Brooks Brothers chairman and chief executive Claudio Del Vecchio says the luxury retailer has emerged from its “dark years”.
Reclining in a seat in the US retailer’s Regent Street store, he says he is proud of the changes instigated since he took the retailer off Marks & Spencer’s hands nearly seven years ago.
On his first day at the helm, after buying the business for US$225 million (£114.4 million) – some way below the US$750 million (£381.5 million) M&S paid in 1988 – he sat down to what he describes as “piles” of letters from customers.
“They were telling me what to do or what not to do, what was right and what was wrong and, to me, that was fantastic,” he says. “We had customers who talked to us and they had feelings about the brand. That is unique and I really wanted to nurture that.”
The Italian-born retail entrepreneur speaks with understated passion about the brand he knew so well even as he grew up in Italy. “I was a customer for more than 25 years and, as I was visiting the store, I saw things change,” he says in measured tones. “There were a lot of changes happening and I was not very impressed or happy with them.”
Del Vecchio was so unimpressed that he approached M&S about partnering with him to drive the performance of the retailer, famous for its classic styles, suits and its button-down shirts.
“Marks & Spencer were forgetting completely about the customer they already had,” he explains. The market was changing and business-casual was becoming much more important; it was the height of the dotcom boom. There were definitely less suits sold for a while and, instead of trying to better serve the fewer people who were buying suits, Marks & Spencer decided that customer was going to disappear and so they were looking for a new one.”
Meanwhile, M&S had a lot to do closer to home and, a few months after Del Vecchio approached the retailer, it put Brooks Brothers up for sale. The brand has since regained its lost ground, says Del Vecchio. Now in its 190th year, it has embarked on bold plans for global expansion. It has 160 stores in the US and 131 overseas and Del Vecchio is looking for flagships across Europe, alongside 10 further stores in the UK.
He wants to develop wholesale accounts and partnerships for the brand and may export the retailer’s Country Club concept, which has seven stores in the US, to the UK. “What gave me the confidence was that, even after all those years – some of the customers call it the dark years – the customer has seen that something was up and came back,” he says.
Located among classic luxury peers such as Jaeger, Aquascutum and Austin Reed on Regent Street, Del Vecchio says Brooks Brothers found its natural home in the UK. However, the success of store openings outside of the capital, such as in Edinburgh, has given him the confidence to expand the brand further in the UK. He says: “In the UK we have a great opportunity.”
“We are very happy with our results and we are feeling confident that the UK, of all the European countries, is the one where we want to spend first and most,” he says.
And, despite the downturn, there is room for growth at home in the US too, where Del Vecchio says there is space for another concept. He says the credit crunch will provide the retailer with new prospects and give it leverage to negotiate for new space.
He adds with characteristic quiet assurance: “We try not to be too pessimistic when things are going south or not too optimistic when things seem to go only in the right direction. There are going to be waves and sometimes you are going to be on the top and sometimes you are going to be on the bottom, but I think every time, no matter where you are, there are going to be opportunities.”
Lives: Connecticut and Long Island
Family: Married with two sons and a daughter
Interests: Golf. Owns a restaurant called Spris
Present: Chairman and chief executive, Retail Brand Alliance – owner of Brooks Brothers. Executive director of Luxottica Group
2001: Casual Corner Group renamed Retail Brand Alliance and acquired Brooks Brothers
1995: Acquired The United States Shoe Corporation’s Lenscrafters opticians and Casual Corner womenswear group
1982: Came to the US to run Luxottica’s American operations. Aged 24, he established Luxottica’s first direct distribution organisation outside of Italy in Germany