Fashion: The hidden story of Brooks Brothers

 
By Nancy McKeon
The Washington Post
Updated 10/19/2014 6:22 AM
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  • A Brooks Brothers storefront; the company was founded in New York in 1818 and has a storied history, including making Civil War uniforms for Union soldiers.

    A Brooks Brothers storefront; the company was founded in New York in 1818 and has a storied history, including making Civil War uniforms for Union soldiers. Brooks Brothers

  • Brooks Brothers maintains a historical archive including "every piece of paper that mentions Brooks Brothers," says Kelly Stuart, director of Brand Training and Development at the company; here, an ad for the clothier.

    Brooks Brothers maintains a historical archive including "every piece of paper that mentions Brooks Brothers," says Kelly Stuart, director of Brand Training and Development at the company; here, an ad for the clothier. Brooks Brothers

  • Although seen as traditional, Brooks Brothers has always been an innovator, introducing the button-down shirt to the American public, as well as argyle socks, Harris tweed and Madras fabric.

    Although seen as traditional, Brooks Brothers has always been an innovator, introducing the button-down shirt to the American public, as well as argyle socks, Harris tweed and Madras fabric. Brooks Brothers

The venerable men's clothier Brooks Brothers has been a fixture in New York since being founded there in 1818. But it can be argued that the beating heart of the company resides some 20 miles west of Washington, D.C., in an industrial park in Chantilly, Va. That's where the official Brooks Brothers historical archive resides in soothingly dim light and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus two degrees.

The repository of Brooksiana, shall we call it, owes its richness and its very existence to two men. The first, Donald C. Vaughan, was the company's director of advertising from 1915 to 1948. He kept files of Brooks newspaper advertisements, brochures and historical photos. He even collected novels and other books that mention the company, which made and sold ready-to-wear work clothes for the mining expeditions of the 1849 California Gold Rush, uniforms for Union soldiers in the Civil War and made the custom-tailored overcoat Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.

"It's fair to say we have every piece of paper that mentions Brooks Brothers," says Kelly Stuart, a lively young woman who bears the rather cumbersome title of Director, Brand Training and Development, but who fairly gushes Brooks history and lore ("I'm a history junkie, and this is the most powerful crack there is," she says).

The other Brooks archive "enabler," and the reason the archive is in the Washington area, is Bruce Weindruch, co-founder of D.C.'s History Factory, a company created in 1979 to compile and/or manage historical archives for corporations and other organizations.

Being "a lifelong, devoted" Brooks customer, Weindruch approached Brooks in 1982 and was invited to visit the Manhattan "attic" where some historical materials were being collected and stored, not necessarily in organized fashion. Six years later, Weindruch and company were assembling the company's heritage in an archivally responsible way.

For its first 125 years or so, Brooks was a stable company, passing down from the original brothers. The clothier passed out of the family's hands in 1946, when Henry Sands Brooks' great-great-grandson, Winthrop Holley Brooks, sold the firm to Julius Garfinckel and Company of Washington, D.C. As the decades passed, the clothier was sold again, to Allied Stores (1981), then to British retailer Marks and Spencer (1988).

Retail turmoil in the 1980s and '90s made the maintenance of an archive just about the last consideration for the company's embattled owners. Soon Weindruch was maintaining the collection at his own expense, out of belief in the brand and its place in history (introducing button-down shirts, madras fabrics, Harris tweed and argyle socks to the American public).

Then came 2001 and new owner Claudio Del Vecchio, who took the company private. The Italian billionaire, a Brooks enthusiast and a lover of its history, thanked the History Factory for preserving the archive, to which Weindruch responded, "No thanks necessary: You're the guy I've been waiting for!" With a stroke of Del Vecchio's pen (on a bank check), the decade-long back rent and expenses of the archive were satisfied and the collection set firmly on a new footing.

The collection continues to grow. "When you sell clothing," Kelly Stuart says, "you don't necessarily think of your clothes as part of your 'archive,' but they are." With that in mind, the company sees looking back into its rich history as a brilliant way to move forward.

• McKeon is managing editor of MyLittleBird.com, a Washington-based women's-eye view of fashion, design and culture. A version of this story appeared in Fashion Washington, a Washington Post fashion and lifestyle monthly magazine.

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