Any which way but right

As the internet continues to animate to the exploration of the full polyverse of clothing and fashion, brands seem to respond schizophrenically to the new stimulus. The result has been new brands, forged in the crucible of #menswear, with deep focus and passion as well as established brands going to absolute pieces as though they never knew how to make a buck to begin with.

Brooks Brothers is aping Ralph Lauren’s Rugby line, J.Press is collaborating itself into tizzy, and L.L.Bean has taken itself out for a walk. For all the time, money, and effort lavished on the innovation of these and other storied brands, the one thing that seems never to have been considered was simply to make their clothes better. It shows a fundamental misreading of exactly what’s been going on with all these enthusiasts and their bloggodollars.

Taking a few cases, we look at a brand like L.L.Bean which seems to have a legacy as sterling as any in American history. Their greatest hits almost completely define the categories in which they compete. Their duck boots are unrivaled in outdoor footwear. Barn coats, camp mocs, flannel shirts, chamois cloth shirts… the list goes on and on. So you’d think that L.L.Bean would see that they were sitting directly in the path of a resurgence in rugged and practical American clothing and simply run around the shop polishing things up before swinging the doors wide to accept the deluge.

You’d be wrong.

The changes to the main line merchandise have thus far continued on the depressing course of reductions in quality, outsourcing, and the relentless application of the wrinkle-free chemical scourge. They are now the hemisphere’s premier purveyor of large square Chinese plastic shirts. From Maine. Instead of addressing what can only be interpreted as the systematic gutting of their core product line, they leapt into left field with their Signature line which squandered the lion’s share of its promise almost immediately when it was discovered that not only were the clothes less than inspirational, but they were priced at a laughable premium over L.L.Bean’s traditional offerings and made almost entirely overseas.

One has to wonder if there were dissenting voices that thought that the best way to capitalize on the back-to-landers was not to curate a kabuki theater of shrunken corduroy separates, ┬ábut to systematically raise the levels of quality, tweak the fit, and reassess the sourcing of their core offerings so that when someone who’d never owned a chamois cloth shirt or a Norwegian sweater finally made their way to an L.L.Bean to experience one in the flesh they didn’t wander right back out wondering what the hell the big deal was.

As for Brooks Brothers, they’re creeping around malls and internet tubes with an “ask me about my relevant offerings” t-shirt on. They’re snugging up their fits, painting repp stripes on the insides of Wayfarers, and making shirts for the types of people who run on Dunkin’.

Many of us have already resigned ourselves to prospect that their US made oxford shirts will one day vanish quietly like a convalescing ancestor or, more disturbingly, fall victim to some sinister innovation (as they have in the past when the collar construction was altered or the slim-fit “extrafied”).

But what’s compelled me to pull the tarp off this blog and actually write something wasn’t Brooks or Bean or even Land’s End, but J.Press who seemed small enough to avoid the sort of shameful pulling of faces demanded necessitated by larger companies. When speaking to the internet this morning I was disturbed to find that #menswear darlings Shimon & Ariel Ovadia are designing a collaboration with Press for next spring.

It’s certainly possible that these brands are more successful than I think, but I think that the argument could be made that the cost of rehabilitating the core brand is generally a better prospect than trying to spawn a sub-brand or suck the blood of someone whose career is ascendant and brand is in focus. Why bother trying to stand on the shoulders of giants if you’re already a giant?

I remember first conquering my intimidation and going into Brooks Brothers to buy some shirts and pants for work. I got the shirts monogrammed like Sam Seaborn’s from the West Wing because it just felt like this is where serious people go to buy clothes. Getting that giant rectangular receipt dropped into the dark blue bag made me feel like I’d been somewhere and spending more than twice what I’d ever spent on similar type clothing felt like the smartest money I’d ever parted with.

Now going into Brooks Brothers hardly feels special. You have to wade through so many giant patches and logos that it feels more like a factory outlet than a gentleman’s club. They even use rolls of receipt paper now. I’m not old enough to have clocked several decades with the brand, but if in the 10+ years I’ve been shopping there registers such a decline, I can only imagine the involuntary head shaking and face-palming that must grip longer standing clientele when they see what’s happened.

Bean could have saved the whole expense of developing the signature line and figured out how to dial the clock back 20 years or so to better materials, less chemical innovation, and local sourcing. I know more people who splurge on Filson gear and have it tailored than would buy Signature on sale.

The point that these companies have missed is that these new designers, companies, and brands are trading on their own authentic visions of what their industry should look like. They haven’t learned the art of growing margins or gotten big enough to have their equity extracted by speculators. They still have to put in the hours, and more importantly still want to. There’s something in truly great clothing brands (and brands in general I suppose) that makes you feel like you can trust them because there’s somebody at the helm that would rather shut the damn thing down than put out a poor product. There’s a Ralph or a Sid or a Thom whose pride would be personally injured if something slipped out the door with their name sewn onto it that didn’t impress the bejesus out of whoever was lucky enough to buy it. No amount of brand science can recapture that once it bolts. You can smell the lack of given shits on Brooks Brothers shirt stacks at Nordstrom or inside a sport coat with alpha sizing.

I want a store like the Brooks Brothers I went into when I was still in college. I want to buy serious clothing from serious places. I want to buy practical clothing from practical places. I just want a thing. Not an inspiration of a reinterpretation of a derivation of a thing.

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