Last week Brooks Brothers opened its latest Flatiron Shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with seven locations in North America and three internationally. As a vintage enthusiast I usually don’t take too much of an interest in new retail openings but Brooks Brothers is different. Between the period Mad Men suits and Gatsby costumes, it’s been hard to get away from them lately, and with continuous operation since 1818, it is truly impossible to talk vintage menswear without mentioning Brooks Brothers…a lot. I confess I know next to nothing of the company’s vast history and influence, although in the course of Company Man buying, selling, and research, I’ve come across many interesting Brooks Brothers suits, ties, shirts, shoes, and sweaters from the sixties through today, and just as many prior iterations of the brand including Brooks University, Brooks Gate, Brooks Ease, Brooks 346, Brooks English, and on. The Flatiron concept offers University-inspired menswear and womenswear that is dressed down by Brooks Brothers standards and perfectly suited to a well-heeled Northern college town.
Our very own Flatiron Shop still had that new store smell inside and carried an ample collection of fall offerings. Added to the obligatory smattering of bow ties and blazers–their collars all popped to show the solid under-construction in crimson wool–I saw shawl neck argyle sweaters, cashmere and shetland wool, down vests with leather shoulders, patchwork tweed flat caps, suspenders emblazoned with foxes or fishing flies. The store carried a good selection of Red Wings boots (not the same “Red Wings” many Michiganders might think of first), and I was told that a Red Wings trunk show with giveaways was imminent. The male sales associate that helped me was wonderfully knowledgeable and forthcoming about both the clothes and company history. He also told me to expect the shop to carry Brooks Brothers’ acclaimed “Black Fleece” line by Thom Browne, although the only pieces in stock so far were a selection of repp silk ties. If you have your heart set on a classic Brooks Brothers suit, four- and six-week “suiting programs” are offered that allow a customer to be measured for his suit on site with a 4-6 week turnaround for off site tailoring (before a final fitting with any last-minute alterations also made off site). There is a women’s collection, but menswear remains the clear emphasis and takes up 70% of the space, which includes a second floor lounge with leather sofa and flat screen TV, primed for the next big game. To honor U of M, there was even a navy blue and gold themed rack of clothing that included a stack of sweaters embroidered with the Michigan logo.
If you plan to visit, the store is located in the new Arbor Hills shopping plaza off Washtenaw Avenue at Platt Road.
Two vintage-inspired men’s fall looks with menswear staples from classic brands:
Top—vintage corduroy blazer in rust brown, Gant plaid “Oxford Club” button-down, Gap twill khakis in bright blue (“Lived-In Slim” fit) and Gap “James” mirrored sunglasses, Talbott Studio striped silk knit tie, and vintage Florsheim “Royal Imperial” tasseled loafers in black.
Bottom—Harris Tweed for Nordstrom houndstooth blazer with suede elbow patches, Brooks Brothers OCBD, Levi’s 514 dark wash blue jeans, vintage pocket square with horse and jockey print, Dexter spectator brogues, and vintage suede fedora.
Having a vintage shop online is like getting your own mini style laboratory. Buying tastes aren’t only philosophical; they’re tested in the marketplace. Some kind of vintage piece that I’m attracted to and that I think is due for a fashion comeback—like paisley ties or 80s golf polos–doesn’t really sell in the shop no matter how high I stock it or how low the price goes. Something else that I think of as being less cool than it is universally familiar, and that I put in the shop reluctantly, sells out again and again. Like gold buttoned blue blazers or Birkenstock sandals. Like corduroy fabric. Many would object that corduroy is a classic that never goes out of style and makes a poor example of a comeback kid. As a vintage seller, I see plenty of the worst in corduroy—wide collars, patchwork, loud colors–and until very recently I still I associated it with children’s Christmas outfits, the 70s, Western wear, 90s grunge. I listed a khaki corduroy jacket in the shop for cheap thinking it walked that line between vintage fashion and vintage costume. But it sold, and so did the next one and the next, even when the price tag passed that of the other blazers. And not just the jackets but anything corduroy—corduroy collared shirts, pants, waistcoats. Pretty soon I started to notice corduroy in red carpet and runway photos, even models in the fall Bergdorf Goodman catalog wearing that 70s staple–the full corduroy suit. Suddenly a corduroy blazer over a plaid shirt looks like the safest of sartorial expressions, more of a uniform for fall than a costume. I picked out the best one from the shop to keep for myself, and I can’t wait to start wearing it more now that the colors and temps are changing. What’s more I’m starting to enjoy what buying habits in the shop teach me as much as the “feedback” of the sale of a vintage piece that’s a much closer expression of my personal style… Now I just have some paisley ties to get rid of before Christmas.
I finally thrifted a needlepoint belt and thought I’d really scored (since all that handwork can run $100-200, pricey for an accessory most men hardly give a thought to). The perfect inspiration to get around to that blog post about them! But the more inspired I became looking at all the needlepoint belts online, the less inspiring mine was. My big find featured dark and muted colors in a simple geometric pattern. Yes, the hand worked surface of the needlepoint belt is the obvious draw. But the color, pictorial patterns, whimsical themes and detail is what transforms the brown leather belt taken for granted into a personal and sartorial statement. And the above favorites of mine from Smathers & Branson have all that and more! As a prep classic, many of the retailers you’d expect have carried their own needlepoint belts—Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Lands’ End—but Smathers & Branson seems to stand out as the best of the best, especially in design. Plenty of savvy labels like Club Monaco and Opening Ceremony have carried Smathers & Branson belts too (often in exclusive designs), but why not go right to the online source. Another big online purveyor, Tucker Blair, is a respectable and very value-oriented alternative (about half the price of S&B). Or you could wait to thrift one–I’m on the hunt again after my crash course.
A couple Post Scripts–After a chunk of the day sifting through needlepoint belt jpegs, the Smathers & Branson American flag belt is the first thing I noticed in a photo of ex-Prez Bill Clinton shaking hands in the Hamptons in just yesterday’s Times (detail of a Doug Kuntz photo for the New York Times below). Here I was worried it was getting a bit late in the summer for posting about preppy belts.
And the Times hard hitting needlepoint belt coverage doesn’t stop there. Its Fashion & Style article from Summer 2010 also gives a lot of love to Smathers & Branson and a little history of the needlepoint belt if you’re interested.
“Buono, come il pane!” or “Good, like the bread,” is an Italian expression meaning wholesome, simple–basic as bread–which seems a fitting description for these BREAD brand shirts. With their gingham check fabric, work shirt style, color wheel palette, and block letter label, the BREAD shirt lives up to the earthiness and honesty of its brand name. At first, both shirt and label somehow seemed too perfectly retro to not be a modern take on a mod design–block lettering in a red lozenge, and even more so the stark black and white pocket tag–but details like the longer 70s collar gave it away as the real vintage. (A Bread clothing label does exist today, an online retailer out of Australia with just the sort of under-designed site and line of mod basics I was expecting of Bread, but they appear to have no connection to vintage BREAD shirts.) I actually liked the vintage logos for a blog post almost more than the shirts, since the collar can date the shirt style beyond what more ageless gingham might redeem. I wanted to learn more about BREAD, the shirt, since finding the above green example while thrifting, but every other example above is pulled from other Etsy listings. I haven’t found a single mention of the company otherwise. I’d hoped to uncover some great back story involving bakery uniforms or rockabilly bands or both. Instead this post has evolved into more of an inquiry than edification.
I found only shirts; did BREAD make any other clothing? Gingham check is a consistent theme (whether on the outside or inside) but the shirts aren’t limited to check as shown by the last examples of solid shirts, epaulets, and bandanna lining. The shirts share a work shirt design but some have elements extraneous to work wear (like fancier patterns and linings). Is there any connection to actual uniform manufacturing? The varying collar lengths suggests that production spanned the full 70s and may have started as early as the late 60s or gone as late as the early 80s. Which logo is earlier and what makes it The Earth Shirt? Sure, BREAD shirts don’t have anything like the menswear (capital hashtag) cultural significance of historic fine shirt makers like Arrow and Brooks Brothers, and there may be more questions than answers for now, but I don’t have to know more to recognize how beautifully vintage BREAD brand shirts can contribute to an authentic rockabilly or mod look.
Though not strictly speaking ‘menswear,’ the summer camp kid in me cannot seem to resist the old scouting items I come across while vintage buying. In honor of Fourth of July’s outdoor festivities, my own upcoming annual Michigan Man camping trip, and summer nature excursions for scouts of all ages, I am including what looks to be the start of a new collection above. The attraction for me is in that warm shade of fatigue green, the strong and soft-worn canvas material, the humble usefulness of design, and those self-important stamps and seals on everything! Find me a sleeker camp mirror or a water bottle as lightweight and well-fitted to your hip for a better price at REI or any other high-minded outfitter. My favorite so far has to be the leather hat with crumpled canvas brim trimmed in army green. None of its markings indicate any connection to the Boy Scouts, but it seemed to belong with the other gear, just the sort of well made and beautifully weathered headgear the leader of the pack might wear.
Two vintage-inspired men’s summer looks with menswear staples from classic American brands:
Top—Brooks Brothers wash-and-wear 3-2 roll sack jacket with olive gray-green striping, vintage floral pocket square, spread collar shirt with wide salmon and mint stripes, white Levi’s 514 jeans and Levi’s leather belt, matching tasseled Italian loafers with a basketweave toe top and perforated sides.
Bottom—Land’s End navy blue wool blazer with gold buttons, Beau Brummell bow tie with red and navy clover pattern, pale pink Christian Dior ribbed cotton shirt, Levi’s 514 jeans, Pedwin boat shoes in spectator brown and white, Timex Weekender watch with striped band.