Does Brooks Brothers Really Need to Be Reinvented?

New designer Michael Bastian has a radical idea: that maybe, instead of a top-to-bottom brand refresh, what Brooks Brothers really needs is to make classic, quality clothes.
A collage of models wearing brooks brothers clothing and images of the clothes on a background of a lobster fishing port
Photographs courtesy Brooks Brothers, Getty Images; Collage by Gabe Conte

When new owners Authentic Brands Group yanked Brooks Brothers out of bankruptcy in August of 2020 and appointed Michael Bastian as the brand’s new creative director a few months later, it seemed like a nostalgic move, or maybe even a conservative one. Bastian built his highly successful eponymous brand during the #menswear heyday, spiffing up the codes of menswear along with cheeky prepsters like Gant, Mark McNairy, and Thom Browne—but Gant and McNairy no longer produce regular collections, while Browne has become a preeminent name in gender fluid dressing. And though Bastian’s clothes were once a favorite among basketball players, the pregame tunnel is now dominated by luxury streetwear from brands like Kapital, Balenciaga, and Fear of God. (In a funny way, Jerry Lorenzo’s line, which mixes luxe tailoring with sportswear, might be the true heir to Bastian’s.) Preppiness, in general, has taken a funky turn, as modern practitioners attempt to square its troubling past with our more politically aware present.

In the midst of all this change, Bastian has been in the driver’s seat at Brooks Brothers and steadily firing away. He’s designed five collections so far, though due to turnaround times and supply chain issues, only his first, Fall 2021, has arrived in stores; Spring 2022 began landing last week. All have been suitably, even uber preppy. The full Spring 2022 offering was inspired by two cliches of Wasp vacation life, Palm Beach and Nantucket, and has double-breasted jackets, plaid blazers styled with bowties, oxford cloth shirts, fun shirts, and a madras anorak with seersucker cuffs. There are whimsical go-to-hell prints and lots of seersucker. In other words: the age-old Brooks Brothers prep you, your father, and his father all remember, presented (mostly) irony-free.

That’s the point, Bastian said in a video call late last year. When he began discussions with the Brooks team, he recalled that he started his eponymous line “to do those things that I missed from Brooks Brothers that they weren't doing anymore,” by which he means Bengal stripe shirts, tennis sweaters, oxford cloth shirting, wide chinos. In other words: “Very simple, fundamental things. Maybe they’re not the hottest thing at the moment, but they always need to be there. That kind of base of reliability is really important for a brand like Brooks Brothers.” It’s the way Levi’s always has 501s or five-pocket cords. Or an antidote to the way the creator of your favorite T-shirt might not have those things all of a sudden, for whatever reason. He wanted to built his Brooks around the things that, should a brand stop making them, it “feels like a betrayal.”

Extra-preppy looks from Brooks's spring collection.

Courtesy of Brooks Brothers.
Courtesy of Brooks Brothers.

All of which sounds great. But since we live in a world where brands like Aimé Leon Dore and Noah have rejiggered prep and sportswear for the contemporary young man, it would be fair to wonder whether Bastian is reinventing things enough.

But Bastian doesn’t see himself as the creative dynamo imported to bring his high-fashion bonafides to a beleaguered brand. Instead, he sees his role as something entirely different, free of ego and more about product. He is thinking obsessively about the customer, tracking their comments on Instagram and their habits on the Brooks Brothers web store. “I just think—and maybe this is from being at this stage in my life and in my career—[that] I don't need to reinvent the wheel,” he said in a video call last month. “Like, that Oxford cloth shirt is perfection. All I need to do is protect it, and make sure it’s there in its highest form.” Same with style anachronisms like sock garters and back-button boxer shorts. Brooks Brothers, he knows, is home to “all these crazy little menswear things that a lot of guys out there love. And we’re the last place doing it.”

“As a designer, you gotta put yourself in the mindset that the brand is bigger than you,” he continued. “I’m very comfortable with that. The brand is 200-plus years old. It's going to be going long after me, all of us. The best I can do is: keep it relevant, keep it on track, polish up the icons, make it more Brooks Brothers.”

In other words: at Brooks Brothers, Bastian isn’t reinventing Brooks Brothers. Instead, he’s reinventing the idea of the brand reinvention.


The menswear brand-refresh playbook is relatively simple. Over the past decade, reinvention was a way for mid-priced retailers like J.Crew and Brooks to compete with luxury brands—or, if not compete, then to position themselves as spiritually akin to them, to make clothing worthy of sitting alongside Saint Laurent or Brioni in a man’s closet. J.Crew, under Frank Muytjens, churned out suits that echoed Hedi Slimane’s skinny silhouette and the pristine tailoring of Mad Men. (Its womenswear, under Jenna Lyons, seemed to beg to sit next to Prada—and for a time, when its screaming cashmere sweaters and sequin skirts were picked up by Net-a-Porter, it did.) Brooks Brothers hired Thom Browne to design a fancy line called Black Fleece; then it installed Zac Posen, best known for his figure-hugging gowns for young society doyennes, as creative director. It seemed the way to gain traction was not to create good products (though Browne’s work for Brooks was certainly ahead of its time), but to create big, splashy ones.

All this change took place amidst the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. But just as that crisis financially and spiritually obliterated the middle class, so too did the idea of merely good, quality clothing seem to lose its luster. This was something I discussed with Noah designer Brendon Babenzien last spring, shortly before he took the reins as the new head of J.Crew. It used to be, Babenzien said, that people who had money bought specific products and had particular aspirations attuned to their income or lifestyle, while those who had less money bought different products. Now, he said, everyone aspires to the same lifestyle, products, and look. “It’s from top to bottom: everybody shares the information, and everybody’s pursuing the exact same lifestyle through their product purchases,” he said. “For me, that really limits creativity. Everybody just wants to look the same, and be the same, and act the same, and listen to the same music and say the same words. That’s a disaster for what should be a diverse, unique, creative society.”

And when fast fashion brands like Zara, Asos, and H&M are not simply referencing or knocking off luxury brands but using the same modeling agencies, photographers, and stylists as those brands, it can become nearly impossible to tell the difference. The desire to dress any other way seems to disappear. To put it another way: just as brands like Brooks Brothers and J.Crew were beginning to falter, everything else was becoming fashion.

This was also a disaster (to use Babenzien’s word) for those who simply wanted simple clothes. Babenzien’s first J. Crew collection will drop sometime in the second half of this year, but his Noah has already established a reputation for the uncomplicated clothes that form the foundation of a wardrobe. His challenge at J. Crew will bringing those fans with him. 

Bastian, meanwhile, is already seeing success with this more straightforward, product-driven strategy. “I’ve barely been here a year and I just finished season number five,” he said, but the pieces are already being embraced by online shoppers: “The customer is very opinionated. So you get these comments like, well, ‘that sweater is too tight’ or, ‘it’s too scratchy’ or something. And it’s like, you realize like the brand was just in its grave! We’re just so happy that we’re back with a product that’s going in the right direction.”


Bastian’s biggest challenge is that Brooks Brother still needs to make a major play at younger customers. (Like you, the one reading this!) I asked what he made of ALD and Noah’s prep revival. For the record, he loves it: “Isn't it amazing? I think that's why I think the timing is right too. Like if you live long enough, you keep going through these cycles.” He experienced The Preppy Handbook 1980s, and then led his own revival of those codes with his brand, “and now it's coming back in a whole new way, which is really amazing because it’s more inclusive, a little cooler, a little less gender specific. It makes it all kind of fresh again and exciting again. And all of those ideas really are great for Brooks Brothers. I just think it’s a great time to kind of dust everything off.”

Michael Bastian at a Brooks Brothers event last December. Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images.

But younger guys still see Brooks as “my dad’s favorite store,” he said. One place to start, of course, is the archive. Brands like Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, and J. Crew have a vaunted design legacy for a reason: their earlier collections were full of simple cotton, linen, and twill pants and jackets made before NAFTA made synthetics ubiquitous. And now they are finally willing to return to them, in mostly unadulterated form. “The archive is literally bottomless,” he said. “We have most of the old catalogs. We go through there and you’ll find the most insane stuff. The perception is that Brooks Brothers has always been tailored clothing. It always had this sportswear component that was there, but maybe not top of mind for most people.” Lately, he’s been obsessed with the defunct diffusion line from the ’70s called Brooksgate, the brand’s ploy to win hippie customers. (Naturally, it has a cult following online.) “That’s where you find these weird little things like bootcut chinos,” he said. “They developed the first non-iron shirt under the radar. And really cool outerwear, like a colorblock down vest that you can’t believe is from Brooks Brothers.”

That history, he said, “gives us the chance to do pretty much anything in an authentic way.” His Brooks doesn’t have to borrow from someone else’s lookbook or create a new, nonexistent heritage. “You want baggy pants? We did that,” he said. “You want skinny pants? We did it. You want a soft shoulder, a strong shoulder? Double-breasted? The brand has done it all.”

Classic tailoring—and some less-stuffy styling.

Courtesy of Brooks Brothers.
Courtesy of Brooks Brothers.

So does Bastian really want to make bootcut chinos? “I do,” he said, before easing up on the gas. “Well, I’ve only been here a minute. The biggest part of my job is to make sure all those icons are taken care of. The second part will be to introduce more of those fashion-y things.” First, he needs to restore the navy blazer, Shetland sweater, and boxer shorts to their former glory. “And once I get [that customer] back in the store, feeling comfortable coming in, [I can] tempt them with maybe things they haven't seen in a while or something more fashion-y or more luxe or, you know, a fit they might want to try.”

Brooks Brothers, in other words, is perfectly primed for the non-reinvention-reinvention. Millennials and Gen Zers may not be returning to trad dressing, per se—I imagine some will find the unapologetically preppy styling of the Brooks website and lookbooks too aggressive—but they are increasingly attuned to the inferiority of direct-to-consumer products that promise the Instagram patina of good taste but under-deliver on quality. Hence the interest in better-made vintage fashion, classic restaurants, and good old-fashioned dates.

“You know,” Bastian said, “the weirdest thing in the world is how the men's wheel turns so slowly that your most advanced guy and your least advanced guy kind of overlap. So like, so like their grandfather's still wearing like, a double-pleated baggy pant, and like a young cool guy in his twenties wants that big baggy high-waisted double pleated pant.” That, of course, is the kind of thing that Brooks Brothers has made on and off for nearly a century. “And we're kind of riding that wave.”