In praise of Brooks Brothers
Many readers will feel inclined to associate Brooks Brothers with prep schools and somewhat dated Joe Yale Ivy League caricatures, with old-fashioned Wall Street mandarins and Episcopalian clergyman brunching outdoors, with lawn tennis, touch football, and sailing, and, above all, with the extinct WASP mannerisms that live on as a parody at Duke frat parties and in the first-class cabins of Delta flights from BOS to ATL.
This is a not altogether inaccurate impression of the clothier responsible for introducing Madras and argyle socks to this country. For 200 years now, the company founded as H. and D.H. Brooks has been as quintessentially American as Barbara Bush's gorgeous hair. Forty American presidents have worn Brooks Brothers, including Lincoln; the beautiful — and, by the standards of the age, simply enormous — frock coat in which the great man was assassinated was a Brooks custom job, with an American eagle stitched into the lining alongside the motto "One Country, One Destiny."
This would, if appropriating it were not too disrespectful to the 16th president's memory, make an excellent slogan for a company that has never had one. But Brooks has not always been the exclusive province of the well-heeled. One of my great-aunts was for many years a manager of one of their stores. The first decent shirts I ever owned as a college student were four immaculate white Oxfords in their billowing Traditional fit. Walking into a job interview, I felt confident and relaxed, like a modest but elegant 30-foot sloop setting out for a quiet afternoon cruise rather than a nervous 21-year-old uncertain of whether I would be any good at working in a bank. (As it happens, I was not hired.)
This, I think, gets very near the heart of Brooks Brothers' appeal. No matter who you are or what you look like, if you wear a Brooks shirt in the right size you will make a good impression. Not flashy or debonaire but buttoned-up and presentable. This is not true of most other quality men's clothiers, who these days seem to cater exclusively to starving 17-year-old French models who look like pouting Hellenistic busts no matter what they put on. Like the best parts of the WASP ethos with which the brand is rightly associated — politeness, common sense, a cheerful stoicism that makes ample allowance for the eccentricities of others — the virtues of Brooks are capable of export. One need not have ancestors among the first settlers of Plymouth Colony or take an active interest in water sports to look or feel comfortable in their clothing. This is why the sons of, respectively, a poor Kansan laborer, a bootlegging lace-curtain Irish hoodlum, and a Muslim Kenyan immigrant have all worn it effortlessly.
The best thing about Brooks Brothers apart from their essential catholicity is their conservatism. There are very few items for sale in their stores or online that would have turned an eyeball in 1960. (They have been serious about doing women's clothes for about as long as Donald Trump has been a Republican politician.) Despite the upheaval of the garment industry at the hands of free trade, they have tried to hold fast to ethical manufacturing standards. To this day they have factories in Queens, New York (ties); Garland, North Carolina (shirts); and Haverill, Massachusetts (suits). Even the eight pairs of coral-colored wool socks I bought 50 percent off a few months ago were made in Italy by people paid a just wage rather than by wage slaves. There is virtually no other men's outfitter in the United States of whom this could be said.
It is worth adding that another tradition they have preserved is one of genuine hospitality. I use that noun rather than "customer service" not only because the latter is such a disgusting construction but because it does not convey the disinterested kindness I have in mind. While covering the Republican National Convention two years ago, I happened to leave my only pair of shoes out in the rain. The only clothing store open downtown was a Brooks Brothers in a building that was itself for some mysterious reason locked from the outside. The staff had reported to work anyway, and after calling to ask whether I could be let in I found myself waited upon patiently by a dozen charming and knowledgeable staffers, who sold me a pair of brown boat shoes that will last me until my children have full-time jobs. One quietly lamented the fact that that they were so inaccessible; with 100,000 Republicans in town, he said wistfully, "it should be our best sales week of the year."
On one rather graver occasion last year, I found myself having to purchase a new black suit for a very unexpected funeral. The jacket needed to be brought in slightly and the pants hemmed. Generally alterations require a minimum of a few days, which in this case I did not have. The staff assured me that they would stay late if necessary to ensure that I was ready.
Meanwhile, when I went to check out, my bank card was not working and I found that I could not even call to inquire about the situation because my cellphone was dead. Anyone who has been in something like this embarrassing situation will recall with horror the sensation of feeling like a dead-beat. I was not made to experience this. Instead the manager gave me a cup of tea, invited me to plug in my phone ("You're going to need it!"), and let me dial the bank from his office. After the situation was resolved and I had paid, he suggested that I go have a real drink and return later for the suit. If it were convenient, he would give me a call or even send someone up the road to let me know in person when it was finished.
While I drank gin and relaxed the staff plugged away at my suit. An hour or so later I was ready to fly at the last minute to Detroit. At the time I had just begun my second week of a new job (this one, in fact) and I felt very much at sea. One might feel inclined to say that tea and sympathy are very small things; perhaps they are, but they are increasingly rare, and in the world of modern commerce almost unheard of. Under the above-described circumstances they were as welcome as they were unexpected.
I reflect upon these things with quiet satisfaction when I open my closet and see outnumbering the Tyrwhitts and the casual western shirts, the lone Versace of unknown provenance, in a row of stolid whites and blues, with the occasional pink or orange gingham popping up like an embarrassed spring flower, all the sensible items I have acquired from Brooks Brothers. No matter where I am going — to Mass, to my uncle's for a few drinks, to my office downstairs for the morning's work — I know that I will look and feel all right.