What to Watch: Sportswear Continues to Spur Sales at Brooks Brothers

It’s been just over a year since Brooks Brothers changed hands, and the company is pushing forward with its reinvention plan.

The country’s oldest brand, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2018, had fallen on hard times after 19 years of ownership by Italian billionaire Claudio Del Vecchio, winding up in bankruptcy court before being rescued by SPARC, a joint venture between Authentic Brands Group and the Simon Property Group, which paid $325 million for the business in September 2020.

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Since then the number of physical stores has been trimmed — including the closure of the Madison Avenue flagship, which is owned by Del Vecchio personally — bringing its brick-and-mortar reach in the U.S. to around 165 stores from some 200 at the time of the sale.

But under the eye of new chief executive officer Ken Ohashi, Brooks Brothers aims to return to its former glory — but with a new, more modern image. Results in 2021, according to Ohashi, were better than projected. “For the year, the business performed above expectations and beat plan overall,” he said. “It was driven by an increase in the sportswear business and the suit business, too, so we got the benefit of both.”

One of the key moves that has led to the company’s recent success is Ohashi’s appointment of Michael Bastian as creative director. Bastian started his career in retail as an assistant buyer for Abraham & Straus and served as men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman for five years before leaving in 2006 to launch his own collection. He was nominated for the CFDA Menswear award six times and won in 2011. He also created a special collection for Gant and was the interim creative director of Ted Baker.

At Brooks Brothers, Bastian has been charged with modernizing the assortment without losing sight of its rich heritage — and to significantly increase the sportswear penetration, which accounted for 27 percent of sales at the time of the acquisition. So he pored through the company’s archives and reinterpreted key classic pieces such as the button-down oxford, rugby shirts, trenchcoats and corduroy blazers. They complement the sweaters, hoodies, joggers and bombers that all connected with customers over the holiday season.

For spring, sportswear is expected to continue to be the star. The overall theme of the season is Island Life, which was inspired by two resort destinations: Nantucket and Palm Beach. Nautical stripes and sailboat prints are found throughout the collection with an embroidered lobster sweater, a seersucker tour jacket and shorts with sailing motifs among the standout pieces.

“It all starts and ends with product,” Ohashi said. “In many ways, Michael brought back what people wanted from us and Brooks Brothers is Brooks Brothers again.”

Whether it’s an oxford button-down, a Shetland or Fair Isle sweater, “we took back ownership and made sure they were on trend,” he said. “They all resonated with the customer.”

Other changes include updating the marketing strategy to focus less on print and billboards, and more on digital. A new head of digital marketing is working to ensure that all of the assets are geared that way, he said.

This year, the website will be improved to include more functionality such as buy online, pick up in store. Although the online business has been strong, Ohashi said the physical stores have also rebounded. “We feel good about all channels,” he said. “We’re seeing a strong recovery in our retail business, which is the heart of the Brooks Brothers business in many ways.”

In addition, the company is attracting new customers at a record rate. “The business hasn’t seen customer acquisition numbers at this rate ever,” he said.

Again, Ohashi attributed that to the updates in product spearheaded by Bastian.

“We could not be happier with Michael,” he said. “He captures the DNA of the brand so well and we’ll see that continuing into spring as we fine tune the fit and fabric. His first collection only hit three months ago, so it’s hard to believe the customer is responding so positively.”

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