American dream team

American dream team

Its designers created clothing that defined a nation, but now the Italian CEO of US company Brooks Brothers is pushing for change. Josh Sims speaks to Luca Gastaldi.

Luca Gastaldi is the 47-year-old Italian CEO of the Italian-owned Brooks Brothers, almost 200 years old and about as quintessentially American a clothier as one could find. It was Brooks Brothers that invented the button-down collared shirt, that pioneered the stripy, so-called ‘rep’ tie, that shaped preppy style and which, by introducing the boxy, wearable sack suit, effectively defined the template for business dress for much of the last century.

Abraham Lincoln wore Brooks Brothers – he was even assassinated wearing it – as did Kennedy, the Vanderbilts, Morgans and Astors, and Hollywood greats from Valentino to Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire.

“But if you want a real contradiction, it’s not the fact that an Italian is running such an American company,” adds Gastaldi – who admits to having discovered the company through close study of the dandy attire of another Italian, Fiat supremo Gianni Agnelli, “it’s that it was only seven years ago that Brooks Brothers even had a store outside of the US. Brooks Brothers has deep American roots – and that American nature is a pillar. But now we have to build on that. We all travel more now and trends move faster. The trick is not to lose the American wardrobe and the styles we pioneered, while staying tuned to changing modes of dress.”

Gastaldi, who came to Brooks Brothers after 20 years in senior positions with Italian luxury goods company Loro Piana, concedes that is a tricky path to walk. On the one hand has been Brooks Brothers’ more progressive moves over recent years: the launch of Black Fleece, a more directional premium capsule collection designed by Thom Browne, Red Fleece, a more trend and cost-conscious collection, and now the appointment of designer Zac Posen to oversee womenswear as creative director – the first time the company has brought in an external designer, established in his own right, to oversee a whole segment of its business, from clothing to packaging and marketing. It is a statement of the company’s intent to fulfill its “huge potential” in womenswear.

Then there is the sizable international store expansion programme, which will see over 50 new Brooks Brothers shops (some wholly-owned, some in partnership) open over the coming year, including 12 in the Middle East, the same across Scandinavia, 10 in eastern Europe and Russia, and up to 15 across India and Australia.

And yet, on the other hand, there is Brooks Brothers’ deeply-embedded culture of clothing a conservative American customer that remains the company’s bedrock – this is the company, after all, that still provides those Ivy League uniforms to the US’ collegiate blue bloods. For every Brooks Brothers aficionado – Gastaldi speaks of devoted customers who know more about the company’s history than those working for it do – there is a fashionisto more inclined to dismiss it as staid and, well, too American: ”To excite attention by anything at all remarkable in the way of colour of texture is considered both vulgar and ridiculous,” as the company stated in an ad back in the 1920s.

Brooks Brothers2“Modernising while respecting heritage is easier to say than to do,” says Gastaldi. “And sometimes there’s resistance within the company itself,” Gastaldi adds. “Some people are scared by change – we’re all human. But we’re ready to exchange ideas, even if that means the process takes longer than I’d like. I like to challenge that American part of the company that says there’s still demand for that very American cut of suit – very full, wide-shouldered – by introducing more tailored styles too, which are selling well. Even very traditional customers like the idea of bringing something fresh to their wardrobe. And we have to remember that talking about, for example, how Agnelli wore Brooks Brothers shirts, is a totally meaningless conversation for a lot of people.”

That is to say that, incredibly, there are those men – it’s mostly men – whose interest in clothes goes only as far as keeping warm and within the law and not looking silly. Gastaldi is not one of those men. He can wax lyrical on the unique extent of Brooks Brothers’ contribution to the menswear canon – on how it’s “a good thing to have the originals in so many menswear items, the many copies of which just make the makers of the originals stronger” –  but also on the hazards of relying on them. “There’s a danger when a [clothing] company culture is too tied to those classics, when you can’t see how dress is changing,” he says. “One advantage of our international expansion will be that we’ll have people working in different regions challenging that American culture to adopt what is new while also being consistent with Brooks Brothers. It’s good to provoke our design teams.”

Intriguingly, however, Gastaldi is not so caught up in the idea of riding the patriotic manufacturing wave that certain consumers have ridden over recent years. While the company has historically acquired specialist manufacturers with which it has had a long, close working history, and while Gastaldi remains keen on bringing more manufacturing back to the US, his motivations for doing so are, unsurprisingly, entirely pragmatic ones.

“Offering the best value for the price is the priority, so I wouldn’t stake so much on being made in the US, or made in Italy, at the expense of that,” he says. “We go wherever is best – Turkey, Morocco, Asia or now, as is happening, more so in the US. Of course, some customers want their Brooks Brothers made in the US – and if you’re going to bring manufacturing back to the US, who better than Brooks Brothers to do it? – but I think they’re a minority. They’re very keen on Brooks Brothers, more like collectors – I’m one of them. But the fact is that the majority just isn’t so bothered, even if they’re American. They buy Brooks Brothers because they trust it to provide the right quality at the right price. That’s what has made Brooks Brothers’ customers so loyal.”