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Brooks Brothers - Timeless Or Out Of Time?

Charlottesville, Virginia

July 19, 2020

The following letter appeared in the WSJ today. Appropriate place for such a letter. It is sad that BB is in bankruptcy, but fashion has really changed. I remember when I bought my first Brooks Brothers' suit - man, I knew I had arrived. At least it made me feel as though I had. I still am a big fan of their "traditional" fit shirts - as the gentleman writes in his letter, there has always been plenty of room to grow into them. 🤪

Well done, Mr. Kerrigan.

I am not surprised to learn Brooks Brothers has filed for bankruptcy protection. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the store nearest my home has been “temporarily” closed for months. In a work-from-home age that permits the wearing of one’s cleanest dirty shirt, as Johnny Cash famously put it, repp ties are hardly top-of-mind.

It saddens me, though, for the brand is as American as mom, baseball and apple pie. Founded in 1818, Brooks Brothers marched through most of our republic’s wars and outfitted a majority of her presidents. Now the iconic company faces restructuring, undone by a virus as unwelcome as wearing white after Labor Day.

In 1979, my dad bought me a Brooks Brothers shirt and tie for my First Communion. I’ve been a loyal customer ever since. Are other clothiers more fashion-forward? Certainly. But Brooks Brothers has stood for quality for two centuries. Good enough for Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy always seemed good enough for me. As a younger man, wearing a Brooks Brothers suit felt talismanic, arming me with a strength I needed but hadn’t yet developed for myself. The fit of the shirts then—before trim athletic lines were offered—confirmed this sense of “you’ll grow into it, kid” wisdom passing from elders. Recall television’s “Mad Men,” which debuted in 2007. Overnight it seemed everyone wanted skinnier ties, to look like Don Draper. Brooks Brothers realized it was Jon Hamm and not his neckwear that made Don Draper look like Don Draper. Change would come, but on Brooks Brothers’ time, nobody else’s.

The clothes still feel like the New York Yankee pinstripes to me, calling me to raise my game. Over the years I’ve found the almost doctrinally slow pace of sartorial change strangely reassuring. At every stage of my adult life, it has seemed a price worth paying.

Tastes vary, of course, and I realize Brooks Brothers isn’t for everyone. But its aficionados are like what Jerry Garcia once said of his Deadhead audience: “Not everybody likes licorice, but people who like licorice really like licorice.”

As one such “Repp-Head,” I hope Brooks Brothers survives bankruptcy, with the same commitment to timeless elegance. I am not prepared to attend this corporate funeral—though if I must, I have just the suit for it.

Mr. Kerrigan is an attorney in Charlotte, N.C.

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