An Ode to Brooks Brothers, the American Icon

By Scott Paul
Jeepers Media

Reflecting on the loss of one of the most prominent Made in USA brands.

For 202 years, Brooks Brothers has clothed America’s business and political classes.

All but four presidents have worn the brand. Abraham Lincoln was shot and died in his suit. F. Scott Fitzgerald and John F. Kennedy popularized its suits. Even President Trump, erstwhile defender of the “forgotten men and women,” purveyor of tacky imported ties and dresswear, and sporter of upscale $6,000 Brionis, donned a Brooks Brothers overcoat for his inaugural.

It’s actually one of the few experiences he shares with Barack Obama (who wore a Brooks Brothers overcoat in 2009).

I own three American-made Brooks Brothers suits, along with countless shirts and ties. While Brooks Brothers imports a significant quantity of its clothing, the brand is also one of the very few mass market garment-makers left in America that crafts some of its offerings here.  

But a few weeks ago, Brooks Brothers announced it is shuttering its remaining American production facilities (notably at the same time the Trump Administration was granting tariff deferrals to importers). Earlier this week, Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

About 700 people who worked at the company’s three U.S. factories are losing their jobs.

For many decades, Brooks Brothers found a way to profitably make ties in New York City, at a factory in Queens. It also made oxford shirts in Garland, N.C., and suits in Haverhill, Mass., serving as a major employer in both communities.

Garland’s mayor told The New York Times that losing the factory will be “devastating” to the small town, which has a population of 600.

Why has Brooks Brothers gone under? Casual Fridays (and, well, every day), work from home, the demise of brick-and-mortar retail, import competition. The list is very, very long.

And the company is hardly alone. Ascena, the company that owns big name workwear brands like Ann Taylor, also filed for bankruptcy this week. J.C. Penney declared bankruptcy back in May. Even Nordstrom, seemingly one of the strongest clothing retailers around, is closing stores.

But the loss of Brooks Brothers is particularly tough to bear. While our nation won’t win any battles based on our access to domestically produced upscale clothing, the demise of the brand is nevertheless stinging and a reminder of just how steep the decline of the U.S. as an industrial powerhouse has been.

Let’s just assume for a minute you don’t care a lot about the demise of a preppy fashion brand. There’s still an important lesson here.

When George Washington was sworn in on the steps of Federal Hall in New York City as America’s first president in 1789, he intentionally chose a Made in Connecticut outfit, even though continental European attire was the fashion at that time. Washington wanted to send a signal that Made in America was an aspiration, a value, a core principle of our nation. 

I believe that is as true today as it was in 1789. We are well into campaign season, and I’d urge everyone, regardless of your political persuasion, to read the candidates’ plans for manufacturing.

Joe Biden released his on Thursday. Donald Trump devoted a lot of ink and airtime to manufacturing and trade over the past few years — Politifact is a reputable source to gauge his progress. Given the subject matter, it’s also worth pointing out that Donald Trump has a fashion line of his own, and opted to manufacturer his apparel overseas.

But we’ve all got work to do to strengthen American manufacturing.

If you are in the market for Made in America dresswear, the good news is that there are still options. Check out this list and listen to my interview with Joseph Abboud, who still crafts many suits in the USA.

And if you spot me on TV, I’ll be proudly sporting my Made in America Brooks Brothers suit, tie, and shirt. And I’ll be crossing my fingers, hoping an investor makes the right choice to rebuild the brand in America.