As my family members and close friends know, one of my favorite iconic stores that has now served multiple generations of hard-working (and in some cases not so hard working) East Coast preppies and business folk is Brooks Brothers. While the store undoubtedly represents a unique American white collar "work hard, play hard" sartorial business type -- after all, who needs Saville Row suits that can make fat European cats look thin when fit US workers can look just as trim in the relaxed Brooks 3 button "sack" or draped jacket if they can find an hour in the day for a squash game or jog -- the brand has also come to represent a truly hypocritical trend in retail marketing. To wit, some organizations like Brooks Brothers are capitalizing on how they're creating -- or sustaining -- manufacturing jobs in America. Yet their true revenue and margin makers are coming from: you guessed it, China.
Let me relate a personal story on this front. For the holidays, my mother, as she often does, gave me a Brooks Brothers gift card. With it, I went to my local Brooks Brothers store on Michigan Avenue. As I walked in, I saw precisely what I was looking for -- wool and cashmere sweaters. Yet upon closer inspection, I saw the production labels had changed this year to China (from the US, Hong Kong -- or worse), even for a number of items costing $125 or more. A couple years back, I made the personal decision that for my work wardrobe, I would rather have fewer items in my closet that were made in the West than a plethora of items coming from low cost countries. So this change even for certain higher end items, especially given the theme of some recent Brooks Brothers advertising, took me by surprise. Even their swanky high-end "Black Fleece" stuff now, in part, comes from China.
When I spoke to a salesperson asking where in the store I could find a sweater that was not manufactured in China, I was directed to a much smaller section off to the side. Yet gone were the not-made-in-China sweaters I used to buy for $100 or so, and in came the $250+ sweaters from Scotland which were marketed with a more distinctive provenance than before (so much for an American brand, I suppose). Eventually, I did settle on a single item that was on sale (and still astronomically expensive). But at least in doing so, I was not contributing to our trade deficit with one country in particular.
Although the trip may have been a personal and sartorial victory, in the end having spent 45 minutes trying to identify a sweater that would do the trick not just based on its durability or looks, but also where it was manufactured, was pyrrhic, at best. After all, when one's favored brand embarks on a "Made in America" marketing campaign that long-term customers can stand behind, but then upon entering a store it becomes clear that a majority of the volume flowing the cash registers (on a SKU basis) is coming from China, well, it's a sad day, especially considering that even in recent years similar high-end items at Brooks Brothers came from other countries.