200 Years of American Style
America's oldest clothier, Brooks Brothers celebrated two centuries in business this year. In an exclusive interview, Esquire speaks with its CEO Claudio Del Vecchio about the brand's heritage and its future.
Abraham Lincoln shopped at Brooks Brothers. Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy both wore Brooks Brothers at their inaugurations. Barack Obama and Donald Trump wore top coats from the brand when they met. Perhaps, amidst all the political differences in US, the one thing these politicians could agree on is their patronage of America’s oldest clothier. Beyond dressing its illustrious Presidents, the heritage shirtmaker holds a significant influence on the American style—Brooks Brothers were the first to sell ready-made suits off the rack; first to introduce the foulard tie in 1890; first to bring Harris tweed to the US from Scotland in 1900; and first to begin designing and offering Madras fabric in 1902. Their invention of the soft-collared button-down polo shirt in 19th century was then populated by everyone from the Ivy League to Andy Warhol.
Recently in Shanghai, Brooks Brothers staged a special runway show to commemorate its heritage and history. We had a chance to speak with its CEO Claudio Del Vecchio, who has been famously quoted saying: “We're not good because we're old, we are old because we're good.”
ESQUIRE: For a brand that is 200 years old, how do you stay permanent and relevant in the industry?
CLAUDIO DEL VECCHIO: I think it's all about the ability to adapt to the new needs of consumers. The mission of Brooks Brothers is to make you feel comfortable in every situation. I guess we've done that better than a lot of our competitors; we weren't the only company 200 years ago. If you look at the top 10 companies every 20 years, we've probably been there most of the time. But the other nine not so much. So, I think we've done a good and consistent job better than most other people.
ESQ: What do you think is the reason behind the success?
CDV: Since day one, it has been the mission of the company written by the founders to make great quality clothes and sell it at a fair price for customers to appreciate the product. This mission has been consistent. Quality has always been consistent. Some years might not be perfect but they're always ready to recover. After 200 years, we still make the best quality clothes we've ever made, and we always look long term, not short term. A big advantage was the fact that it was run by the same family for 150 years and they've always looked at things long term. They were able to create a culture that was so strong that it's hard to change.
ESQ: Speaking of being family-run for so many years, how important are family values and traditions to the company?
CDV: Very important. It makes it much easier to create a culture that lasts. And when it lasts for so long, it's very hard to change that culture. I've always said, let's make sure we make this culture so strong that we make it very hard for the next guy to screw up. And it's really been that way forever. Because of that, we've been able to establish such a strong relationship with the customer that the customer themselves make sure that we don't screw up, because they feel part of the family.
ESQ: Menswear trends have leaned towards very street in recent years. How has that affected Brooks Brothers as a brand that has traditionally sold the image of a dapper gentleman with suits?
CDV: Firstly, the suits are lasting, even more so than modern clothing such as sneakers or t-shirts. So, the suits for now is still a mainstay. The accessories have changed a little bit. I always say we invented sportswear. We invented suits; but we also invented the blazer, we invented the button-down shirts, we invented the chinos; we made suits out of seersucker. We invented all of that, so no one should be afraid that work gets a little more casual. Business-casual is really where it’s heading towards for Brooks Brothers. It’s not necessarily as proper, but it's always been part of our effort. We're not afraid. We supply the customer with whatever they need, and we have both.
ESQ: Was there any pressure towards more street style?
CDV: Part of our collection is dedicated to suit that kind of customer and their needs. Right now, we have a red fleece that's a little friendlier to try to fulfil their needs. We also have a lot of customers for whom we still must make the stuff that were popular before. We can't bring about a jump away from those customers; we want to carry them through the changes that we want to make. It's always been a part of the mission. We don't worry ourselves with that [pressure]; we know that we can produce and design anything. We're not against that sort of thing, we're for all of this. We have no major fights in the company or support only one trend or another. We support the customer, and if customers want support for a trend we'll help support that trend.
"You need to be good to last 200 years. Just being born 200 years ago doesn't make it good."
ESQ: Then how does the brand try to appeal to the younger generation?
CDV: We do that by giving them what they want—a combination of quality, aesthetic, price, and logistics of how they want to buy that product. The logistics is very important nowadays compared to the past; it has become more a part of the process. Especially online, we have to be able to offer what they want online and let them pay how they want to pay. For us, being a brand is about the consumers; we serve the customers. We are a brand that’s opposite to the other brands in the sense that we are a brand because of what we do; other brands do everything they do because of the brand.
ESQ: So, what’s the future plan in terms of e-commerce and marketing seeing as being digital is a big part of consumerism these days?
CDV: As I said before, if that's what the consumer wants, that's what we are going to do. That's why we have to be ready and make the best use of technology that we can. I think that it's become one of the attributes that's going to make the company successful or not successful. We are investing in technology and e-commerce technology. But it's not only just e-commerce, it's also allowing the customer to communicate with us. The relationship online cannot be one-way; it has to be two-way. That's why we have media as it's very important to communicate. So we need to do that, and we have to learn. It's a new language we have to learn and if we don't learn it, we don't do our jobs and we won't be successful; it's a very important part of what we do and what we sell.
Inside one of Brooks Brothers store.
ESQ: You have this famous saying of "We're not good because we're old, we are old because we're good.”
CDV: Yeah, it's true. That would make sense if we were the only company 200 years ago, but there were many companies 200 years ago, 150 years ago, 100 years ago. We were the only one that lasted, which means at every point in time, we did a better job than the competition. You need to be good to last 200 years. Just being born 200 years ago doesn't make it good.
ESQ: What have you learned the most in terms of not just business, but other things?
CDV: I think what I do a good job in the company is that I walk into a store or the office as a customer still; as both the customer and the company because I was somehow the unhappy customer and I felt I should contribute to make it better. Since I've been with the company, I still look at everything we do from a customer perspective. If I learned something, I think that is what is missing in many companies. It becomes the dream of the designer, or the dream of serving the customer.
ESQ: It must be different once you're the boss and walking in and having to be the customer?
CDV: It's how you see the things. You have to react to what you see, and it's very easy to get caught in the everyday work so you don't see things that are right in front of you. To be able to see what you have in front of you from the customer's point of view is very important. People work with me, and not everybody can do that. My job is really more to try to make them see the world the same way the customer would. That's probably the most difficult part of the job.
ESQ: What do you hope to see Brooks Brothers grow into in the next century?
CDV: Looking at just today and the next few months, knowing that if we do a good job now it's going to build a strong company for the future. This team is responsible to carry this company from this day to this day, and another team is going to take over after that. Our job is to build a strong culture to make it easy as I said before, for the next guy not to screw up. We hope it's going to be another 200 years, but it's not the reason why we go to work in the morning. We go to work in the morning to make sure that the store tomorrow morning looks great and the customer is happy. The idea that our customer is going to tell another customer and their children, who are going to tell their grandchildren—we have to keep the curiosity going. That's the most important thing. The moment we think we know everything is the day you die, because you stop thinking like the customer and stop looking at what's happening around you.
ESQ: So, it's something that you can pass through the generations?
CDV: Every day is a new day and curiosity is a very... firstly, fun. You learn something every day. When you learn, you have things to work out and things to do. It never becomes boring, and it becomes less surprising. When you only look inside yourself, and not outside, sometimes you get so surprised that you don't have the strength and ability to re-innovate to do what you need to do and adapt. But if you look outside all the time, and not at yourself... Ego is not a good attribute. But a lot of fashion companies that we compete with, they dream with egos and sometimes that's what happens. It can be right one day but if you don't stay current, you're not going to be right every day. There's always going to be somebody that learns something they didn't know and make it better for the next generation and company. It's fun to watch and learn every day and work with a team that wants to do the same thing.