Brooks Brothers Bites the Dust

I was not surprised when I read this morning that Brooks Brothers was filing for bankruptcy protection. The company blames the pandemic, but is that really the problem? I knew they were in trouble years ago.

Founded in 1818, the company boasts that they have dressed 40 U.S. presidents and that much of their product is still made in the U.S., which means it is well made, but not fast-fashion-cheap. The company was sold by English parent company Marks and Spencers to Italian owner Claudio Del Vecchio in 2001 who looked to update the stodgy reputation of Brooks Brothers by appealing to a younger crowd — this was the beginning of its downfall.

I have bought a lot of my clothes from Brooks Brothers over the past 20 years but what I found was that it gradually became more difficult to buy anything. When I went into the shop closest to me, which is 1 1/2 hours away in downtown Toronto where there is no parking nearby, I found that what I wanted was not stocked in my size, and often not available in any size. The American shops I went to while travelling were rarely better. Online shopping through their Canadian site resulted in massive import costs, and so my only option was to order through the Toronto shop, which often took weeks for the items to arrive and required a return trip to pick it up. I will bet the typical client of Brooks Brothers is the classic middle aged male shopper who wants in and out of the store in 20 minutes – tops – I know I am.

As the company courted thirty-somethings who weren’t into buying suits (unless they were appearing in court as either lawyer or felon), they ignored the fifty-somethings who wanted classic business and ‘something-with-a-bit-of-ease-and-flair-for-a-more-contemporary’ business casual look that didn’t abandon respectable middle-aged needs (think Kennedys at Hyannis Port). It got to the point that I was just putting in an order for a few of the same shirts every year and I doubt any company could survive on a few shirt sales.

Added August 14: It was just announced that Brooks Brothers found a buyer, in Simon Property Group (mall operator), and Authentic Brands Group (a licensing firm) so the brand will live on a while longer. It doesn’t sound like the perfect fit to me, but maybe they will fix their supply and demand chain better and not force off-shore production to improve the bottom line…

William H. Kennedy – Merchant Tailor

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were thousands of tailors, milliners, and dressmakers working across Canada. Some had labels that identified the name of their business and location, but most didn’t. A donation that came into the museum a few years ago had a label that identified the merchant tailor’s shop in Galt (Cambridge), and the name of the buyer. A merchant tailor was essentially a men’s wear shop that offered ready-made suits that could be adjusted to the buyer’s measurements.

The shop was owned by William H. Kennedy who was born in Caledonia, Ontario in about 1860. He learned his trade in merchant tailoring at establishments south of the border in Chicago and St. Louis, but by 1900 Kennedy had returned to Canada and set up a merchant tailoring business on Main street in Galt. He retired in 1915 and moved to California in the early 1920s, but returned to Canada in about 1929 and died in 1933.

The wearer of this suit is well known in local history. William Stahlschmidt was born in Germany in 1844 and immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four.  In 1859 he came to Canada and trained to be a teacher. By 1869 he had become the principal of the Preston public school. He married in 1871, and in 1884 founded W. Stahlschmidt & Co., a business that specialized in making furniture for schools and businesses. In 1889 the company went public and was renamed the Canadian Office and School Furniture Company. Stahlschmidt died in 1929 and that same year the company amalgamated with the Preston furniture company that survived until the 1960s.

Herb Goldsmith 1927-2020

Members Only magazine ad, Gatlin brothers modelling, c. 1983

Herb Goldsmith was the man behind the Members Only brand. Born in the Bronx on September 3, 1927, his father was a traveling salesman for the garment company Chief Apparel. Herb served in Northern Italy during World War II where he worked as a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio. Afterwards he went to Long Island University on a G.I. bill and graduated in 1950 with a degree in marketing. He then went to work for his father who, with partner Edwin Wachtel, had founded the company Europe Craft Imports.

While working for this company, Herb came up with the idea of using celebrities to sell clothes, including Tony Curtis and Bing Crosby. In the 1970s he came up with the name ‘Members Only’ for a clothing line – the idea was borrowed from a sign he saw at the Long Island Country Club. In 1978 Herb copied the idea for a jacket with epaulets and a Nehru collar he had seen on a trip to Germany, adding a ‘member’s only’ tag below the breast pocket, and offering his version in a rainbow of colours. The line was so successful, the whole company was renamed Member’s Only.

In 1986 he felt celebrity advertising was becoming stale, so he took the company’s six million dollar advertising budget and switched to making sponsored public service announcements. The first public service campaign addressed the crack epidemic, the second urged people to vote. Some television stations refused to show the spots but they received advertising industry awards and sales climbed 25% over the next four years.

Herb sold his company and left the garment business in 1992 to become an investor and broadway producer. Members Only jackets are still being made. Herb Goldsmith died February 22.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Gentry Inc. neckwear

Butterfly bow tie, c. early 1970s

Neckwear manufacturer Gentry Inc. began operations in Montreal in 1955. Two years later, Italian-born Rocco Polifroni joined the company, and in 1978 he purchased Gentry Inc. from the original owner. Polifroni’s children have since joined Gentry, keeping it a family-owned business that has grown into a 36,000 sq. ft. facility. 

In 1990, the new NAFTA agreement encouraged the company to branch into the U.S. By 1999 they were offering both their own established Polifroni brand, as well as higher-end Italian-made ties under the Serica brand. In the 2000s, the company expanded their product line to include shirts, sweaters and scarves. 

The company’s products are sold under the brands: Polifroni Milano, BLU by Polifroni, Domenico Franco, Nino Zotti, Serica, Serica Elite, Serica Elite NY, and Enrico Fiori, as well as various private labels for independent stores and chains, including Simon Chang Concepts.

School Shooting Chic

Bstroy hoodies – THE fashion faux pas of 2019

You have probably never heard of the label Bstroy, and hopefully you will never hear of them again after their extraordinarily offensive spring 2020 men’s collection of hoodies with holes, simulating bullet holes. What is profoundly obscene about this collection is that the hoodies bear the names of schools devastated by mass shootings: Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Columbine.

Social media feedback was swift and blunt, with many comments coming from survivors and family members of victims of these shootings. One student at Stoneman Douglas texted “My dead classmates should not be a fucking fashion statement.”

Bstroy responded in a post that said the hoodies were to point out how unpredictable, and painfully ironic life can be.

Straw Hat Day and Felt Hat Day

The stiff straw boater (aka skimmer) became a popular summer hat for men in the 1890s and remained popular until the 1920s. Typically worn for semi-formal occasions, they were usually donned with lightweight summer suits, or blazers with white flannels and often worn at boating events, which is the origin for its name. Finer, softer, Panama straws became more popular with younger men by the 1930s, although boaters were worn into the 1950s by older men. 

Men wearing boaters, New York City, July 1921

There rose a peculiar observance in the U.S. in the early 1900s called ‘Straw Hat Day’. This was to be the first day when men wore their straw boaters, abandoning their wintery felt hats for the summer season. The exact date for this observance varied from place to place and year to year, but usually occurred around mid-late May. The Fall counterpart ‘Felt Hat Day’ when the boater was put away, occurred around mid-September to early October. Like the wearing of hats in general, this observance gradually disappeared – the last time it was mentioned in the New York Times was 1963, well after straw boaters had fallen from fashion.

When the convention was being especially observed in the early 1920s, a tradition of destroying your summer hat at the end of the season began as a lark but got out of hand when it escalated into the Straw Hat Riot of 1922. What began as a small group of teenage boys snatching and destroying hats on September 13, two days before Felt Hat Day, grew into a mob of ‘hooligans’ destroying straw hats and beating men who resisted their hats being taken. After eight days and several arrests, the hat smashing orgy was stopped. Magistrate Peter Hatting (no kidding, that’s his name…) was quoted in the September 14 New York Times: ‘It is against the law to smash a man’s hat, and he has a right to wear it in a January snowstorm if he wishes.” 

Although this 1922 event was the worst event of this nature, every year saw occurrences of unwanted hat snatching and destruction until the boater fell from popularity by the end of the 1920s.

Fashion in Song – Yankee Doodle Dandy c. 1760

Yankee Doodle Dandy was originally sung by British soldiers during the French Indian wars (1754-1763) in mockery of unsophisticated colonials. There were many verses and different versions of lyrics over the next few decades, but the one that stuck was the one about the macaroni.

Yankee Doodle, Norman Rockwell

Yankee (American yokel), Doodle (foolish idiot), Dandy (this could be interpreted as anything from a fashion conscious fop to a derogatory reference akin to faggot) was an attack on someone’s sophistication, place of birth, intellect, looks, and even sexual orientation. It was the sort of thing that if hurled thoughtlessly in a pub could lead to fisticuffs.

The song is about one ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ who went to town on a pony (not a horse), and stuck a feather in his cap thinking it made him look très chic – like a ‘macaroni’. This pasta-inspired term was used to describe fashionable, sophisticated British gentleman who were cultured and eloquent with affected effete behaviour (aka manners). They became known for an exotic Italian pasta dish they brought back to England from their Grand Tours in Italy. This is funny considering how déclassé macaroni is considered to Italian foodies these days, however, the term was used to describe all forms of pasta not just elbows covered in yummy melted cheddar cheese (which ironically became a popular dish in 18th century America.)

Unfortunately, for the Yankee Doodle in the song, the feather in his cap only emphasized his bumpkin buffoonery. However, in a contemporary-like twist of re-appropriating slurs, Americans began singing the song themselves, reportedly after the battle of Yorktown in 1781 as a way of rubbing it in that the Yanks beat the Brits (aka Yo Mama…)

From a fashion point, what is interesting about this song is that it identifies a mistrust or dislike for overly-sophisticated and groomed males in American culture that continues to exist. Whether its feathered hats, or umbrellas, or sandals, or man-bags – many elements of men’s dress considered appropriate or fashionable on the other side of the Atlantic have been looked askance as affected and effete in the U.S.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Stanfield’s

In 1882, Charles Stanfield established the Truro Woollen Mills in Nova Scotia. His sons took over the business in 1896 and developed a patented process for making unshrinkable wool union suits in 1915. Stanfield’s went on to diversify its product line, adding women’s rayon underwear, and men’s cotton undershorts and shirts in the 1920s. The company is still in business.

Stanfield’s in store display, 1920s