Home >companies >people >Suits business dropped in 2000, never came back: Brooks Brothers’ Garafalo

New Delhi: Paulette Garafalo, president (international, wholesale and manufacturing) at American clothing brand Brooks Brothers, was in New Delhi to inaugurate the company’s first store in the city on Friday. “We don’t pretend to know the Indian market," said Garafalo, explaining in an interview how the company’s local joint venture with Reliance Brands Ltd, a unit of Reliance Industries Ltd, will help. Reliance plans to open five Brooks Brothers stores in six months—one each in Gurgaon, Chennai, Chandigarh Bangalore and Hyderabad—to sell what it calls accessible luxury shirts priced at 6,000 a piece. Garafalo, who has worked with luxury retailer Salvatore Ferragamo, Bally and Hickey Freeman, also spoke on changing trends in men’s fashion and the importance of new markets for the company. Edited excerpts:

Have you worked only with men’s brands? What is it that you know about men’s fashion that others don’t?

The answer is yes. I have always been the only woman at industry dinners. I think what I know is what I don’t know. I think I was a woman who really did not have many years of prejudice when I came to Hickey Freeman, a tailored clothing company. I did not have 20 years of suits experience so I looked at what people really want. Being a woman in the men’s industry, I don’t have some of the prejudices of men. I bring that to Brooks Brothers too. Hickey Freeman was a success and we have had a very good two-and-a-half years here too.

You’re said to have travelled a lot and developed markets like Russia, India and China in the last two-and-a-half years.

Brazil, too. I can’t say that I did it all by myself. We put together a team. My boss was quite clever. As he was trying to have me come on board, he hired some of the people that I worked with before. So we hired head of Asia-Pacific, a CEO for Europe and a head for Latin America. In December, we got a new head for Japan who comes out of LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA) and the Gucci group. His job is to reinvigorate the market. It’s a mature market.

What kind of a presence do you have in China?

We are in China with 56 stores and growing. We have a good partnership and we are building on that, we opened a flagship in Beijing this year. We have been in the market for eight years.

Brooks Brothers is known for its men’s wear. How much women’s wear do you sell?

About 20%. But in new markets, it is doing better... 25% to 30%. Sometimes it is 10 points more. What is happening in China or Panama is that we don’t have 195 years of history in men’s wear. So the perception is different. We fill a niche for good quality traditional wear for working women. That customer sits in Panama and Hong Kong, but not in the US. In Indonesia, in December we opened a store and did not put enough women’s merchandise. Sale of women’s clothing was much higher and we were scrambling.

What is your best-selling product?

Twenty-five percent of our revenue comes from dress shirts. We were the first company to launch the buttoned-down shirt. It is a registered trademark and it’s called the polo shirt. Then we invented the non-iron dress shirt. So we sell millions and millions of dress shirts. Besides, we sell more bow ties than any other company in the world.

Brooks Brothers is 195 years old. Don’t such old brands lose their relevance and need to be revitalized?

That won’t be my call to action. That will be Claudio Del Vecchio (chairman and chief executive), who is the keeper of the brand. Where I help is with branding out the market and the sales venue. So we now sell at Gallery Lafayette, Harrods, Barneys, Nordstrom. In mature countries we want multi-branded stores as they have a whole different customer that may never shop in your retail store.

How has men’s fashion changed globally?

It’s different in different markets, so I will make an overall observation. Latin America is probably 10 years behind, but globally it was a sartorial business. And then when the world’s financial institutions allowed to dress casual, that really changed the dynamics and it never really came back. So “dress casual" came aboard the US, Hong Kong (markets) and most of the big financial markets started to dress casuals in the early 2000’s and the whole world went dress casuals in one year and the suit business dropped by more than 50%. And it never really made a full comeback. So, I would say that in the early 2003-04’s, there was a real big shift to casuals.

But if you go to Brazil and Colombia, you might not see this; Latin America is still much more sartorial.

That’s one big trend. And another big trend we are starting to see now even in countries like Japan is that neck-wear is declining. This is only my humble opinion and an observation but I think less and less countries are wearing neck-wear.

Are you looking at launching Black Fleece, the brands couture range, in India?

Black Fleece is designed by Thom Browne and it is manufactured in Europe, mostly in Italy, and it is our couture line, very directional.

It is a designer line. We sell that worldwide in Paris, Tokyo, Korea. We would love to bring it to India but it’s just a very small part of our business and usually we like to launch the core brand in a market. Japan is the biggest Black Fleece market and we’ve been there for 33 years, so the customer knows Brooks Brothers and it is a very sophisticated customer that wears Black Fleece. So it is between the credibility of the brand and the fashion sensibility, so the timing is critical for that. We wouldn’t open with that.

Is your manufacturing restricted to America?

About 25% is done in the United States and we’re growing that area of business. The rest is diversified, it’s Europe, Asia and India. It’s around the world.

How does the age group of your customers change across countries?

It depends on the market segment and who has the wealth of the market. In Korea, our customer is very young as most of the buying power in Korea today is in the age of 25-35. Our customer in Korea is 30 years old on an average and the one in United States may be 45. Our shirts are bought by college students as well as retired people.

What’s your personal fashion style?

This suit I’m wearing is made for me in our factory in Japan by our partner. I try to wear Brooks Brothers to work. But I will wear anything from fast fashion Uniqlo to Hermes. I have a soft spot for Ferragamo as I spent a large part of my career there. I wear formals to work because I work with a variety of customers. I’d rather be a little over-dressed than under-dressed so I tend to be a little bit more formal. I have been in the men’s wear business for so long, I am not the best female shopper.

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