Fashion & Beauty

The Hidden (in Virginia) Story of Brooks Brothers

October 15, 2014


THE VENERABLE men’s clothier Brooks Brothers has been a fixture in New York since being founded in downtown Manhattan in 1818. But it can be argued that the beating heart of the company resides some 20 miles west of Washington, D.C., in an industrial park in Chantilly, Virginia. BrooksBros1webThat’s where the official Brooks Brothers historical archive resides in soothingly dim light and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus two degrees.

The repository of Brooksiana, shall we call it, owes its richness and its very existence to two men. The first, Donald C. Vaughan, was the company’s director of advertising from 1915 to 1948. He kept files of Brooks’s newspaper advertisements, brochures and historical photos. He even collected novels and other books that mention the company, which made and sold ready-to-wear work clothes for the mining expeditions of the 1849 California Gold Rush, uniforms for Union soldiers in the Civil War and made the custom-tailored overcoat Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.

“It’s fair to say we have every piece of paper that mentions Brooks Brothers,” says Kelly Stuart, a lively young woman who bears the rather cumbersome title of Director, Brand Training and Development, but who fairly gushes Brooks history and lore (“I’m a history junkie, and this is the most powerful crack there is,” she says). Vaughan was extraordinary in another way, she explains: In addition to writing the history- and culture-laden advertising for Brooks in the 1930s and ’40s, he answered every customer letter from the 1920s to the ’50s.

Vaughan was the historian of the company. Under him, and following him, Milly Schlesinger was the first to codify all the material; it was she who created the upstairs museum at the Brooks headquarters, which moved to 44th and Madison to take advantage of Grand Central Terminal and its steady flow of business commuters. She was the one, Stuart says, who first gave context to the historic materials, with her “Dear Future BB Historian” letters. Every year Brooks gives a Values Award in Schlesinger’s name.

The other Brooks archive “enabler,” and the reason the archive is in the Washington area, is Bruce Weindruch, co-founder of D.C.’s History Factory, a company created in 1979 to compile and/or manage historical archives for corporations and other organizations.

Being “a lifelong devoted” Brooks customer, Weindruch approached Brooks in 1982 and was invited to visit the Manhattan “attic” where some historical materials were being collected and stored, not necessarily in organized fashion. Six years later, Weindruch and company were assembling the company’s heritage in an archivally responsible way.

BrooksBros2webFor its first 125 years or so, Brooks was a stable company, passing down from the original brothers. The clothier passed out of the family’s hands in 1946, when Henry Sands Brooks’s great-great-grandson, Winthrop Holley Brooks, sold the firm to Julius Garfinckel and Company of Washington, D.C. As the decades passed, the clothier was sold again, to Allied Stores (1981), then to British retailer Marks and Spencer (1988).

Retail turmoil in the 1980s and ’90s made the maintenance of an archive just about the last consideration for the company’s embattled owners. Soon Weindruch was maintaining the collection at his own expense–600 linear feet of processed material–out of belief in the brand and its place in history.

Then came 2001 and new owner Claudio Del Vecchio, who took the company private. The Italian billionaire, a Brooks enthusiast and a lover of its history, thanked the History Factory for preserving the archive, to which Weindruch responded, “No thanks necessary: You’re the guy I’ve been waiting for!” With a stroke of Del Vecchio’s pen (on a bank check), the decade-long back rent and expenses of the archive were satisfied and the collection set firmly on a new footing.

The collection continues to grow. “When you sell clothing,” Kelly Stuart says, “you don’t necessarily think of your clothes as part of your ‘archive,’ but they are.” The National Park Service certainly saw things that way in 1990 when it asked Brooks to make a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s overcoat to be displayed at Ford’s Theatre; Brooks also performed some 300 hours of restoration work on the original.

Those who tend to see Brooks as a company selling stuffy, conservative clothing–the company did lose its way a couple of decades ago–will be surprised to learn how innovative the clothier has been through history, introducing button-down shirts (1896), Harris tweed (1900), madras fabrics (1902), the Shetland sweater (1904, and then in a wider range of colors in 1938) and argyle socks (1957) to the American public.

Most of the men who have led Brooks seem to have been devoted Anglophiles, and a lot of these styles have an obvious British heritage. For instance, the button-down shirt was first spotted by John E. Brooks, grandson of the founder, at a polo match in England in about 1896. He noted something odd about the players’ shirts–the points of their collars were buttoned down “so as to prevent their flapping in the wind,” the Brooks history recounts. The button-down polo shirt, offered by Brooks in oxford cloth, arguably became the most imitated item in fashion history.

One Brooks innovation was imported rather more directly from England. For decades the retailer displayed its suit jackets in stacks and stacks on open tables, the way we find clothing shown today at places like Costco. The jackets were laid out, one atop another, inside out, with their lining showing, the point being to impress shoppers with a garment that was finished as well inside as out.

The habit continued into the 1960s, and was changed after a store visit from England’s Prince Philip, who commented that the display looked rather messy!

Using the now-current archive, including pieces of clothing, Brooks has recently fashioned a garment based on its traditional livery coat. An old scarlet riding jacket (a “pink”) has been restored and may soon inspire some new fashion. Perhaps Brooks is looking to the legacy of designer Karl Lagerfeld who, rather than be constrained by the severe lines of the traditional Chanel jacket, found ways to honor its history while turning it into wildly modern fashion. 

Whatever the case, Brooks Brothers quite clearly sees looking back into its rich history as a brilliant way to move forward.

–Nancy McKeon

One thought on “The Hidden (in Virginia) Story of Brooks Brothers

  1. jimkelly says:

    Is it possible to visit the archives?

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