Soon after buying Brooks Brothers in late 2001, Claudio Del Vecchio took a trip to the warehouse that keeps the company's archives. When a business has been around since 1818, you wind up with a lot of history—especially when you're talking about the retailer that sold Abraham Lincoln the overcoat he wore to Ford's Theatre, F.D.R. the cape he donned at Yalta, Fred Astaire the neckties he used as belts and generations of men the suits they wore to their first jobs on Wall Street.
It had been years since a Brooks executive had looked at the old catalogs, swatches, advertisements and letters kept in the archives. Modern fashion, it seemed, demanded modern notions. Yet in that repository of the old and classic, Del Vecchio first saw a clear vision of his new company's future. "It was a revelation," he recalls, "a real inspiration. Yes, we're not in 1940 anymore, but this sort of lifestyle still exists today."
Del Vecchio, 50, a soft-spoken Italian, has been working ever since to prove that not only does that dress-for-dinner lifestyle still exist, but selling clothes to match it is profitable. During the 1990s, as part of the British retailer Marks & Spencer, Brooks Brothers embraced the business-casual look and moved toward the Banana Republic slice of the retail spectrum, even producing its own line of jeans. As CEO and chairman, Del Vecchio has yanked the company back to its higher-brow heritage by rolling out new cuts of suits, reinvigorating the made-to-order and tailor shops, overhauling women's wear and upgrading fabrics and construction across the board (with higher prices to match). The result: "It's feeling like it felt in the old days," says Thomas Davis, a made-to-measure shirt specialist who has worked at Brooks Brothers since 1967.
It was in the '70s that Del Vecchio first got to know Brooks. Growing up near Cortina, he worked summers in the tool department of his father's eyeglass factory—a business that eventually grew into the market-leading Luxottica Group and made the family one of the richest in Italy. Though far from the U.S., Del Vecchio and his compatriots knew to revere Brooks Brothers, thanks to Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli and the legendary trips he took to New York City to load up on his favorite button-down shirts.
When Del Vecchio came to New York City to head Luxottica's U.S. distribution arm in 1982, he became a frequent customer. In 1992 he persuaded Marks & Spencer to give Luxottica the license for Brooks-branded eyewear. But it wasn't until 1995, when Luxottica bought the parent company of LensCrafters, that Del Vecchio started down a path that would lead him to take over the iconic clothier.
In the deal for LensCrafters, Luxottica also got the midmarket women's-clothing chain Casual Corner. Luxottica couldn't find a buyer for the poorly performing outfit and after two years was on the verge of liquidating it when Del Vecchio said he'd buy it himself. Why? "It was a gut feeling more than anything else," he says. So Del Vecchio left day-to-day operations at Luxottica to strike out on his own. Within a few years, the hemorrhaging at Casual Corner had stopped—and Del Vecchio was looking to expand into additional retail concepts.
When Marks & Spencer put Brooks Brothers up for sale in early 2001, Del Vecchio pounced, eventually netting the company for $225 million. Out went the fused sports coats, denim pants and two-ply made-in-Mexico sweaters. In came the $2,000 suits, Loro Piana cashmeres and alligator-skin handbags. Mark-down sales became something that happened only twice a year. And brand-education classes—covering everything from company history to the way a sweater is made—were instituted for managers and salesclerks alike.
At Luxottica, Del Vecchio spent years in distribution, and with Casual Corner he refined his understanding of supply-chain management. Those strengths were on full display at Brooks as the hands-on Del Vecchio personally met with each of the company's suppliers. Some he had to woo back, like the shoe company Alden, which had made cordovans for Brooks for more than 90 years before Marks & Spencer all but discontinued them. Others he simply had to encourage, like Brooklyn, N.Y., suitmaker Martin Greenfield, whom Del Vecchio asked to make the best suits he could (forgetting about price) and then to travel across the country holding made-to-order events at Brooks Brothers stores.
All the while, Del Vecchio kept returning to the company's history. When Brooks was on the verge of getting kicked out of the tony Americana Manhasset mall on Long Island, N.Y., he spent an entire day talking to the owners about the firm's heritage and convinced them that the quality of merchandise and service would return. And Brooks designers and merchants still travel frequently to the archives, which are kept by a company called the History Factory in Virginia. "There are so many ideas," says creative director Simon Kneen, "you have to pace yourself."
But the big question is whether the "Brooks look" can thrive in an age in which Ivy Leaguers wear sweats to class and celebrities make headlines for going pantyless. "Restrained elegance is not exactly fashionable these days," says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Forecasting Group. Consider that nearly half of Brooks' 190 U.S. stores are factory outlets. Professional attire in the U.S. has somewhat returned to the workplace since the dress-down '90s, but sales of suits, which make up more than 20% of Brooks' revenue, have been flat at best for the past few years.
So it's probably not a bad idea that Del Vecchio is finding growth in new places—like abroad. Brooks has had stores in Japan for years but now is breaking into new markets, from Paris to Seoul to Santiago to London. "We want to grow in a healthy way," says Eraldo Poletto, Brooks' president of strategic development and international business. And moving into countries where people have shown interest by ordering from the Brooks website is thought to be sounder than loading the U.S. market with 100 more stores.
Back home, plenty continues to change as well. In May, Brooks started rolling out stand-alone Country Club stores to play up the polos, shorts and tennis skirts in its popular sportswear collection. The new concept also speaks to another trend: nearly half of each Country Club store is devoted to women's clothing.
During Del Vecchio's tenure, women's wear overall has gone from 12% to 20% of Brooks sales, a real spike at a store that for most of its 189 years downplayed the fact that women wore its clothes. These days Brooks is paying much more attention. Take, for example, the classic button-down, which is now specially designed with a narrower placard and smaller collar and comes in four different cuts. Brooks has even opened some women's-only shops.