Thursday, June 1, 2023

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    Does Brooks Brothers Really Need to Be Reinvented?

    When new owners Authentic Brands Group yanked Brooks Brothers out of bankruptcy in August of 2020 and appointed Michael Bastian as the brand’s new creative director a few months later, it seemed like a nostalgic move, or maybe even a conservative one. Bastian built his highly successful eponymous brand during the #menswear heyday, spiffing up the codes of menswear along with cheeky prepsters like Gant, Mark McNairy, and Thom Browne—but Gant and McNairy no longer produce regular collections, while Browne has become a preeminent name in gender fluid dressing. And though Bastian’s clothes were once a favorite among basketball players, the pregame tunnel is now dominated by luxury streetwear from brands like Kapital, Balenciaga, and Fear of God. (In a funny way, Jerry Lorenzo’s line, which mixes luxe tailoring with sportswear, might be the true heir to Bastian’s.) Preppiness, in general, has taken a funky turn, as modern practitioners attempt to square its troubling past with our more politically aware present.

    In the midst of all this change, Bastian has been in the driver’s seat at Brooks Brothers and steadily firing away. He’s designed five collections so far, though due to turnaround times and supply chain issues, only his first, Fall 2021, has arrived in stores; Spring 2022 began landing last week. All have been suitably, even uber preppy. The full Spring 2022 offering was inspired by two cliches of Wasp vacation life, Palm Beach and Nantucket, and has double-breasted jackets, plaid blazers styled with bowties, oxford cloth shirts, fun shirts, and a madras anorak with seersucker cuffs. There are whimsical go-to-hell prints and lots of seersucker. In other words: the age-old Brooks Brothers prep you, your father, and his father all remember, presented (mostly) irony-free.

    That’s the point, Bastian said in a video call late last year. When he began discussions with the Brooks team, he recalled that he started his eponymous line “to do those things that I missed from Brooks Brothers that they weren’t doing anymore,” by which he means Bengal stripe shirts, tennis sweaters, oxford cloth shirting, wide chinos. In other words: “Very simple, fundamental things. Maybe they’re not the hottest thing at the moment, but they always need to be there. That kind of base of reliability is really important for a brand like Brooks Brothers.” It’s the way Levi’s always has 501s or five-pocket cords. Or an antidote to the way the creator of your favorite T-shirt might not have those things all of a sudden, for whatever reason. He wanted to built his Brooks around the things that, should a brand stop making them, it “feels like a betrayal.”

    Extra-preppy looks from Brooks’s spring collection.

    Courtesy of Brooks Brothers.

    Courtesy of Brooks Brothers.

    All of which sounds great. But since we live in a world where brands like Aimé Leon Dore and Noah have rejiggered prep and sportswear for the contemporary young man, it would be fair to wonder whether Bastian is reinventing things enough.

    But Bastian doesn’t see himself as the creative dynamo imported to bring his high-fashion bonafides to a beleaguered brand. Instead, he sees his role as something entirely different, free of ego and more about product. He is thinking obsessively about the customer, tracking their comments on Instagram and their habits on the Brooks Brothers web store. “I just think—and maybe this is from being at this stage in my life and in my career—[that] I don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said in a video call last month. “Like, that Oxford cloth shirt is perfection. All I need to do is protect it, and make sure it’s there in its highest form.” Same with style anachronisms like sock garters and back-button boxer shorts. Brooks Brothers, he knows, is home to “all these crazy little menswear things that a lot of guys out there love. And we’re the last place doing it.”

    “As a designer, you gotta put yourself in the mindset that the brand is bigger than you,” he continued. “I’m very comfortable with that. The brand is 200-plus years old. It’s going to be going long after me, all of us. The best I can do is: keep it relevant, keep it on track, polish up the icons, make it more Brooks Brothers.”

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