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The bones of a man’s suit haven’t changed much in 200 years. Jacket, vest, tie, and trousers. Shoulders have risen; two-button, three-button, one-button labels; pleats have come, gone, and come back again. And the American version of that suit—a representation of Italian and British styles, with a natural shoulder, single vent, low armholes, flap pockets, and loose, three-button sleeves—was pioneered by Brooks Brothers. Founded by Henry S. Brooks in 1818, the company invented the button-down collar and off-the-rack suiting; still makes suits, shirts, and ties in the U.S.; and has dressed American sartorial conservatives ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Don Draper. But as the brand (owned since 2001 by Claudio del Vecchio, son of the founder of the Italian Luxottica eyewear conglomerate) celebrates its second centennial, a question looms: How much can (or should) a suit really change?
“At the end of the day, we make suits, and suits always look alike,” says Matteo Cavaliere, 41, sitting on the clubby top floor of the Brooks Brothers store near New York’s Grand Central station. Cavaliere is the new director of the company’s made-to-measure program, which offers suits starting at about $2,000. “The difference? How to style them and how to make them more comfortable through fabric innovations.”
Cavaliere is wearing a slim-fitting single-breasted suit with a narrow lapel and truncated cuff. His own style indicates Brooks Brothers is adhering to the demands of a more modern consumer. “Customers are still asking for our natural-shoulder suiting, but the tailoring has evolved—customers want slimmer fits,” he explains in a thick Italian staccato.
Prior to joining the Brooks Brothers team last year, Cavaliere spent nine years running the international made-to-measure program at Ermenegildo Zegna, the storied suit maker that’s as Italian as Brooks Brothers is American. The main draw for Cavaliere to move Stateside for a job at the largest U.S. supplier of men’s suits was Brooks Brothers’ tradition of speedy, built-to-order, American ingenuity. “We have been making custom clothing since 1818 and were also the first to introduce ready-made suits, in 1849.” Cavaliere is actively looking to slash the brand’s made-to-measure turnaround time for a suit from three weeks to just ten days, without sacrificing fit. On the bespoke-service front, the company will soon debut a concierge program in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Boston for customers at home, office, or hotel.
Cavaliere takes full advantage of the homegrown talent and Brooks Brothers’ made-in-America foundation. He has been touring the company’s factories: A factory in Queens, New York, turns out Brooks Brothers silk ties (knit ties are produced in Italy), while dress shirting, oxford-cloth button-downs, and Golden Fleece shirts are created in Garland, North Carolina. The mother ship of Brooks Brothers’ American manufacturing empire is its Southwick factory, nestled in the quaint city of Haverhill, Massachusetts, where most of its off-the-rack (and all of its made-to-measure) suiting is produced. “Manufacturing in the U.S. is deeply rooted in Brooks Brothers’ DNA,” explains Cavaliere. “When Brooks Brothers purchased Southwick ten years ago, Mr. del Vecchio’s commitment was to preserve quality manufacturing and foster a new generation of tailors who are keeping the traditions alive in tandem with implementing cutting-edge advancements in technology.”
The popularity of fast fashion (such as the Amsterdam-based Suitsupply, with its low prices and limitless options) and the advent of a more casual workplace have disrupted the suit market. But Cavaliere believes that a new generation of men is swinging back to the idea that less is more. “We are seeing a younger customer who would rather have a few suits that fit perfectly and will last a long time than 20 off-the-rack suits that fit okay,” says Cavaliere. Yet he boasts about the 1,100 new fabrics he brought to Brooks Brothers for spring, including wrinkle- and bacteria-resistant gabardines and an activewear-inspired breathable twill. “If you’re not comfortable, you will never look elegant.”
As he is often on the road meeting with customers, Cavaliere has taken to evangelizing about the classic American suit. Naturally, the “do Italians do it better?” question comes up. He reminds his clients that Italian fashion is where it is because of America. After the Second World War, many Italian tailors came to the U.S. to work in the apparel industry. Many returned to Italy with American industrial know-how, thus improving their native land’s tailoring industry. Now, says Cavaliere, this exchange program continues. “We want to keep the tradition of classic tailoring alive,” he says, noting that Brooks Brothers sought out and relocated seven suit tailors to its factory in Southwick. “If I’m out there telling customers made-to-measure suiting is an investment, we need to make the investment too.”