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Prep, that assemblage of old-school, WASPy clothing idioms, is back, and as the fashion press have noted, this revival comes at a time when some of the essential preppy outfitters are back on their penny-loafer heels. J. Crew is in bankruptcy; Brooks Brothers was in bankruptcy last year.
B-Squared has a new head designer for men, Michael Bastian, under whom the company will have to find its flannel-clad legs. Bastian is not without preppy bona fides, having interpreted the East Coast establishment look with a sense of humor for the GANT brand in Europe. He recently rolled out his “vision” for Brooks Brothers. The first goal was less than inspiring: “I’m focused on building up our sportswear assortment,” Bastian said in a message to the company’s customers. The idea is to “attract new customers and become more of [a] complete lifestyle brand.”
I won’t linger on how the wretched phrase “complete lifestyle brand” sets my teeth on edge. But I will point out that the company doesn’t need to become a lifestyle brand, as it has long been synonymous with a distinctive American style of life. Anybody can declare themselves a “complete lifestyle brand,” but only Brooks Brothers can claim to have made the black frock coat worn by Abraham Lincoln the evening he went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater.
Lincoln’s clothes, in their sobriety, if not severity, were distinctively American. Or at least so thought Pablo Picasso. The artist collected photos of Lincoln and would show pictures of the towering black-clad man to his friends with the aesthetic assessment, “There is the real American elegance.” Brooks could do worse than to strive to be the company that defines what it is to be elegant in America.
Happily, Bastian seems to understand that his most important job is “to polish up or bring back to life the true ‘Icons’ of our brand — those things that the customer always expects to find in Brooks Brothers.”
And how. For too many years, Brooks has neglected its singular product, the button-down oxford-cloth dress shirt. I’ve bought a few too many of those shirts marred by imprecise placement of buttons, a fault that ruins the shape and drape of the collar. Can the Brooks Brothers oxford button-down shirt be saved? The fate of the company may depend on it.
Bastian has clearly consulted Lisa Birnbach’s Official Preppy Handbook. Birnbach writes, “The classic shirt is the Brooks Brothers all-cotton oxford cloth shirt. Pink is the most famous color, and it is widely supposed that no one except Brooks has ever been able to achieve that perfect pink.” She adds that “one should have the shirt also in yellow, blue, and white.”
Only Brooks Brothers, says Birnbach, has ever achieved “that perfect roll to the collar.” Bastian says that the “perfect” oxford “absolutely must have that precise Brooks Brothers roll to the collar.”
And how important is that? The roll of a Brooks Brothers oxford shirt collar was for more than a generation a key marker of social status. Tom Wolfe — in the Esquire magazine article that made his name, “There Goes [Varoom! Varoom!] That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” — makes the Brooks Brothers collar a stand-in for all of the class anxiety that comes with “the big amoeba god of Anglo-European sophistication that gets you in the East.” Wolfe explains: “One day you notice that the boss’s button-down shirt has this sweet percale roll to it, while your own was obviously slapped together by some mass-production graph keepers who are saving an eighth of [an] inch of cloth per shirt, twelve inches per bolt or the like.” This, Wolfe writes, “starts eating at you.”
The way Wolfe saw it, the sweet percale roll of the Brooks Brothers oxford shirt goes beyond fashion. It is all that stands between you and [Yikes! Yikes!] the cruel social depredations of a ruthless amoeba god.
Let’s hope Mr. Bastian appreciates the gravity of what it is he’s been entrusted with.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How's Your Drink?
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Original Author: Eric Felten
Original Location: There goes that pink cotton percale-rolled complete prep lifestyle shirt