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'Classics can always be improved': Brooks Brothers modernises its heritage

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US heritage brand Brooks Brothers celebrates 200 years in business in 2018. As it revamps its UK store offering, Drapers looks at the history of success and future developments for the business. 

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Luca Galstadi

Founded in 1818 in New York by Henry Sands Brooks, US retailer Brooks Brothers has spent 200 years crafting high-quality menswear. Its preppy American style of shirts, polos are sold in 700 own stores and 850 total stockists across 45 countries.

Although menswear is its core offer, it has offered womenswear since 1949, and recruited designer Zac Posen as womenswear creative director in 2014.

In the UK today, it operates a flagship on London’s Regent Street, and outlet stores at York Designer Outlet and Bicester Village – the latter was relaunched in a new, larger space in August. Its 150 global wholesale stockists include Yoox and The Rake in the UK.

The brand has a premium feel and price points reflect this, although it does offer accessible entry-level products. It does not disclose wholesale prices, but retail prices for menswear range from £39 for a shirt to £2,500 for a technical overcoat.

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Brooks Brothers autumn 18

Luca Gastaldi, CEO EMEA, says Brook Brothers simultaneously embraces heritage and pushes for innovation.

“We have maintained consistency with our roots, but always look forward and keep alive the curiosity, the desire to renew, to do endless research and in some cases, to be disruptors or rebels,” he explains. “For most of its history, Brooks Brothers has held tight to the notion that the classics can always be improved.”

Although the brand’s 200th anniversary this year has led it to look back, and given rise to global celebrations – including its debut men’s catwalk show at menswear trade show Pitti Uomo in Florence in June – Gastaldi insists that 80% of its focus is on research and innovation to get it ready for its next phase of growth.

“Our priorities remain more or less those of the last 200 years,” he says. “A strong concentration on the product, constant research into materials and processes to ensure high performance, quality and alignment in constantly changing market demands.”

Neil Saunders, managing director of data and analytics agency, GlobalData, notes that this approach has served Brooks Brothers well.

“Staying true to its heritage and never trying to be something that it isn’t has been key to Brooks Brothers’ success,” he says. “Certainly, it has evolved as fashions have changed, but it has never strayed too far from its classical interpretation of design. It has also resisted the temptation to lower quality to compete in a more price-competitive market.”

He continues: “The brand has also been innovative – it was the first to introduce ready-made suits to American consumers, and the first to design shirts with button-down collars. Historically, this allowed it to be seen as a leader in menswear design, and it still trades off this perception today.”

Tiffany Hogan, senior analyst, apparel, at Kantar Retail, agrees: “Although it has tried to bring in new, younger shoppers over the years, it has managed to always cater to its core older, more affluent shopper. It hasn’t really tried to sacrifice quality for price, which has allowed a certain level of prestige to remain associated with it. It offers a very ‘classic’ sensibility, focusing on quality materials and fashion basics/wardrobe staples, plus some more fashionable pieces. It has a very classical upper-class American vibe.”

Despite this “classic sensibility”, Brooks Brothers continues to innovate in product. The luxury Golden Fleece line launched in 2016, and focuses on combining technical innovation and high-quality design. Items in the collection include water-resistant jackets, triple-layered wool outerwear and lightweight tailoring. Prices range from £195 for a Italian denim shirt to £2,500 for a top coat.

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Brooks Brothers Bicester Village

Much of its other evolution efforts are now focused on digital innovation and omnichannel developments. Brooks Brothers is pushing  innovations throughout its portfolio, testing a platform called BAGA – “buy anywhere, get anywhere”, in its US stores.

“We guarantee our customers maximum freedom in terms of channels through which they can make a purchase, whether physical or digital,” explains Gastaldi. “The customer can establish the channel that is most convenient and decide where and how to make the transaction. It is essential to guarantee to our customers a cohesive, unique and consistent experience throughout the customer journey.”

The new 750 sq ft Bicester Village store reflects this focus on customer experience, and the Regent Street store, which will be remodelled in the coming months, is set to do the same.

“The Bicester Village space is designed to make our clients feel at home and at ease with an even more seamless shopping experience,” says Gastaldi. “For example, we have dedicated runners to collect products from our warehouse and bring them to the store.”

Despite the omnichannel evolution, Gastaldi stresses that stores will remain core to the business, and the brand has plans to gradually increase its locations in promising markets such as Europe and China.

He does, nonetheless, note that the current store model needs to shift. “We continue to believe in bricks and mortar – it will not disappear. However, we will see fewer shopping bags carried out from stores, and stores will become more similar to showrooms. This type of change will become necessary, as the costs of retail are exorbitant. As turnover in stores is decreasing, costs must become sustainable and consistent.”

With a solid focus on quality and business innovation, Brooks Brothers is positioned as a dependable, heritage brand with its sights set firmly on the future. Gastaldi highlights a quote from Brooks Brothers’ global CEO Claudio Del Vecchio as signifying the brand’s attitude to the past and future: “We are not good because we are old, we are old because we are good.”

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