The Radical Currency of Prep: Opportunities for Brooks Brothers and J. Crew
On July 22nd, the New York Times published an article “Save Brooks Brothers!” by Lisa Birnbach, editor and co-author of The Official Preppy Handbook, bemoaning Brooks Brothers’ decline. The good news is her wish has appeared to come true pending court approval: Simon Properties and Authentic Brands have agreed to purchase the brand for $325 million. The question I’ve been pondering is why Brooks Brothers and other larger scale prep-associated brands have felt so dusty while several newer, prep-influenced brands feel fresh and are connecting with the next generation of consumers: NOAH, Rowing Blazers, Kule, J. Mueser, Magill, HIP, amongst others a concentric circle or two beyond who tilt ‘trad’ (e.g., Sid/Ann Mashburn). Additionally, there’s a slew of lively prep sites, magazines, forums and Instagram accounts that are effectively holding the torch and fanning prep’s flames: Ivy Style, Ask Andy, Cluel, Cluel Homme, Wm Brown Project, Bshop, Asakoko, Popeye, Onkul, JOURNAL STANDARD relume, Maine 1988, Cassidy (and so many more).
Ultimately, I’d argue prep is alive and well — perhaps even thriving — and, for the moment, not living at Brooks Brothers or J. Crew in their current incarnations. [Ralph Lauren also faces similar challenges AND opportunities in apparel and is some 50% off its stock price high, down even before COVID, but seems to be somewhat better off due to its home business.]
But why, and is there opportunity for these larger, older brands to course correct?
I’ve observed 10 differences (with a bonus thought) which the newer prep-inspired brands understand inherently and employ deftly…as do cooler Japanese retail, streetwear and the best luxury brands:
- ‘Home Base’ Positioning: Younger prep-inspired brands typically have a defined positioning. Remarkably, there is enough space on prep’s campus for these brands to occupy their own distinct parcel, yet still be able to extend beyond their boundaries. NOAH — Streetwear Surf Prep. Rowing Blazers — Modern Take Ivy Prep. J. Mueser — Sprezz Prep. Kule — French-Californian Beach Prep. Cluel (a Japanese magazine) — Young Casual Prep. As with the great tailoring shops on Savile Row, there is certainly overlap, but each has its own address and signature. [Full disclosure: these are my interpretations of their positioning, not the brands’. They might massively disagree with these characterizations.]
2. Content and Connection before Commerce: The younger prep-inspired brands instinctively use social media not just to pedal their latest wares, but to create and celebrate culture, ideas, and beliefs with their tribe. An eye-sweep of their Instagram content shows that 30–40% of posts are vibe and inspiration vs. product, potentially a higher percentage. They recognize that social media accounts are an always-augmented, live magazine, not a 1970s JC Penney’s catalog.
3. Creative Directors Who Play with Tradition: Brendon Babenzien, Jack Carlson, Nikki Kule, Jake Mueser, Todd Magill. Brooks Brothers had partnered with Thom Browne on a sub-brand (Black Fleece, which caused a stir, but closed in 2015) and still works with Zac Posen on womenswear, but at the newer prep brands, these creative directors oversee the entire brand (likely with teams helping). They know the codes of prep and are unafraid to inject them with newness. They typically embody the brand in their own personal style and could, would and do wear their brands’ clothes, though not exclusively. Secondarily, though they share their perspectives, inspirations and influences, they generally throttle their personal exposure, avoiding over-indulging in selfies. (I personally think Jenna Lyons was/is terrific as a creative who played with, and remixed, tradition, but, well, that is another story and article altogether, with more ‘perspectives’ than Rashomon, and a precipitous sales decline pinned on alienating core consumers. But she certainly evolved the ‘Brooklyn eclectic prep’ vibe for a good while.)
4. Limited Availability: Due to these brands’ relatively small scale, most ‘releases’ are naturally limited edition, even if they aren’t promoted as such. An axiom that seems to elude larger apparel brands, including Brooks Brothers, is that discerning younger consumers don’t want to see, or feel that, everyone is wearing the same styles, especially at premium price points. Many streetwear brands limit production at more affordable prices, driving even more demand and excitement; Supreme limits the production on its iconic box logo t-shirts, driving a considerable business on resale sites. [Older consumers often share this penchant for exclusivity.]
5. Merchandising Exclusivity: Larger brands and retailers, even those with higher price points, often stack the same styles 15-25 high on shelves, reinforcing their unlimited nature. The newer prep-inspired brands, streetwear, and cooler Japanese stores (with significant overlap across these categories) reinforce the aura of scarcity in their merchandising. They inherently understand that customer experience at retail is similar to UX: people are confused or turned off when too many options are densely packed. Consumers “bounce”. [For a Uniqlo, Zara or H&M, this is more acceptable, because prices are affordable, and they quickly cycle through styles. At Brooks Brothers, which likely has numerous perennial styles at higher prices, it is decidedly less appealing.]
6. Quality: The successful prep-inspired brands don’t sacrifice quality for price point. A NOAH sweatshirt costs more than many others, but has a weight and material that will last years, and despite what doubters might think, are significant selling points; many brand fans actually know where the sweatshirts are manufactured — country and factory. Kule’s shirts and Rowing Blazers’ rugbies will likely improve with age. Unfortunately, there’s an impression that Brooks foreign-made apparel is sub-par (I know that some is still made stateside, and, in full disclosure, haven’t done A/B comparisons.) To make matters worse, a brand like Brooks’ distribution through outlets, with lower priced, often lower quality merchandise with the same label stacked in giant piles — and then further discounted — reinforces this inferior quality perception (Point 5). Younger, fashion-interested consumers hate this and prefer brands who don’t have this tiered diffusion strategy.
7. Models: We are in 2020, not 1957 or 1997. These prep-inspired brands use cooler, edgier models who reflect the times. It’s not about just having young models, though most of these brands’ models appear to be well under 30 (aligning with much of luxury fashion); rather, it’s about using models who telegraph personality and whom you’d more likely spot in the hip neighborhoods in global cities and exciting locales — NOT uber handsome hunks or great looking women from Main Street. There are terrific looking people of all ethnicities, races, ages, and sizes who simply aren’t cool, no matter what. The good news is there are cool people with personality across all ethnicities, races, sizes and ages, and it’s effortless. They just are. The better prep-inspired brands consistently use these models and influencers. The truth is consumers don’t feel alienated by the cool, because that’s how they aspire to look and feel. Interestingly, Brooks Brothers’ Tokyo 40th Anniversary show, styled by GQ Creative Director Jim Moore, was a step in the right direction, but appears to have been an anomaly.
8. Styling, Poses and Settings: This could be a book unto itself, but I think it’s possible to distill this into two principles which work beyond the prep-inspired spectrum: 1. Index natural 2. Avoid happy ersatz. Models shouldn’t force corny smiles while gazing into the distance (whether the horizon or another model’s vacuous expression), and the lighting doesn’t need to be perfect. The styling should feel carefree even if it’s perfectly orchestrated; this is why the best Ivy photography is so often by ‘street photographers’ vs. the high priced studio fashion photographers; something spoils on sets. The models shouldn’t try to sell the clothes by faking joy or any other emotion, or activity, like jumping up in the air at a beach. Video, images and text should index on authentic emotion and mood. The merchant shouldn’t micromanage the art director and photographer to get the best shot of the clothes; it’s about the attitude. I could go on forever, but this is the gist.
9. Collaborations: Many of these prep-inspired brands participate in interesting collaborations, playing off tensions between their defined core codes and products and those of their collaborators. These collaborations inject newness into the brands and drive excitement via social, providing media value. Importantly, they drive sales of core products, as often collaborations are not highly profitable unto themselves. NOAH and Rowing Blazers do this well, though NOAH is most ambitious owing to its creative director’s wide ranging interests, influences and passions (Birdwell, Straight Edge, Depeche Mode and the B-52s!). Given Brooks Brothers’ well-established codes, it is ripe for more frequent, interesting collaborations. From what I gather, its collaboration Junya Watanabe was, unfortunately, exclusively available in Japan. One can only imagine the hoopla that would have ensued if it was sold in a pop-up on Howard Street and the Madison Avenue flagship a la the Palace-Ralph Lauren collaboration, which generated lots of buzz but not much of a follow-up.
10. Sporty & Sports: I have spent hours combing thousands of classic prep photographs that continue to inspire contemporary designers and have compared them with more recent clothes and imagery, trying to discern differences. I noticed a significant disparity that is almost philosophical as much as practical: When you think about the classic prep that continues to excite, it is actually not a pure bred style emanating from a single or multiple brands, like Brooks, J.Press or others. It was how young people adapted these rather staid, adult brands for their more active, messier collegiate lifestyles. That’s why it’s called “prep” and why Japanese fashion originally called it “Ivy.” David Marx’s terrific book Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style uncovered when Japanese companies visited campuses in the 50s and 60s and inquired why college students were wearing their clothes, they received a surprising response: these students weren’t trying to make style statements. More accurately, and here I paraphrase, they were cherry-picking and adapting available classic styles from traditional stores for their active lifestyles, often without much consideration. Many of these stylish “choices” were accidental (shorter pant lengths) or caused by wear and tear (frayed collars), and were reflective of a college student’s sporty/sports lifestyle. This connection also appears quite prominent in women’s preppy style from the 50s and 60s as evidenced in Rebecca C. Tuite’s book “Seven Sisters Style: The All American Preppy Look.” NOAH and Rowing Blazers weave this youthful energy and athleticism into their brand — surfing, skating and running, and rowing, sailing, and rugby-ing, respectively. It even adds a special allure to their most trad offerings. [To add credence to this, what made Palace-Ralph Lauren key art so interesting?: a young guy jumping his horse over a race car, essentially young people in daring action.]
11. The Fit-Price-Luxury Fashion Axis [Parting Thought]: The newer prep-influenced brands offer tailored fits, but their tailoring is more wearable than many luxury, high priced fashion brands. Men’s shirts and jackets often have a reasonably tailored silhouette (generally not American trad prep, which tends towards the boxy), but don’t choke the armpits and waistlines of the moderately sized. Their sports clothes, sweatshirts and the like, might be slightly more fitted than the traditional Champion Reverse Weave (incidentally, coveted by collectors and the Japanese), but are far from runway skinny. Moreover, their price points are higher than mass brands, but far more affordable than luxury fashion (i.e., Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Dior Men, etc.). Though I’m unaware of the precise reasons for Brooks/Thom Browne’s Black Fleece, Band of Outsiders, and Michael Bastian’s disappearances, I wonder if their combination of aggressive fits and high price points (and a courting of fashion with a capital ‘F’ community) prevented them from crossing the profitability threshold, which is very difficult. (All have lived or emerged elsewhere.) It’s interesting that NOAH’s Babenzien and Supreme’s James Jebbia have claimed to not be creating fashion, seemingly without a whiff of false modesty.
Without question, there are numerous headwinds facing Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and other larger retail brands as they navigate their ways out of bankruptcy. And certainly, these younger prep-inspired brands, along with nearly all of retail, are not out of the woods, especially in the Covid era. Nevertheless, as the larger prep-connected brands recalibrate their retail footprint and leases, I think there’s an opportunity to recapture the imagination and wallets of the next generation of consumers who are open — and often enamored with — the prep-inspired aesthetic, which has the demonstrable potential to be perennially modern. Despite its critical importance, operational and financial prowess is an engine driving to nowhere in particular if a brand lacks vision, destination, and compass.
Author’s Note: Many thanks to colleagues and friends Alex O’Brien, John Hill, and Anna Griggs for offering their thoughts, insights, and edits on this. To be clear, this appreciation doesn’t mean to imply they agree with this article.