blue flag with its legend attesting to “175 Years of American Style” hung listlessly in the heat over Forty-fourth Street.

The author at ease.

Once inside the pleasant cool of the store, I was taken in hand by Wayne Sheridan, a salesman on the first floor. He has been employed by Brooks Brothers for thirty-five years. That is by no means remarkable. Indeed, the employment record is held by salesman Joseph Mancini, who retired in 1992 after sixty-six years of service. Another salesman, Frederick Webb, worked in the store selling suits up through his eighties.

Among his steady customers (”see you” patrons, in the jargon of the store) were members of the Morgan banking family. He served five generations of them during his sixty-five years of service. He could never bring himself to judge when the young Morgans reached an age when it was no longer appropriate for him to call them by their first names: no easy solution. So he simply continued on a first-name basis with Morgan family members throughout their lives.

Mr. Sheridan, being on the first floor, which features ties, shirts, and men’s accessories, does not have quite the “see you” patronage situation enjoyed by the suit salesmen on the fourth. But he told me he had once sold a button-down shirt to Joan Collins. He remembers John F. Kennedy in his senatorial days, walking past the tie counter with his hands in his coat pockets.

We walked over to his tie counter. I asked how many were sold on a good day, and he said upwards of a thousand. Noticing one with a pattern of seals balancing beach balls on their noses, I commented that I had expected only regimental ties.

“The animal ties do very well,” he told me. ‘They bring in the younger group.” He smiled. “Ralph Lauren started his career standing just where you are — selling ties. He worked here for two years and then started designing ties on his own. Paul Stuart up the street started selling them for him.”

“Why not Brooks Brothers?” I asked.

“His designs were before their time — at least that was the opinion among the marketing people: too wide they thought.”

Mr. Sheridan smiled again and asked if I’d like to take a crack at selling ties. He said he’d try to steer some Japanese patrons to the counter; there were bound to be a lot of them in the store. In fact, he went on to say, these days the Japanese head the list of foreign patrons. They carry their calculators with them, their eyes widen when they figure out what extraordinary bargains are available. The Italians come next. Giovanni Agnelli, the gentleman who runs Fiat, buys at Brooks Brothers frequently. “He buys lots and lots of shirts,” said Mr. Sheridan as he went off looking for some Japanese.

They wandered by eventually — a solemn-looking couple. “How about these seals balancing balls on their noses?” I said. “Very popular with the young crowd.” The pair inspected the tie gravely, and then moved on without a word.

I remarked to Mr. Sheridan that Ralph Lauren probably had had his bad days, and then I wondered aloud if his innovative design ideas would have been accepted by today’s marketing people.

“Oh, there have been many, many changes in company policies,” Mr. Sheridan said. “Many.”

A bit of background. The store was founded — “established” is the proper Brooks Brothers term — on April 7, 1818, by Henry Sands Brooks. A dapper dresser, he often traveled to Europe to supplement his wardrobe. What he brought back, especially his colorful waistcoats, was the envy of his friends. Considering that the bulk of his transatlantic luggage began to consist of materials, coats, waistcoats they had begged him to purchase for them, it was a natural step to go into the business professionally.

For $17,000 he bought a frame building with an arcade that stretched over the sidewalks of Catharine and Cherry Streets, on a corner near Franklin Square, then the center of New York’s mercantile district and within blocks of the more fashionable residences of the time. The articles that could be purchased ready-made were folded and laid out in neat row on tables. On pleasant days some of the suits were hung outdoors on hangers, flapping in a breeze like laundry on a line — a primitive precursor of the display window.

The store moved five times — each time farther uptown toward its present location on Madison Avenue and Forty-fourth Street and bringing with it traditions that became increasingly hallowed over the years. Throughout its history it catered to a clientele that prided itself on its sense of taste and its fastidiousness. Andrew Mellon, the banker and philanthropist, spent long minutes at the tie counter before selecting what he wanted —always black with small white figures — which he would invariably take outside to see how it looked in the sunlight. So staid was the organization that its credit department would not allow Rudolph Valentino — who fancied Brooks Brothers hats — to open an account at the height of his career.

In 1976, when the company lowered the top button on its suits by half an inch, it was considered a cataclysmic step by die-hard customers. All of this was very much in keeping with the principle laid down by the founder, namely “to make and deal in merchandise of only the best quality, to sell it at a fair profit only, and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise.”

This attitude of exclusivity was best summed up by Frederick Brooks, company vice president, in 1889. He closed the store on Saturdays because of the “outsiders” who crowded the premises on that day. “Who are all these people?” he asked. “We must save the merchandise for all our regular customers.”

Of course, it was exactly this brand of elitism, carried on through the years, that made Brooks Brothers a world-famous institution, and indeed lured “outsiders” into the store. Given this tradition, one might suppose that the company’s policies have remained rather rigid over the years. Not at all. The store — to the surprise of many — has often been a pioneer in men’s fashion.

The famed Golden Fleece has been Brooks Brothers’ trademark since the 1850s. Often jocularly referred to by the saIesmen as a “pig in a sling,” it is in fact a sheep suspended in a ribbon. It was a symbol of British woolen merchants, and before that of the Knights of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Each knight wore the emblem over his heart; it symbolized the Lamb of God.

The logo has become such a familiar status symbol that it apparently has value even when it isn’t attached to anything. There are stories of customers buying the least expensive item in the store bearing the Brooks Brothers logo and then transferring the Fleece to something more substantial — perhaps to a suit of inferior make. “An empty gesture,” a salesman informed me. “That certainly wouldn’t fool us.” He went on to describe a man who nervously asked for an athletic supporter and then turned it down because it did not have the Brooks Brothers label.

“So it’s safe to say that the logo itself is responsible for many of the sales,” I suggested.

“Oh yes. A cap with the Golden Fleece insignia on the front is a big seller,” he told me. “Pique-knit sports shirts with the logo on the front sell easily over a hundred a day.”

I asked about the colors the patrons of different nationalities seem to prefer and was told that the Italians buy the entire spectrum available but that the Japanese shy away from the reds, the hot pinks. “They stick to navy, black, and white and only rarely venture into color.”

“Do they buy seersucker suits?” I asked.

“Very American,” the salesman said obliquely

“I trust you’ve noticed that I’m wearing a Brooks Brothers seersucker.”

“Without a doubt.”

The fourth floor is the sanctum sanctorum where customers are introduced to the Number One Sack Suit. A suit at Brooks Brothers these days costs anywhere from $295 to $895 (the readymades, popularly described as “of-the-rack”) on up to $1,600, the so-called “special order” where the suit is tailor-made to the client’s specifications.

Often as many as fifteen new orders are made during the day, and, of course, customers come in to have second and third fittings as well. The fourth floor remains very much as I remember it from my first visits — the cavernous room almost ecclesiastically quiet. I said to a salesman that it looked about the same. He shook his head. “There have been changes,” he said emphatically.

I went up to the executive offices on the eighth floor to hear about some of them with William Roberti, who has been in charge of operations at Brooks Brothers since January 1990. We met in his office — a comfortable corner room, complete with fireplace, quite clublike in tone, which in fact does not reflect Mr. Roberti’s background at all. He admits to not being a tried-and-true customer, though to my unpracticed eye he appeared to be wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. I asked, and he was. A powerfully built man, he is a lieutenant colonel in the army reserve, and indeed had just returned from maneuvers. A no-nonsense character.

“What we’ve tried to do is make the store more customer-friendly,” he explained. ”The notion for years was that Brooks Brothers was a private club, and that doesn’t make good business sense. The fact is that the only denominator is good taste, good quality, and good value. And that means for everybody.”

I asked how one went about removing the Ivy League stigma.

“Well, expansion, of course, is part of it,” he said. “We have expanded the operation not only nationwide but around the world. There are fifty-eight regular stores in this country, not including twenty-two “factory outlet” stores in places like Freeport, Maine. Then there are forty-five stores in Japan, and over a hundred· odd locations in Italy that sell Brooks Brothers products.”

“Hardly Ivy League territory,” I said.

“Exactly. Then we are getting involved in licensing operations — home furnishings, eye frames for glasses…”

I asked if the Golden Fleece was carried on the eye frames.

“Of course,” he said. “On the inside, rather small. But it’s there. What is is important,” he went on, “is never to stand still. No business can. The secret is to add products and not mess with what works.”

When I asked about the new products, Mr. Roberti mentioned pigment-dyed washed-twill sports shirts, Brooks blue jeans (”years ago could you imagine that Brooks would one day carry blue jeans?”), and more recently a baseball jacket — what is referred to as the “varsity jacket” — snap buttons down the front and available in burgundy, bottle-green and navy.

I asked him what he thought the founding brothers would have made of all this — the varsity jacket, the blue jeans, and the most radical change of all, getting into the wholesale business.

‘They were traditionalists but also practical.” He smiled. “I think they would have come around.”

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