The Brooks Brothers Playbook Includes More Sportswear, E-comm and Fun

SPARC Group has wasted no time rolling up its sleeves and getting to work reinventing its new acquisition: Brooks Brothers. SPARC, a partnership between Authentic Brands Group and Simon Property Group, finalized the deal to purchase America’s oldest brand out of bankruptcy for $325 million in September. Since then, it […]

SPARC Group has wasted no time rolling up its sleeves and getting to work reinventing its new acquisition: Brooks Brothers.

SPARC, a partnership between Authentic Brands Group and Simon Property Group, finalized the deal to purchase America’s oldest brand out of bankruptcy for $325 million in September. Since then, it has named a new president, Ken Ohashi; a creative director, Michael Bastian, and established a game plan to position the business for another 200 years of growth both in its home market of the U.S. and around the world.

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“The first thing we did — as we do with all our brands — was to redefine the brand promise and reclaim its heritage with an eye focused on the future,” Nick Woodhouse, president and chief marketing officer of ABG, told WWD in the company’s first comprehensive interview on its plans for the business. Although Brooks Brothers has grown into an institution since its founding in 1818, “institutions can become stale if they don’t reinvent themselves,” he said.

ABG started the reinvention process by drilling down on what Woodhouse called “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals: retail, merchandising and product 101. We want to make sure that this is Brooks Brothers first and then add the sprinkles on top.”

What that means is that the brand is embracing its heritage by highlighting its most iconic products, such as the button-down oxford shirt, Golden Fleece polo, repp tie, trenchcoat, navy blazer with gold buttons and other pieces that have come to define classic Americana. But under the eye of its new creative director, they’ll be updated to appeal to a modern consumer, ideally a younger one than who is shopping the brand.

Turning to its retail stores, SPARC is retaining Brooks’ most profitable brick-and-mortar units while working to significantly increase the brand’s online presence, which it believes can easily be quadruple the size it is today. Women’s wear, which has traditionally been a laggard, will also get a lot more attention, as will the company’s nearly nonexistent wholesale business.

Beyond that, there will soon be some creative collaborations, new licensed partners and bigger penetration in international markets that the company believes are ripe for expansion.

A big job, but one for which Woodhouse believes the new team is ready to handle. And Woodhouse said he has full confidence that SPARC has selected the right person to lead the charge.

Ohashi has a résumé that includes 14 years at Aéropostale, where he served in various roles including senior vice president of international. When ABG bought Aéropostale four years ago, he quickly rose through the ranks at the new parent and has been charged the past two years with overseeing the company’s $3 billion-plus international business as president of international and global retail.

“Jamie [Salter, ABG’s chief executive officer], Mark Miller [ceo of SPARC] and I felt Ken had the perfect blend of art and science,” Woodhouse said. “He’s cerebral but he also has an eye for fashion and understands business fundamentals. So we were happy to transition Ken to this role quickly.”

One of Ohashi’s first big moves to was hire Bastian, whom he first met when the designer was working with Gant on a special men’s and women’s collection around 2010. Bastian started his career in retail as an assistant buyer for Abraham & Strauss and served as men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman for five years before leaving in 2006 to launch his own collection. He was nominated for the CFDA Menswear award six times and won in 2011. Four years ago, Bluestar Alliance LLC, a brand management firm, purchased a majority stake in the label. Bluestar recently sold its stake to a private investor the designer declined to name, and the plan is to eventually relaunch the Michael Bastian line at the luxury end of the market, a plan that has been put on the back burner for the time being. And just as the pandemic hit, he had been in the U.K., working as the interim creative director of Ted Baker. “I took the last Virgin flight out of London,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been a strange but busy year.”

With all of that now behind him, the designer is completely focused on researching and revamping the Brooks Brothers line.

“Ken was a friend for a while,” Bastian said in a walk-through of the fall 2021 collection last week. They started talking before the ink was dry on the deal and when it was finalized, Ohashi made the hire. “It’s a dream for me,” Bastian said. “This is my lane — classic Americana — and this is the brand that built that lane.”

Ohashi said Bastian is a “very commercial designer who will not let his vision supersede the brand. His instincts about color, fabric and the consumer are spot on and you quickly see that when you start speaking to him about the brand and where it should be going. He’s also a very good leader with experience in merchandising, planning and production.”

Woodhouse agreed: “There are very few designers and visionaries that have classic American know-how. We felt very safe giving Michael a pencil and walking away. We know he can stretch the limit of what Brooks Brothers can be and not be stuck in what it should be.”

For Bastian, “it feels like provenance,” he said. “When I started my own line, it was to make things I couldn’t find at Brooks Brothers at the time. So it feels like my design career has come full circle.”

Because of the pandemic and the production delays that it caused most apparel brands, Bastian’s full impact won’t be felt in the collection until the fall of 2021. “With everything shut down for months, we’re behind the curve,” he said, but the immediate priority is to “plug the holes in the assortment.”

That includes ensuring the brand is in popular categories such as ath-leisure, but in an elevated Brooks Brothers way — think cashmere sweatpants and modern denim.

That’s not to say that the brand will turn its back on what built the business. In a whiteboard at the new Brooks Brothers offices at 1411 Broadway is the “icon list” that Bastian and the design team created to ensure the signature pieces customers expect to find when they visit the brand are not forgotten. “The customer is really loyal, but there’s been a level of frustration,” he said, when some of the classic items such as the oxford button-down shirt — “Our Levi’s 501s,” Bastian described it — are out of stock.

He’s also found some other eye-openers, such as a chambray jogging suit from the Eighties that he’s reinventing.

“We’re not a trendy brand, but we’ve participated in every trend,” he said. “We believe we can update these things in an authentic way.”

The designer has spent hours scouring the brand’s rich archives and the office is filled with vintage items such as an oxford pop-up from the Forties that is so oversize that it’s “like a dress,” Bastian said with a chuckle. He’s also poring over resale sites for pieces that can fill in the blanks. Case in point is a men’s ascot shirt that will be reinvented in the women’s collection next fall. He’s also “working forensically,” measuring collars and cuffs to “perfect the icons.”

“We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just putting the spokes back in,” Bastian said.

Step two in the process is to shift the mix to “make sure we have everything we need to be successful in today’s world,” he said.

Brooks Brothers is best known for its tailored clothing and furnishings, but Bastian is “beefing up sportswear” for both men and women. That being said, there’s no plan to abandon the dressier portion of the collection. “We just have to figure out how to get a bigger piece of the pie,” he said, particularly in popular categories such as custom and softly constructed suits and sport coats.

In addition, he said the overall assortment will be simplified. “We have seven fits of shirts and six fits of chinos,” he said. “We want to streamline that.”

Toward that end, the decision was made to eliminate the sub-labels Red Fleece, the collection targeted to a younger customer, and Golden Fleece, its luxury offering. “It’s confusing,” Bastian said. “So they’ll all be merged under the Brooks Brothers name.” This is already evident in the brand’s current holiday campaign, which is mixing all the pieces together. “That’s never happened,” said Bastian, who is also overseeing the marketing campaigns for the business.

One of the biggest opportunities for the business is to expand its women’s penetration, which has remained stuck for years at around 20 percent of sales. For the past several years, the women’s collection has been too heavily centered on career-wear and Brooks missed the boat on filling her needs for less-formal attire, its new owners believe. Add to that the fact that the men’s and women’s designs were not complementary. “We’re looking at this as one big brand,” Bastian said, adding that Brooks wants to “aggressively get her back.”

Zac Posen, who had been creative director of the women’s collection since 2014, is no longer associated with the brand.

Although Bastian’s primary experience is in men’s wear, he is also well-versed in women’s design. “We had women’s for the five years I was at Gant,” he said, adding that that collection was “very similar to Brooks Brothers: classic, American, preppy. And we have a very solid women’s design team here.”

Ohashi said the plan for women’s is to go back to basics. “Over the last five years, we went too contemporary,” he said, “and walked away from basics.” Woodhouse added: “When we reviewed the offering, it was counterintuitive to what Brooks Brothers is. We know we have her eyeballs, so we have to offer her something compelling.”

In fact, that’s the plan for both men’s and women’s as well as children’s wear, which Woodhouse also sees as a big opportunity. So for fall and holiday, Bastian has created six seasonal stories. First is Animals in Motion, which he described as “vaguely equestrian and vaguely Seventies.” Corduroy suits, Shetland sweaters, gun-check vests and moleskin jackets are key pieces in this story. The women’s ascot shirt is part of this collection, as are wrapdresses and skirts.

Next is Glass House, which will address the more luxury end of the mix and will include a shearling down peacoat, a wool-cashmere sweat program, loungewear for women, shearling hoodies and cotton-cashmere shirt jackets. The third story, Back-to-School, is not tied to the season but to the aesthetic, which will include “everything you need for after Labor Day,” Bastian said, including Harris tweed blazers, flannel and rugby shirts in the brand’s repp tie patterns, anoraks, a revisited version of the chambray track pant from the Eighties and a slouchy version of the Brooksgate chino. A boys’ blazer and twin sets will be offered for women.

The Conservatory story is skewed more toward career clothes with updated, tonal looks including a reversible puffer, a Black Watch tartan coat and stretch jersey suit for women. The Holiday collection will include flannel and tartans, the latter of which will identify the clan from which the tartan derives embroidered in the shirts, and the quintessential ice-skating polar bear sweater, but this one shows the bear floating on a piece of ice that is a subtle reminder of global warming.

The story Bastian is perhaps most excited about is Valley Ranch, Wyo. Turns out Winthrop Brooks, grandson of founder Henry Sands Brooks, was a cofounder of the Western dude ranch, and the designer used this as inspiration for an assortment of ranchwear and skiwear such as intarsia sweaters, five-pocket chinos, carpenter pants and a camo print of horses in motion. A buffalo check ranch coat will also be offered.

There’s also a comprehensive Classics collection where the brand’s basics are offered in a rainbow of colors and patterns, and a playful interpretation of the brand’s famous Golden Fleece logo of a sheep being suspended by a ribbon. Over the years, it’s been up for discussion whether it’s a sheep or a goat, whether it’s alive or dead, and just what is going on with the animal. (For the record, it’s alive, and being weighed before being sheared for its fleece.) Bastian has renamed the sheep Henry, after the founder, and this more-animated version of him falling off skis and enduring other pitfalls will be embroidered on polos, T-shirts and sweaters. “We’re making him playful and more relatable,” Bastian said.

Ohashi said sportswear is “still significantly underpenetrated,” and sweaters and knitwear are below 20 percent of total sales. But when the brand does throw its muscle behind a key casual piece, the results are immediate and strong. “We put out a cable-knit hoodie and had 83 percent sell-through in a week,” he said. “So the customer is voting for it.”

Although before the bankruptcy Brooks owned and operated three factories in America in Long Island City, N.Y., Garland, N.C., and Haverhill, Mass., they have all been closed. Ohashi said the brand has since “stabilized our vendors” in Italy, Egypt and Asia, and is looking for a manufacturer in the U.S. for its suits.

In addition to updating the assortment with kid gloves, the new owners also know they can take a lot of costs out of the business by taking advantage of ABG’s wide, international reach. “It was a $4.5 billion brand when I joined,” Ohashi said of the brand marketing company, “and now it’s $15 billion-plus. We’ve been able to add a lot of value by tapping into ABG’s powerhouse marketing, social and digital spend. That’s going to be very important to growing the brand and maximizing every relationship we have. It’s been a huge asset.”

When SPARC bought the business, it agreed to keep at least 125 of Brooks’ 200 U.S. stores open. Ohashi said that number was increased and today, 165 stores are open — or will be as soon as pandemic restrictions are lifted. “Our priority on Day One was to get as many stores as we could open,” he said. But they had to “make business sense.”

Internationally, there are another 436 stores that are going to remain in operation. International accounts for around a quarter of Brooks Brothers’ $1 billion in annual sales.

SPARC believes there is a lot of opportunity to expand Brooks Brothers outside the borders of the U.S.

The brand has joint ventures in China, Japan and Mexico, and operates stores in Europe and the Middle East. New is a partnership the brand recently signed with YM Inc., which also operates the Aéropostale stores in Canada, to expand in that country.

“We’re underpenetrated in the Middle East,” Ohashi said, adding that Israel is seen as an opportunity along with Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Woodhouse stressed that despite an eye toward growth overseas, and fewer U.S. stores open than before the bankruptcy, Brooks Brothers is not contracting in the U.S. “We’re going to accelerate our growth in digital but there’s also no reason to contract brick-and-mortar either,” he said. “Our first priority is to stabilize the business and then grow brick-and-mortar in the U.S. We’ll eventually raise that [165] number.”

But don’t expect Brooks Brothers to reopen its 44th Street flagship, the location where it had operated since 1915. That location is owned by Claudio Del Vecchio, the former owner of Brooks, and so far, the two have not been able to reach a deal that would allow the brand to remain in that location.

“We have to make sure every real estate decision is the right one,” Ohashi said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility.” While 346 Madison Avenue may not be in the cards, he said the brand’s other New York City stores have or will reopen including Rockefeller Center, Hudson Yards and 1180 Madison Avenue at 86th Street.

And considering the state of real estate in Manhattan right now, “there are a lot of favorable deals in New York City,” he said. “And we’ll continue to explore what’s available to us.”

Outside New York, Brooks has key sites on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Newbury Street in Boston, and is “aggressively making sure” its presence in other key cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., is secure.

“City markets are important, but we also thrive in the key suburbs,” Ohashi said, singling out Manhasset, N.Y., King of Prussia, Pa., and Lenox Square in Atlanta as examples. “We feel good about our go-forward fleet,” he said.

Short-term, e-commerce is a major priority. Currently, the category accounts for close to 20 percent of the company’s overall sales, and “we would like to see it grow much bigger,” Woodhouse said, without providing a number. In addition, chronic shortages of key items are being addressed.

Other priorities going forward include reintroducing wholesale, growing the children’s business and offering up some buzzy collaborations to heighten interest in the brand. This week, Brooks will unveil a partnership with Ray-Ban where signature Brooks Brothers patterns will be integrated into the brand’s aviators and Wayfarer models.

“ABG is a powerhouse in collaborations,” Ohashi said, “but with every one, the storytelling has to be there to create interest and sizzle that makes sense.” That doesn’t mean the collaborations will be with only ABG-owned brands — there are at least 50 in the stable including Marilyn Monroe, Nautica, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand and Sports Illustrated.

“You’ll see some collaborations that are not expected from us,” Woodhouse said.

Since ABG is primarily a licensing and brand management company, Woodhouse said the company eventually expects to sign partners for Brooks Brothers furnishings, underwear, neckwear, hosiery, footwear, fragrance, beauty and other categories.

“We have a lot of partners ready to step up to the plate,” Ohashi said, adding that before any deals are signed, the company will ensure that Brooks Brothers’ message of quality and craftsmanship is maintained.

That is true for all categories the brand produces.

Woodhouse said while sportswear and ath-leisure continue to grow, tailored clothing will continue to be a key part of the mix going forward. “There’s no reason we can’t outfit people going to work, too. We’re starting to see an uptick in that part of the business so we’ll be focusing on that, too. You won’t see us running away to yoga pants.”

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