Henry Sands Brooks founded the haberdashery now known as Brooks Bros. in 1818, just four years after the British had seized Washington and burnt the Capitol to the ground.
America beat back the British challenge in the War of 1812. But now, 170 years later, the clothing chain that epitomizes classic American taste and tradition is on the verge of being sold to the Brits.
Marks & Spencer, the British retailing giant that built its reputation on selling long-lasting undergarments and mid-priced woolen sweaters, said Thursday that it had agreed in principle to buy Brooks Bros. from Campeau Corp. for $770 million if Campeau completes its hostile takeover of Federated Department Stores.
Granted, Brooks Bros.--maker of the frock coat Abraham Lincoln wore the night of his assassination, of Ulysses S. Grant's custom-tailored uniforms, of the soft-shouldered jackets favored by Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks--had slipped into foreign ownership when Campeau, of Canada, bought Allied Stores in 1986.
But the proposed sale of Brooks Bros. to a British firm was troubling to some observers. "The American icons we used to treasure and fight for, now we sell," sighed Ray Browne, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "We sell our birthright to foreign companies.
"Nowadays we see it quite often. Greed, or the desire for money or profit, is greater than the businessman's patriotism about things American," Browne said Thursday.
Brooks Bros. has long treasured its role as an American original--albeit an elite and preppy original. Its corporate history is redolent with Americana.
"Brooks Bros. has outfitted Astors, Rockefellers and five generations of Morgans," the history recounts. "J. P. Morgan grew up at Brooks Bros. Dressed by the store since he was a small boy, the older salespeople still addressed him as 'Jack' till the end of his days."
Admittedly, the firm has long associations with Britain. It was in 1900 that John Brooks, then the company's president, was watching a polo match in England and noted that the players used buttons to keep their shirt collars from flapping in the wind. The observation was the genesis of the button-down oxford shirt, a Brooks Bros. invention and a standard today.
Brooks Bros. also imported the Shetland sweater and Harris tweed coat from Scotland, the Polo coat from England and Madras plaid fabrics from the British colony of India. A fallen British royal, the Duke of Windsor, helped popularize Brooks Bros. overseas by wearing its clothing.
The firm's reputation for quality is what attracted a Marks & Spencer acquisition team to recommend Brooks Bros. to the British firm as its first significant toehold in the United States, according to John A. Stanley, a Marks & Spencer spokesman in London.
"It was an opportunity for us to enter the U.S. retail clothing market through a major, long-established business with a high reputation for quality, just as we have a high reputation for quality," Stanley explained. "We felt there were significant similarities."
Brooks Bros. employees seemed nonplussed at the prospect of being swept up in a new wave of British fashion imperialism.
At the Newport Beach store, a salesman said Thursday morning that workers had not heard about the impending sale. In downtown Los Angeles, Sean F. Townley, clothing department manager, said a new owner would not tamper with Brooks Bros. tradition.
"We're going to continue," he said, "to have three-button, natural-shoulder clothing. . . ."