The hipster in the gray flannel suit
Looking to freshen its 19th-century brand, Brooks Brothers reaches out to 21st-century designer Thom Browne.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Not long after opening its doors - in 1818, Brooks Brothers, with its traditional suits and generously cut shirts, became the de facto outfitter for the American businessman. Starting in the late 1980s, however, a series of owners - Federated, Robert Campeau, and finally Marks & Spencer - stood by as the store's core customer defected to dot-com casual and designer labels.
"Brooks Brothers forgot about the suit guy - the one they dress five days a week," said Italian luxury mogul Claudio Del Vecchio, when he picked up the company in late 2001 for $225 million. Del Vecchio, whose father is the founder of the upscale eyewear maker Luxottica (Charts), pushed to bring back quality merchandise like English bench-made shoes in the hope of making the store a destination for urban professionals again.
That led him to Thom Browne, a former actor turned men's wear designer who was selling super-fitted suits (often worn without socks) to New York City hipsters and hedgies, first out of his apartment and now from a store in Tribeca.
Browne agreed to come aboard, designing an upscale off-the-rack collection for men - and for women, who currently make up one-quarter of Brooks Brothers shoppers. Called Black Fleece, the name is a puckish twist on Brooks Brothers' in-house brand Golden Fleece.
The line, which debuts this month in 30 U.S. stores, plus London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, includes shirts, ties, topcoats, formalwear, shoes, and suits. These retail for $2,700 to $3,000, compared with the $598 to $1,600 range for off-the-rack Brooks Brothers suits.
"The assignment to create something new for Brooks Brothers was so personal for me, because my father and my grandfather wore it," says the 40-year-old Browne, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., and was last year's CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year.
Brooks, meanwhile, is hoping that offering a collection by an outside designer, something the store has not done in 25 years, can knock the dust off the brand just as Tom Ford did when he began designing for Gucci in 1990.
Says Louis Amendola, Brooks Brothers' chief merchandising officer: "We've spent the past five years changing a lot of things in the store, and this is part of the strategy to say 'Let's get people in to see it.' "
Gallery: The rebirth of Brooks Brothers. More on how Thom Browne transformed a menswear icon.