[This can almost be considered Trad's swan-song -- that moment right before it was buried, in a sense, is the moment when it had decided to make a come back -- I've misplaced the original source, unfortunately].
Ivy Covers New Ground
By MARY LISA GAVENAS
Sunday, March 18, 1990
TRADITIONALLY, THE MAN WHO FAVORS THE IVY League look is a man who
comports himself according to the Protestant work ethic. He values
steadiness, reliability and industry. For decades, his uniform has
been a Brooks Brothers suit, rep tie and button-down shirt. ''It's
what sociologists call 'an instrumental orientation,' '' says Ruth P.
Rubinstein, a professor of sociology at the Fashion Institute of
Technology in Manhattan. ''It's a look that says, 'Hey, I can perform
the job. I am always going to interact in the way that's appropriate.'
The 1980's were not especially kind to this man. On Wall Street, his
ancient stamping ground, interest turned from blue chips to junk
bonds. Traders, the street's trend-setters, made flashy amounts of
money and dressed accordingly, scorning serviceable $500 sack suits in
favor of foreign models with $1,000-plus price tags. ''You didn't see
traders in Brooks Brothers,'' says Gregory Luther, 30, a vice
president at J.P. Morgan. ''I associate Brooks Brothers with
accountants.'' Nor was the decade a high point in the store's long and
illustrious history. Since its founding in 1818, Brooks Brothers has
prided itself on its innovations, which run the gamut from introducing
button-down collars to the United States at the turn of the century to
conferring respectability on Dacron- and cotton-blend dress shirts in
the 1950's. (Among other distinctions: Abraham Lincoln, a regular
customer, was assassinated while wearing a Brooks Brothers suit.)
Milestones were missing from most of the 80's. The store, which has 53
outlets nationwide and a hefty operation in Japan, had also changed
hands three times during the same period. It went to its present
owner, the British retail giant Marks & Spencer, in 1988.
Meanwhile, the man who shopped the neighborhood had begun to change.
He may still align himself with the attitudes of America's upper
crust, but he's less than likely to have hailed from it, or even to
have attended an Ivy League college.''Brooks Brothers has a certain
image of old money and conservative views, and I'm comfortable with
that,'' says Michael Sarlin, 43, an Ithaca College alumnus who is now
an insurance executive. ''I want my clothes to say I'm a man of sound
judgment and experience.'' Richard Press of J. Press Clothiers says:
''Our customer could have gone to CCNY or Oklahoma. He ends up at
Goldman, Sachs. He's gotta blend in.''
Brooks Brothers now seems well aware that its business is not tied
solely to scions of old WASP families. The president, William V.
Roberti, still sports a big red-stoned ring from Southern Methodist
University, where he received his M.B.A. in finance. ''I'm certainly
not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and I'm running the place,'' he
To signal a shift from standard operating procedure, Brooks Brothers
unveiled a renovation of its Madison Avenue flagship last October.
While the face lift did involve reorganization and refurbishment (not
to mention finally installing escalators in the 1913 building), it may
be most noteworthy as a $7 million metaphor for the store's strategy:
to draw new customers in a dignified way and, at the same time,
reassure the regulars that Brooks Brothers will never betray them.
''This is 1990 - you can't afford to ignore your customers,'' says
Roberti. Which implies keeping up with the fads and fancies that
flourish within even the most staid spheres. Late last year, for the
first time since the 50's, Brooks Brothers offered pleated pants with
suits. Roberti almost winces when he admits, ''We were a bit slow in
recognizing that as a trend.''
A similar slip-up is unlikely. Brooks Brothers is already poised for
the coming vogue in English-influenced clothing, as softer Savile Row
suits replace strident striped shirts and strong shoulders as the
''power look.'' among financial movers and shakers. ''In a financial
area, you tend to dress like your superiors,'' observes Luther, whose
own tastes changed after a stint in J.P. Morgan's London office.
Luther classifies his own clothing as English-influenced. (Perhaps not
coincidentally, the current CEO of his company, Dennis Weatherstone,
is English.) Likewise, even though the forthcoming film of Tom Wolfe's
novel, ''Bonfire of the Vanities,'' is set in the Reagan era, Ann
Roth, the costume designer, plans to dress Tom Hanks, the star, in
suits with double vents and high lapels, ''strongly influenced by
Savile Row.'' The sack suit, she says, ''was not worn by the
high-profile guys who defined the 80's,'' whereas ''the stripey shirt
and slick suit is already too much of a cliche.''
Brooks Brothers' take on all this, the ''English model,'' ranging from
$400 to $600, renders the costly Savile-Row silhouette with slightly
padded shoulders and a darted front in either a three-button style
with a center vent or a two-button version with side vents. Both come
with pleated pants. What's more, the store sells shirts to go with
them. Tab-collar shirts were introduced last Father's Day. ''Then I
noticed that the Jermyn Street-style spread collar was one of the
best-selling dress shirts in Europe, so we introduced our own on
November 1,'' says Roberti. ''That's the kind of thing we have to
Even the cut of the clothes was re-examined. The store had always
offered suits with a five-inch drop. (Translated from tailors' jargon,
a drop is the difference between chest and waist measurements.) That
meant that a man with a 42-inch chest was expected to wear 37-inch
pants, an inch or two more than most other makers allowed. A little
over a year ago, when the store began to offer alternatives, sometimes
the difference wasn't enough. Scott Dunn, 21, a computer analyst, fell
head over heels for the ''moneyed Republican look'' of Brooks
Brothers, and then couldn't find a suit that could be altered to his
10-inch drop. ''I was so frustrated,'' he recalls, ''that I considered
bribing the guy to break a suit.''
As of this spring, Dunn won't need to. Brooks Brothers now offers the
''Wardrobe'' option, which includes unpaired jackets and pants in
matching materials, so that a man can shop for a suit the same way a
woman does. Says Carlo Quintilliani, the vice president of clothing:
''We're getting away from the restrictions on who can buy our
Sportswear is under scrutiny, too. Taking Tiffany's, the 153-year-old
American retailer, as his inspiration , Roberti is trying to develop
items that stretch the Brooks Brothers image without shattering it.
Particularly dear to his heart is the success of last fall's $595
leather field jacket, which was advertised with a large color
photograph. ''It was sold to younger guys,'' he crows. ''You never
would have thought Brooks Brothers would have leather.''
Says Annie Brumbaugh, an image consultant who owns the Manhattan-based
Wardrobe Works: ''Brooks still signifies a very comfortable,
hail-fellow-well-met, straight and narrow man. But they're smart to
realize that fashion is much more of an issue. They have to worry
about what the guys down the block are doing.''
Around the corner, if not down the block, J. Press is reveling in the
exact image Brooks Brothers is trying to shed, offering only suits
with plain-front pants and natural-shoulder jackets. According to
Richard Press, an expiring lease and a ''shabby premises that was
starting to look like the beer room of a fraternity'' inspired the
opening of the present location on September 11. ''We wanted it to
look like the admissions office of an Ivy League school,'' says Press,
who runs the store for Onward Kashiyama, the Japanese owner. Given to
carping at his competitors, he notes: ''They offer inappropriate modes
of fashion . . . striped shirts with a striped suit and a striped tie.
It's simply wrong.''
Across the street at Paul Stuart, Clifford Grodd, the president,
dressed in a striped shirt with a striped suit and a polka-dot tie,
explains that his store began updating its merchandise as early as
1958. At the privately-owned business, fashion is still a four-letter
word, although Grodd admits he hears it often to describe his
whimsical window displays and international inspirations. ''We change
much more subtly than the word 'fashion' suggests,'' he asserts.
''After all, our symbol is the man on the fence.''
Up the block at F.R. Tripler, a specialty store owned by Hartmarx, the
giant men's wear company, the clientele ''is not of the
entrepreneurial ilk, but of the corporate ilk,'' according to David
Butler, the sales manager. ''Marketing studies show that our customer
is a 52-year-old corporate executive,'' he says, describing his
typical best seller as a darted Hickey-Freeman wool suit with
unobtrusive shoulders and lapels. Nevertheless, Tripler is planning to
reintroduce a $450 to $500 sack suit in the fall. ''We're trying to
create a niche for the aspirer,'' Butler adds.
Back at Brooks Brothers, Roberti is already betting on a return to
more down-to-earth values. ''We went through a phase where the yuppies
were buying Rolexes and BMW's and Armani power suits,'' he says, ''but
I think now we're going back to the 60's, when, instead of a sports
car, everyone drove a Volkswagen.''
I'm playing with words I know but maybe this is the point when 'Ivy' ends and 'Trad' begins? I'm using 'Trad' to mean the nostalgic element here. When Ivy was all over the backward looking Trad sensibility began to emerge maybe? The look began to be more about 'Tradition' and not so much a living, current style?
Muddy thinking as ever from me...
Great article anyway - Thanks, H.
But SMU!? There goes the neighborhood. Wait a tic, it's already gone!
Ever since their football program got shut down for NCAA violations the school sort of disappeared...more.