The man in the Brooks Brothers suit is an icon of American popular culture. But the man in the Brooks Brothers' executive suite is an Italian businessman named Claudio Del Vecchio.
Mr. Del Vecchio, who bought the 191-year-old apparel chain in 2001, popped into Toronto last week to launch the retailer's latest store - one of about 330 worldwide and the second in Canada, after a Vancouver outlet opened earlier this year. He belongs to the family behind the Luxottica eyewear group, but his demeanour does not suggest a silver-spooned Euro-heir.
Instead, the 52-year-old, whose rags-to-riches father was raised in an orphanage, comes across as a soft-spoken striver.
Isn't Brooks Brothers a quaint anachronism in this age of casual attire?
People looking for excuses not to shop at Brooks Brothers might think that way. But we normally hear the contrary. We keep hearing that we are on the top of fashion, that we are the top of innovation.
But didn't you want to pull Brooks Brothers back to its roots in suits and dressy apparel?
We wanted to make sure that component of Brooks Brothers was going to be revealed, but we are also proud of the fact we invented business casual. We invented the blazer, we invented the buttoned-down shirt, we invented the chino pants. Contrary to many beliefs, we welcome the casualization of working because we can be as strong there as we are with suits.
So what was the problem before you bought the chain in 2001?
It was a lack of understanding of what they had. In the minds of previous management [Marks & Spencer PLC] Brooks Brothers was suits, and when the world went casual, they were running scared and looking for a different customer than they had. In the process, they lost the one they did have. It made nobody happy because they never gained the new customer, and they lost the old one.
Don't you have to get more young people to buy your product?
They do. We gain more customers every day. Every customer we gain is a young customer. We have a nice line of boys' wear. Of course, we are important for people who work and if you are a student at university, there are more choices today - but we are still one of those choices.
Is the recession devastating for your end of the market?
For everybody, us included. We are probably managing a little better than other people, but it has affected us as well.
Why are you able to cope a little better?
The kind of customer we have might not be as affected by the economy. Also, there is the realization that we offer real value. The brand, we like to think, is a consequence of what we do, rather than the other way around - as with most other brands. It starts from what we are. People are also looking more for an investment now with their shopping and they find that in Brooks Brothers.
Is the retail market as dire as it was six months ago?
We don't see any change at this point. Hopefully, November, December will be better. Actually, we didn't do too bad last year until November, December. We were up last year at this time, so we received our share of what was happening later than other people.
We finished with same-store sales down 10 per cent at the end of our fiscal year, which was July 31. If you look at our direct competition, the better department stores, we should be very happy.
Is Canada just an extension of the U.S. market?
A lot of the logistics are the same. We try not to build a new infrastructure, and we take advantage of what we have just on the other side of the border. But from a marketing and even merchandising standpoint, we try to be Canadian. Even in the U.S., our stores are not all the same.
In Vancouver, we find there are a lot of very wealthy people, but the mix is quite different than in New York. In Vancouver, we will sell more sports and casual products than New York, but we expect Toronto to be closer in mix to New York. There is also a little more European flavour in Canada, and some of the offerings in Europe might be sold here but maybe not in New York.
What about other cities?
We still have plans in downtown Calgary for next year. We were offered space in a mall but we are really a downtown brand. As for Montreal, we first want to establish ourselves where we are more comfortable with the language but Montreal is absolutely part of the plan. We don't have a lease signed yet, but we are not excluding it.
Isn't it tricky expanding in a tough economic time?
It might be the ideal time because it allows us to find locations. There is less competition for the right space. It gives us an opportunity to learn. It's a little softer but you are ready when the market comes back.
Are you like Victor Kiam, who bought the Remington company because he liked the razors so much?
Yes, absolutely. I was a customer for many years. Even in my previous [eyewear]business, I got the licence [to use the brand]from Brooks Brothers. That's how much I like the brand. But like many customers, I wasn't happy with what was happening with the stores and, given the opportunity, I took the bull by the horns.
You don't come from a blue-blooded Italian family?
My grandfather was selling fruits and vegetables on the street when he died of pneumonia before my father was born. My father [Leonardo]was the eighth sibling, and it was wartime, so my grandmother didn't have the resources to keep him at home. He was put in an orphan house. He came out at 14, went to work, and by the time he was 18, he was managing the place where he worked. At 25, he started the company that was the foundation for our family business today, the Luxottica Group.
I was involved in Luxottica until 1995-'96 and I am still on the board. I love that business but I wanted to try something a little different. I let my gut make the decision.
You went into retail in the United States?
I was working for Luxottica in the United States. I have worked in the United States for 27 years now.
In Canada, Brooks Brothers is described as being positioned under Harry Rosen and above Moores. Is that accurate?
An easy differentiation would be to look at prices. From a quality standpoint, we are in line with Harry Rosen. But we have [our own]middleman, and Harry Rosen has to buy from a middleman. Just because of that, his prices won't be as competitive as ours.
But Harry does a fantastic job. We wish to be as good as he has been in this market. We're not here to focus on Harry Rosen, but I'm sure some of our customers will have to come from there. He is a very important, successful story and we only wish to be as successful. I have visited many of his stores and he does a fantastic job of merchandising for the stores. If you look in Toronto, every store looks different. We are very jealous of the way he does things and hopefully we will be as good.
But you see Brooks Brothers as a different model?
We like to look at ourselves as makers and merchants. We still have factories, we make suits, we make shirts and ties. When we talk about other products with vendors, we kind of speak the same language. So even when we don't make it ourselves, we get treated fairly and we get consistency and quality through everything.
When you are a multi-brand retailer, you cannot depend on all those different people. The consistency may not be there all the time and the brand becomes more important than the quality. Sometimes, the quality is more important than the brand, but it is harder for many customers to see the difference. Ours is more of a consistent offering.
Claudio Del Vecchio
Title: Chairman and CEO, Retail Brand Alliance (parent of Brooks Brothers), New York
Born: Borgo Valsugana, Italy, on Feb. 26, 1957
Education: Economics degree, Catholic University, Milan
1978: Joined family business, Luxottica Group SpA
1979 to 1982: Managed Italian and German distribution operations
1982 to 1997: Responsible for business operations of Luxottica in North America
1995: After Luxottica's takeover of U.S. Shoe Corp. (including LensCrafters), he personally acquired U.S. Shoe's Casual Corner women's wear shops
2001: Bought Brooks Brothers for $225-million (U.S.) from Marks & Spencer
2005: Liquidated Casual Corner chain