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America's longest established retailer meets yachting's oldest yard
Lifestyle

America's longest established retailer meets yachting's oldest yard

Tristan rutherford
23rd August 2018

No fashion brand matches the timeless legacy of Camper & Nicholsons like Brooks Brothers.

It was created exactly two centuries ago as an outfitter for ocean-going entrepreneurs. Personalities as sundry as Andy Warhol and Gregory Peck have carried the style far beyond its New York and London roots.

 

In 1818, Henry Sands Brooks founded a Manhattan outfitter for seafarers and entrepreneurial travellers. Like Camper & Nicholsons, his Brooks Brothers fashion brand has pioneered new styles, while keeping one hand on the tiller of its illustrious past. A case in point was Mr Brooks’ growing clientele. By securing a reputation for stylish costumes of the highest calibre, his customer base evolved to include America’s elite, but when a sailor called in to buy a suit he still offered them a free dram of rum. Brooks Brothers also created hard-wearing outfits for captains and commanders in the US Navy.

The marque celebrates its bicentennial this year thanks to 200 years of constant innovation. Two hundred years later Brooks Brothers is still going strong. America’s longest established retailer burnished its brand by supplying Abraham Lincoln with his favourite jacket. It has gone on to dress 40 out of the 45 American Presidents. For his inauguration in 2009, the tailors provided Barack Obama with a greatcoat, scarf and gloves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was gifted the collared cape and fedora he wore at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Even Jacques Chirac purchased fitted shirts from the American brand. From a Parisian, that’s praise indeed. Such history dovetails with that at Camper & Nicholsons, which won its spurs by building naval vessels, before supplying luxury yachts to the great and good. The roots of both firms are similarly transatlantic. John E. Brooks, the grandson of Brooks Brothers’ founder, adorned dress shirts with button-down collars after seeing them worn by English polo players. The Original Polo® Button-Down Oxford Shirt, beloved of Andy Warhol who wore white ones throughout his colourful life, is still made in the United States.
The brand also popularised hefty Harris Tweed and lightweight seersucker suits. By the early 1960s, young sales assistants were touting both in their flagship Madison Avenue store. One of them was called Ralph Lauren.

If the brand’s button-down shirts and leather accessories look familiar it’s for another pioneering reason. Company chiefs blazed the celebrity endorsement trail decades before the concept was formalised. The character Atticus Finch wore a Brooks Brothers suit in To Kill A Mockingbird, as did actor Gregory Peck off-screen. Mad Men, the advertising drama noted for cigars, sexism and historical authenticity, commissioned its costumes from Brooks.
And when the film The Great Gatsby needed 1,500 clothing items that pouted like a 1920s arriviste, it knew whom to call. Artists Cy Twombly and David Hockney have also been ambassadors for the brand.
When the time came for fresh blood, the company sallied back to its transatlantic roots. Since 2014, New York-born designer Zac Posen has helmed the brand as creative director. In a nod to Brooks Brothers’ British connections (Henry Sands Brooks would sail to London to bag jackets and materials to resell in-store), Posen won a place at Central Saint Martins’ womenswear degree programme in 1999. Two years later he designed a pink silk dress for Naomi Campbell that was passed around her fashionista friends. By the age of 21 Posen’s dresses were being exhibited in the V&A. Now a boyish 37, his life story tells itself.
Aside from the eight deck-friendly items shown on page 80, Zac Posen’s most recent offering is something completely different: a reworking of Delta Airlines’ inflight uniforms. Ground staff wear athleisure baggies while First Class cabin crew sport capes in Posen’s latest shade: Passport Plum. Delta’s 60,000 global employees debuted the costumes from late May.
Although at Camper & Nicholsons, we prefer our togs at sea level rather than 41,000ft.

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