Brooks Brothers: Paying homage to two of the oldest retailers in the United States and Canada: Part One–Brooks Brothers, U.S.A.

November 8, 2020

In today’s world, retailers come and retailers go. However, there are two retailers that have shown astounding staying power: Brooks Brothers, in the United States, and The Bay, in Canada. In this two-part series, we delve into the history of these two mighty retailers. This week we’ll feature Brooks Brothers and next week, The Hudson’s Bay Company.

Brooks Brothers, an American fashion icon.
Their elegant and classic fashion styles for men, women, and children, together with innovation, superior quality and personal service, have made Brooks Brothers the oldest retail brand and clothier in the United States–202 years old. In fact, they are the oldest clothier in the English-speak world.

In 1818, Henry Sands Brooks founded
Brooks Brothers, the first ready-to-wear
fashion emporium in America.

Today, Brooks Brothers’ has 267 Retail Stores in the United States.

The early history…
On April 7, 1818, at the age of 45, Henry Sands Brooks opened H. & D. H. Brooks & Co. on the northeast corner of Catherine and Cherry streets in Manhattan. Upon his death in 1833, his four sons, Elisha, Daniel, Edward, and John, inherited the family business. In 1850, the four sons renamed the business Brooks Brothers.

Brooks Brothers original retail store at
116 & 118 Cherry Street in New York City

In the latter half of the 1800s,
Brooks Brothers introduced the 
first ready-to-wear suit to
American customers.

Fashions for U.S. Presidents
In the mid-1800s, Brooks Brothers outfitted loyal customer, United States President Abraham Lincoln, for his first inauguration. For his second inauguration, Brooks Brothers crafted a coat that included in the lining, a hand-stitch eagle with the inscription, “One Country, One Destiny.” 

Brooks Brothers have outfitted
41 of the 45 American Presidents, including, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush,
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Golden Fleece
The Golden Fleece symbol depicted above was adopted by the four Brooks Brothers in 1850. Representing the highest measure of excellence, this ancient symbol was painted over the doors of their shops. To this day, the Golden Fleece remains the Brooks Brothers logo, a symbol of heritage, quality and legendary service.

The Ivy League Look
The Ivy League Look was what every Ivy League college student wore: Harris tweed jackets over oxford cloth shirts, beautiful brushed Shetland sweaters, flannel trousers and argyle socks. Ivy League was the standard of good taste back then, as it still is, today.

A Brooks Brothers ad aimed at college students

Mid- to late-1900s
The last member of the Brooks family to head the company was Winthrop Holly Brooks. He ran the business from 1935 until 1946 when it was sold to Julius Garfinckel & Co.  Winthrop Brooks did, however, stay on after the sale as the company figurehead although John C. Wood became the director of Brooks Brothers.

By 1971, there were eleven Brooks Brothers stores located in Manhattan, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. These eleven retail stores formed part of the retail conglomerate Garfinckel, Brooks Brothers, Miller & Rhoads, Inc., until 1981 when it was acquired by Allied Stores.

In 1988, Brooks Brothers was acquired by the British firm, Marks & Spencer. The company’s executives removed the signature Golden Fleece logo from the brand’s cotton knit polo shirts. 

In the 1960s, Ralph Lauren spent a brief time
working for Brooks Brothers

as a sales assistant.

Recent History
In 2001, Marks & Spencer sold Brooks Brothers to Retail Brand Alliance (RBA), now known as The Brooks Brothers Group.

In 1998, Brooks Brothers
launched its official website.

Brooks Brothers around the world
As of today, there are 267 Brooks Brothers retail stores in the United States and 70 in other countries, including in Australia, Europe, Asia, Mexico, Canada and South America.

Brooks Brothers store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California.

Black Fleece
In September 2007, a new high-end collection of men’s and women’s fashions was unveiled called Black Fleece. It received so much acclaim that in the winter of 2008, Brooks Brothers opened a stand-alone Black Fleece boutique on Bleecker Street.

While Brooks Brothers is typically considered a highly traditional clothier, the company introduced a wide range of clothing novelties throughout its history:

  • Ready-to-wear in 1849
  • In 1896, button-down collars on dress shirts
  • English foulard ties, 1890s
  • Ivy League sack suit (a business suit), 1895
  • Pink dress shirt became a sensation to go with charcoal-gray suits
  • Harris Tweed, introduced in 1900
  • Shetland sweater, introduced in 1904
  • Polo coat about 1910
  • Madras (brightly coloured plaid), 1902
  • Argyle socks,1957
  • Light-weight summer suits, 1930s
  • Wash-and-wear shirts, 1953
  • Non-iron 100% cotton dress shirt, 1998

Brooks Brothers hangs on
Between 2017 and 2019, sales stagnated at around $1 billion due to business fashion turning more casual with people working from home and online competition. The COVID-19 pandemic is also a contributing factor. In May 2020, Brooks Brothers was looking to sell.

In June, the Brooks Brothers proposed closing its three American factories. Sadly, on July 8, 2020, it was reported that Brooks Brothers was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of declining sales and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company will close 51 of its 250 locations in North America. 

On August 12, it was announced that Simon Property Group, the biggest mall operator in the United, bought Brooks Brothers and has committed to operating at least 125 Brooks Brothers retail stores in the United States and more worldwide. Brooks Brothers has survived!

The Big Names
In addition to the 41 presidents who have been dressed by Brooks Brothers, there is also a cast of well-known Hollywood celebrities who have stepped out in a Brooks Brothers fashion including our old favourites, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Barry Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire, Nina Foch, Andy Warhol and Maria Riva.  

Brooks Brothers supplied clothes for the television show, Mad Men and Stephen Colbert had all of his suits for The Colbert Report and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert supplied by Brooks Brothers.

Brooks Brothers frequently dresses stars for their movie parts, such as Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor, Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, and Will Smith in Ali. The company also dressed George Clooney for Up in the Air and created period costumes for Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters. And, it goes on and on.

And, the pièce de résistance, in the novel Catch-22, Nately mentions that his father wears Brooks Brothers shirts. Now, that’s a classic.

Gloria Sauvé
Communications and Marketing

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