Giving Back

As honoree at the Dignity U Wear fundraiser on October 25th, Brooks Brothers CMO Lou Amendola talks about business, the changing consumer, U.S. sourcing and the power of giving back.

Let’s start with current business: how is it?
In general, business has rebounded these past two years since the economic crisis. In fact, we never saw the extreme fall-off that other brands experienced; we planned for it but didn’t get it. We’ve been seeing slow steady growth.

That said, I think we’re in a cycle now where consumers are somewhat frozen. They’re thinking differently about their spending habits. It’s more wear-now, more updates to their existing wardrobes rather than an all-new wardrobe. What’s more, their long-term spending plans are on hold: they can no longer assume that their retirement years will be golden; they don’t even know what their taxes will be so it’s hard to plan ahead.

Bottom line, no matter who wins the election, their comfort level with their financial situations is in question. So unless we can create a very compelling demand for our product coupled with an emotional attachment to the brand (i.e. like Apple has), it’s not likely to be all smooth sailing ahead.

What hot and what’s not in your menswear?
Our overall clothing business is good: I believe that men are dressing up again for work and our business has changed from a fuller cut suit to many variations of slim-fit. (Our fullest cut model is now only 45 percent of the business, down from 100 percent). But it’s not just the traditional suit/sportcoat guy who’s dressing up again: I believe there’s also a customer who’s tired of jeans and khakis and is starting to wear more refined, sophisticated sportswear. I’m talking about a beautiful sportshirt with a cashmere or merino/silk cardigan over it worn with perhaps flannel trousers. And don’t underestimate accessories: belts, hats, bags, scarves. They’re becoming an increasingly important element of men’s wardrobes, not just for function but to update the look.

How many retail stores does Brooks Brothers have these days?
We have about 230 stores in the States: 120 are regular retail stores; 110 are outlets. Outside the U.S., there are about 250 stores, and that number is growing rapidly. We have several different business models overseas: some stores we own, some are joint ventures, some are shop-in-shops.

I understand made-in-America sourcing is important to your Japanese stores?
Made-in-America is important everywhere. But what the Japanese have done so brilliantly is to focus on story-telling rather than just pushing product. When they shop the market, they spend as much time learning the story behind the product as they do buying it.

Of course the challenge we face as an American brand is finding U.S. factories that can deliver the quality and value we’re looking for. Sometimes the factories don’t exist in the products we need, other times they’re there but the company hasn’t invested in technology. For us, it’s not about price, it’s where can we get the best quality. Fortunately, we’re finding more American-made goods today than we used to. Five to 10 years ago, there was very little made in America of superior quality. Today, several companies are investing here, including us. I’d say 80 percent of our men’s suits are made in the U.S. (most at our Southwick factory) as are 100 percent of our ties (at our facility in Long Island City) and certain categories of shirts.

Are you still doing well with your non-iron cotton dress shirts?
It’s the core part of our business, a premium quality engineered shirt with taped seams and all the details for an $88 ticket price. We were the original with non-iron cotton but even now that everyone’s doing it, our business continues to grow and is still rated number one by consumers. It just shows that when customers love something, when there’s an emotional attachment, they’re very loyal.

Thanks for being an honoree at Dignity U Wear’s first annual fundraiser on October 25th. What made you accept?
First of all, it’s a wonderful organization, with core values that match up perfectly with Brooks Brothers’ long tradition of making suits for soldiers.

But to be honest, the initial connection was Macy’s, where I started my career and worked for 17 years. For some reason, intentionally or otherwise, the culture at Macy’s encouraged relationships among co-workers that went beyond 9 to 5 and tended to continue long after Macy’s. It’s amazing to me how many people now important in my life were once colleagues at Macy’s. And while I’m never able to answer all the phone calls I receive on any given day, I always pick up for Macy’s people. (For them, and for my mother…)

So when I got the call from Barbara Truncellito, a former Macy’s colleague, I picked up the phone and of course agreed to meet her. I then suggested a meeting with Emilie Antonetti, who spearheads all our charity endeavors. (I’ve learned to suggest these kinds of meetings rather than demand them: if the person feels pushed into it, it’s unlikely to work…) She immediately saw the synergies and brought the idea to our executive team who of course loved it. So that’s how it happened. And I’m I’d delighted to be involved with such a great group that does so much good for so many in need.

Also being honored at this event are Bill Clement, VP of CSX, and Ed Krell, CEO of Destination Maternity. For sponsorship info, tables, or individual tickets to the October 25th DignityUWear cocktail event (6 to 8 p.m.) at The Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, NYC, call Barbara Truncellito, 212-683-0369 or btruncellito@dignity.org.

For a more in-depth interview with Lou Amondola, see MR’s November issue.

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