Brooks Brothers dressed the American business class in
pinstripes for more than 200 years and survived two world wars and the shift to
casual dressing. But it was no match for the coronavirus pandemic.
The closely held company, which is owned by Italian
businessman Claudio Del Vecchio, filed for bankruptcy protection in Wilmington,
Del., on Wednesday. One of the few brands to make clothes domestically, it
plans to halt manufacturing at its three U.S. factories on Aug. 15 and will use
the bankruptcy process to search for a new owner.
Brooks Brothers joins a parade of U.S. retailers seeking
relief in bankruptcy court since March, including Neiman Marcus Group Inc.,
J.Crew Group Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. JCPNQ +2.22% Economic fallout from
Covid-19 has also pushed high-profile companies in other industries into
bankruptcy, including Hertz Global Holdings Inc. and Chesapeake Energy Corp.
Mr. Del Vecchio blamed the pandemic for the company’s
current troubles, saying in an interview on Wednesday that temporarily closing
stores during the lockdowns greatly reduced revenue, yet the company still met
its contractual obligations to workers, suppliers and other vendors. He said he
wished that the government had provided a lifeline to larger retailers the way
it did to small businesses.
“Through every era, we had challenges, but we were confident
we would be able to manage through them,” he said. “Retailing has been changing
a lot in the last four to five years, and we were in the process of adapting to
that new environment. When coronavirus came, there was really no way to sustain
While it seeks a buyer and restructures its debts, Brooks
Brothers said it has secured a $75 million debtor-in-possession loan from WHP
Global. WHP, backed by Oaktree Capital and BlackRock, is a brand-management
firm that owns the Anne Klein and Joseph Abboud apparel brands.
Brooks Brothers was facing challenges before the health
crisis forced nonessential retailers to temporarily close their stores. The
company had about $1 billion in revenue in 2019, and about a quarter of its
sales came from ecommerce. It has 500 stores around the world and roughly 200
in North America, after deciding to close about 50 locations because of the
Corporate America had turned increasingly casual, and fewer
men were buying suits. Once people started sheltering at home, they turned to
even more casual attire, such as sweatpants.
As people begin to head back to the office, it isn’t known
whether they will return to a more formal way of dressing.
“I’ve seen a growing trend toward more casual dress partly
because that’s how our clients are dressing,” said Quyen Ta, a partner in law
firm King & Spalding LLP’s San Francisco office. “I’ve met with general
counsels of public companies who are in hoodies.”
Brooks Brothers hired the investment bank PJ Solomon last
year to explore strategic options, including a possible sale, according to
people familiar with the situation. It also received a $20 million loan from
liquidation firm Gordon Brothers, these people said. The loan was from the
firm’s financing arm, which is separate from the division that handles
liquidations, one of the people said.
Brooks Brothers is expected to attract buyers, other people
familiar with the situation said. Authentic Brands Group LLC, a licensing
company that owns the Barneys New York and Sports Illustrated names, is a
potential suitor, they said.
Other sellers of men’s work attire have also struggled since
the pandemic. Tailored Brands Inc., TLRD +0.24% parent of Men’s Wearhouse and
Jos. A. Bank, said in June that it has taken several steps to conserve cash,
such as taking longer to pay landlords and suppliers. The company reported a
60% decline in sales in the quarter ended May 2. Last week, Tailored Brands
skipped a bond interest payment.
Founded in 1818, Brooks Brothers, which pioneered ready-made
suits, came of age along with the nation. It started selling its clothes before
the Erie Canal opened and the California Gold Rush began. Its clothes have been
worn by dozens of U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Theodore
Roosevelt, as well as tycoons ranging from the Astors to the Vanderbilts.
It introduced the first button-down-collar shirt in 1896, an
idea a grandson of the founder got from watching a polo match in England. He
noticed that the players’ collars didn’t flap in the wind, because they were
buttoned down. It popularized other looks such as the reverse-stripe “repp”
tie, a take on Britain’s regimental neckwear, as well as Harris Tweed and the
Robert Herbst, a 62-year-old lawyer, remembers his father
taking him to buy a Brooks Brothers shirt, tie and blue blazer when he was
about 7 years old. Later, when he joined the law firm White & Case LLP, he
bought his first Brooks Brothers suit.
“It was the uniform,” said Mr. Herbst, who lives in
Larchmont, N.Y., and is now the general counsel of several small companies.
“Brooks Brothers was a way of life,” he said. “It represented a traditional,
old-line way of dressing.”
Mr. Herbst said that although he has a closet full of Brooks
Brothers suits he has been dressing more casually in recent years. “I used to
wear suits five days a week, and that’s very rare now,” he said.
Even as other retailers moved production overseas, Brooks
Brothers continued to manufacture a small portion of its suits, ties and shirts
in three U.S. factories—in Haverhill, Mass., Garland, N.C., and Long Island
City, N.Y. The factories produce roughly 7% of its finished goods, mainly
suits, ties and some shirts.
As the move to dress more informally gained steam through
the 1990s and 2000s, Brooks Brothers tried to adapt. In 2016, it introduced
Golden Fleece, a line of casual clothes that included sweaters, jackets, sport
shirts and slacks. But it faced competition from many upstarts. Today, tailored
clothes account for about a fifth of its sales, with casual sportswear making
up the rest, according to a spokeswoman.
Brian Ouellette of Clyde Hill, Wash., bought his first Brooks
Brothers suit when he entered the PaineWebber & Co. training program in
1995. “My attire today is much more casual,” said the 48-year-old, who started
his own company in 2010 that coaches financial advisers. “I’ll wear French cuff
shirts with shorts and loafers in the summer.”
Brooks Brothers was acquired by the British retail chain
Marks and Spencer Group MAKSY 0.83% PLC in 1988. It was sold in 2001 to Retail
Brand Alliance Inc., which was controlled by Mr. Del Vecchio, whose father
founded Luxottica Group SpA, the Italian eyeglass maker. It changed its name to
Brooks Brothers Group Inc. in 2011.
Restoring Brooks Brothers has been a passion of Mr. Del
Vecchio, who became enamored of the brand while growing up in Italy, according
to a 2015 interview on the company’s website. Brooks Brothers was the first
store he visited when he came to the U.S. at the age of 25. “As a frequent
customer, I thought there were ways I could improve on quality,” Mr. Del
Vecchio said in the interview.
He upgraded the fabrics, overhauled the supply chain and
introduced new lines, including Black Fleece, a collection created by
avant-garde designer Thom Browne that was discontinued in 2015. He also pushed
the company to expand internationally. In 2001, Brooks Brothers’ only
international market was Japan. Today, it has a presence in more than 70
Mr. Del Vecchio said he was unsure what he would do after
Brooks Brothers is sold. “For now, I want to ensure a long life for this
company.” he said.
Write to Suzanne Kapner at Suzanne.Kapner@wsj.com and Soma
Biswas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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