Q&A: Michael Bastian Just Wants to Make Brooks Brothers Even 'Brooksier'

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Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy


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Spend any considerable amount of time talking about menswear on the internet, and you’re bound to find at least one. I have spent considerable time talking about menswear on the internet, so I’ve found dozens. Maybe hundreds. Guys who simply love Brooks Brothers, except they also kind of don’t. These guys venerate the old days but bemoan the modern age. They obsess of the collar roll on an oxford-cloth button-down. They count the number of pleats at a sleeve cuff. They care so, so much, even if the platonic ideal of the thing they’re talking about—the real Brooks Brother shirts or sweater or suit—fell out of production years ago.

Michael Bastian, the brand's creative director, really gets these guys. That much becomes immediately apparent upon speaking with him, as I did recently to discuss the state of the brand and where it's going. But for a while, I emphatically did not get those guys. The Brooks Brothers of the last couple of decades seemed all right to me. Fine. Adequate. Serviceable. If you were in a pinch, you could always head there for a white shirt or a striped tie and trust that it would be fine, adequate, serviceable. I was raised on a version of the brand that, most of the time, didn’t do much to encourage me (or anyone else) to expect more of it.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

I was naïve. Because after a while, looking at old photos or running my hand over vintage finds, I realized that it really could be more. The Brooks Brothers from back in the day wasn’t just adequate—it was really damn good. Those collar rolls? They were perfect. That oxford cloth? It was exactly the right weight, with exactly the right texture. Those guys from way back? They were getting the genuine article. The rest of us? We were being served a sad simulacrum.

Bastian knew that even before he joined on with the company in December of 2020. Part of the reason he started his own, much-beloved namesake label in 2006 was to create versions of the classics he could no longer find at Brooks Brothers. So it was only fitting when the brand, fresh out of bankruptcy and with a new owner, named him creative director. The mood at the time, from the folks who emotionally invest themselves in these sorts of comings and goings, was cautious optimism. Here was a man who seemed to really understand what made 203-year-old Brooks Brothers, the oldest American apparel brand in continuous operation, so valuable. Maybe he could be trusted to bring it back. To make it feel vital. To thread it into the lives of clothing-wearing public once more.

Now, nearly a year on, Bastian’s efforts are starting to bear fruit. A reworked version of the iconic Brooks Brothers oxford cloth button-down conceived and executed under his direction has hit shelves. A Bengal stripe shirt has, too, and more icons—corduroy pants, Shetland sweaters—are on the way. He’s also working on expanding the brand’s assortment of sportswear, building out its women’s business, and about a million other things.

Photo credit: ALISTAIR TAYLOR-YOUNG
Photo credit: ALISTAIR TAYLOR-YOUNG

It’s an enormous undertaking, and he knows that. He also knows that those hardcore fans, the ones counting pleats, are going to have something to say about what he’s doing. He welcomes it. Because he wants what they want. He wants those icons to be available to all. And chatting with him about it, I couldn’t help finding myself feeling optimistic again, in no small part because, even as he remains deeply pragmatic about the whole enterprise, he is, too.

Read on for an edited and condensed version of our conversation, touching on everything from the forensic approach necessary to make the perfect oxford shirt to the future of preppy style in America, and you might just find yourself feeling a twinge of optimism, as well. There’s a long, hard road ahead, but Bastian seems pretty sure of the route.

Esquire: Before you took your current role, what were your feelings on Brooks Brothers? Did you already have a sense of connection with the brand?

Michael Bastian: One thing that I realized once I jumped into this job was a big part of why I started my own collection was to make those things that I couldn't find at Brooks Brothers anymore. I had been wearing Brooks Brothers pretty much my whole life. One thing that had frustrated me with Brooks Brothers is you think it should never change, that you should be able to walk in the front door and reliably find an oxford-cloth button-down, Bengal-stripe button-down, a peacoat, a chino, a five-pocket cord, on and on and on. Those fundamental icons of the brand should always be there. And somehow, over time, some of those icons either got eroded or dropped along the wayside or modified.

So the first thing I wanted to do was, just put all the bones back into the brand—not reinvent the wheel, but get all the spokes back in the wheel. Because it's a brand that people are super vocal about and super passionate about, and I think the way forward for Brooks Brothers is to really own all of those icons, all of the things that people expect to find in a Brooks Brothers. So really my first job is just rebuilding the house a little bit, if that makes sense.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Yeah, it does. I'm one of the people who, like you, became frustrated when the brand went from a go-to resource for a great oxford-cloth button-down to, Wait, why did they change this? What's going on here?

And why does it now have a logo on it? And what happened to the pocket? And there's just a million little things. And I think the Brooks Brothers customer is so loyal that any other brand's customer would've just bailed ages ago, but the Brooks Brothers customer has hung on and continues to hang on. I kind of want to get the message out to them, “I'm here now. We're going to fix everything. We're going to get all of your favorite things back to the brand.”

You know, the oxford-cloth button-down shirt, not only did Brooks Brothers invent it and perfect it, but the company was basically built on that one shirt. That was the thing that was in everybody's closet for decades. How do you walk away from that? It's almost like if Levi’s walked away from their 501. You don't walk away from the most iconic thing in your line. I've been going through all the archives and books, and there was one president that the company had in, I think it was the ‘50s and ‘60s. Someone asked him, “What was your greatest accomplishment?” And he said, “I made Brooks Brothers Brooksier.” I totally understand what he was saying. He just made the brand what the brand wants to be, should be, always was.

So, going with that same sentiment, what do you think the oxford-cloth button-down should be right now?

Well, there's the mathematical aspect [laughs]. There's kind of a golden rule about that. We called in a bunch of them over the decades from our archive, or maybe I had them in my collection, or we bought them on eBay, and we turned our workroom into a forensics lab. We laid them all out and measured everything and we broke down the things that shall never be touched.

Most famously, the roll of the collar is very precise. And that really doesn't involve so much the length of the collar, but the positioning of the buttons. That was the real trick to that one. But you know, the back box pleat is a specific width. The sleeve placket is a specific length. There's those six little pleats at the cuff. The very high yoke in the back. The label that was sewn into the yoke and then flipped up. The seven-button front. We chose to land with a pocket, though certain eras had it without the pocket.

You know, what you realize all is, well, you might perceive it as never having changed. It actually did change in subtle ways, particularly the width and the length of the body. The ones from the ‘30s and ‘40s really were more like a nightshirt; they were weirdly long, like a dress length. We were just trying to take the best from each era. But I kind of dropped the needle in the late ‘80s, when I was wearing them and loving them and feel like it was what it always had been before it changed in the ‘90s. I think that we should always have the classic the way the classic wants to be.

That’s good news.

Yeah. The other one, the other shirt, the other obsession was the Bengal stripe shirt, which I'm equally obsessed with. And that one was in broadcloth. So we pulled in a bunch of those and measured the stripes and got the colors just right. Oh, the colors! The color of the oxford cloth is actually kind of a sacred formula as well. Like that precise blue, that perfect pink. I don't think anyone's gotten pink right except for Brooks Brothers. Or the yellow, which is very specific. Those are all things that you don't realize it when it's right, you just sense something's off, if it's not the exact blue or the exact pink. I'm sounding very fanatical, as it's coming out of my mouth, but I guess someone has to be. If it's not me, then who? I think this is worth being fanatical about, to get these icons polished back up.

Alongside that, you’re looking to make Brooks Brothers about more than shirts, ties, and tailored clothing by expanding the brand’s sportswear assortment. How do you balance that?

Well, the brand is always going to be known for tailored clothing, dress shirts, and ties. It's just kind of a fundamental aspect of the brand, that going-to-work angle. But the reality is, guys don't have to wear a full suit and tie now to go to work. So, the jump-off point is the sportswear that can go back to tailored clothing, which I think is the way a lot of guys are dressing, but also more true sportswear, even down to a gym short and or track pant or sweats, any of that stuff. And the funny thing is we go through the old catalogs and Brooks Brothers always had a ton of sportswear. It just never got credit for it. It was always kind of overshadowed by the tailored clothing.

But really it’s just the reaction to how everyone dresses. We all have the kind of same needs. You need five-pocket cord and T-shirts and Shetland sweaters and down vest and all that stuff. It's not really that tricky. And looking at the old catalogs, we've done it all. You want a baggy pleated pant, we've got it; you want something skinny, we've done that. Every time I pull something out of the archive, I feel like, All right, we can do this. We can jump on this trend with authority, because we did it before.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

So what’s the connection between the sportswear and the tailoring? What’s the overarching theme?

I think the overarching thing with anything Brooks Brothers, it’s always is going to be classic, heritage, American. It’s not going to be overly branded. There's not logos all over the place. Where we do play around is with color, pattern, mixing—the magic is all in how you put it together. I like to think it’s kind of perfect basics in a way that allow you to really play around with your own personal style. It's hard to play around with clothes that are overly branded or specific or fashiony. It's hard to twist that around to your own style. You need slightly more neutral things to really let your style shine through. So that, to me, is going to always be it: really great quality, but at the end of the day, it’s classic, American, heritage, preppy, optimistic—there's a lot of buzzwords that we think about. But, when I'm designing, we always step back and say, does it feel like Brooks Brothers? It's got that intangible, Yeah, this feels like Brooks Brothers to me.

Speaking of preppy style, it feels like there’s a new wave cresting and it’s different than it has been in the past. Less elitist and more open. What do you think “prep” means now, in 2021, and moving forward?

I love everything that's happening right now. You know, we're talking about a generation that didn't live through that first—well, not first, but probably 100th—wave. Whatever that wave around the Preppy Handbook was in the ’80, when it a gigantic wave. I lived through that round. This round feels a lot fresher, a lot more inclusive, a lot more democratic. It's pushing us to think of things in a lot of different ways.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

In the past, preppy style has been about mixing and matching and classic Americana and all these positive things, but there was also this thornier side. Super exclusive, super privileged, super white…

And that always bothered me. Like the word itself, bothers me, because it is very exclusive and it implies that you had to go to some kind of prep school. It's the same with WASP; the “W” stands for “white.” So that's already offensive. That's why I defer more to “heritage” or “classic.” It's just because a big part of it now being attractive is that it is more inclusive that it isn't so specific. I mean, that was just gross.

I hated it even back in the ‘80s because I didn't come from that background. My dad was a history teacher. I grew up in upstate New York in the woods. And my idea was a preppy wasn't country club. It was more like flannel shirts and down vests and five pocket cool cords, in a Jeep. That was my idea of it. More that back-woodsy idea. You know, a lot of the same elements, but yeah, I'm glad that angle of it is, is kind of being dulled down, taken away. It was never that attractive of an angle.

There’s something so much more appealing about this idea of “Hey, look at these pieces and how you can use them together to suit your own needs.”

Exactly. Like, have fun with them.

Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you wanted to talk about?

Well, I haven't even been here one full year yet, and the stuff is now just beginning to roll out that I fully had my mitts on. The Bengal stripe shirt, the oxford-cloth button-down, the Shetland sweaters and corduroy pieces are coming a little bit down the road. And it’s going to take a minute to polish these up to the point where I think they're perfect again. I don't want anyone to get frustrated if it's not exactly the way they remember right out of the gate. But like I said, the customer, the fans of this brand are opinionated and vocal and I love that. So I welcome the feedback. I want to get to as perfect as we can, particularly with these icons.

So, it's going to be a journey. We're doing this in a pandemic, we had to catch up from kind of being shut down through a bankruptcy, a new owner, a new office—there's been a lot, that's been thrown at this brand. But we're going to come stumbling out of these ashes, and if it kills me, I'm going to make this brand everything it ever was, if not better. I want to be just like that guy who says, “I left it Brooksier.” Because this brand is going to live on long beyond all of us. We’re just keeping the seats warm.

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