Remembrance of Brooks Brothers Past
Those in the Tri-State area devoted to the natural shouldered look always referred to Brooks Brothers as “Brooks” or ‘‘B-squared”. Brooks was a fixture in affluent urban and suburban life, when clothing was meant to be comfortable, non sexual and signaled that you were a member of the right circles.
Our hero, Nino Corvato arrived in New York fresh from a Sicilian design and cutting school. Nino’s first job was at Brooks Brothers, in the alterations department. Problem: Nino didn’t want to do alterations but he managed a transfer to the Brooks factory in Long Island City. Here, Brooks made their own suits, pants, ties, shirts and overcoats on the premises of 33rd street and 36th Avenue.
Brooks’ suits were made from high quality English wools, interlinings and linings with unparalleled construction. However, from a stylistic point of view, Nino didn’t like it. He considered the Brooks suit dowdy and it didn’t change all that much over his 20 year tenure.
At Brooks, the 3 button jacket didn’t exist, instead 2 on 3 was the preferred stance. The 2 on 3 jacket stance looked like a 3 button jacket but it was really a two button with a non functioning 3rd (top) button. Pants didn’t have pleats until they started making 2 button suits and then they gave the customer a choice between stove pipes and pleated. Two button suits were introduced in the late seventies because young people wanted them.
Navy, charcoal and medium grey pinstripes were the most popular choices, followed by a dark plaid. For jackets, Brooks offered a navy hopsack and wool herringbone jackets in gray, blue and brown. Black wools were avoided for sports jackets and suits. Although for Nelson Rockefeller they made a lot of navy and black solid silk shantung suits. Linings were in harmony with the suit’s shell fabric, fancy linings were unknown.
The custom suits were 100% hand made by the Brooks tailoring style. However, Brooks’ commitment to quality was such that even the ready made and made to order suits were at least 50% handmade.
This image and the ones which follow are sketch templates Brooks Brothers used for their various clothing models.
Standard overcoats came in a 14 oz topcoat model and a 22oz herringbone wool model in brown, gray and navy. Their polo coat was sturdy with all the bells and whistles in 18oz blue or charcoal grey wool.
Brooks’ single breasted, peak lapel tuxedo was a classic in a splendid English 10oz barathea. Shawl collared versions were available for special order. Unless asked, no buttonholes were cut into the lapels and both satin and grosgrain facings were used. Trousers had no pleats, satin trim and regular waistband with an extension.
At the Long Island City garment factory, Nino learned the secret formulas that made Brooks Brothers such a venerable institution for the serious minded professional. Brooks Brothers believed that the suit should be like armor and last forever but still be soft.
Brooks further believed that a jacket should have minimal shoulder padding and thin interlining. At Brooks, the sack coat, a slightly boxy looking jacket, reigned supreme; a garment full in fit and without much shape but one that felt like a soft glove even if the fit was nothing like one. The absence of front darts allowed the jacket to be fuller.
Coming as he did from Italy, Nino was used to higher shoulder pads and the arm away from the shoulder. Brooks’ method was minimal shoulder padding and a closer shoulder fit. Just removing the shoulder pad from a suit doesn’t accomplish this. It is a matter of cutting and shaping the jacket’s back, front, shoulder and sleeves which creates this original, American natural shoulder.
Very few companies can make a true natural shoulder. Brooks’ natural shoulder, soft finished garment worked well with the flow of one’s body and became unnoticeable because of its feather weight. This observation stuck with Nino.
In those days, Brooks Brothers had only three stores: Wall Street, Madison Avenue and Scarsdale. It was well known throughout the world for its soft tailored, no nonsense suits which clothed both tycoon and scion alike. And if you wanted a Brooks Brothers suit you had to come New York, The Mountain definitely did not go to Mohammed.
Brooks Brothers was the closest thing America had to the Multi-generational, Savile Row tailoring firms which are guardians of taste for the well heeled, industrious crowd. However, Brooks’ rigidity sometimes produced somewhat comic circumstances.
For example, in the 1970s, an incident at the factory arose because various fashion houses like Pierre Cardin were placing higher vents on jackets. Nino, with an eye toward design, believed the 12” vents on the designer suits were too high but he also believed that the ones used on the Brooks suits were too short and thus he increased them at the factory from 6-8” high.
The brethren were not amused and Nino was called to account for this heresy; instructed to return to the Brooks way and to never again veer from the pattern without permission. It should be mentioned that a week later, a Brooks papal bull was issued that henceforth all jackets were to have 8” vents!
Nothing, it seems stays the same. And even the monolithic traditions and tastes of Brooks began to show fissures. Brooks introduced more massed production in the 70s and by the time Nino left in 1980 Brooks was well on its way to becoming a corporate conglomerate. This trend would spell catastrophe for Brooks’ legendary quality.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. At the time of Nino’s Brooks tenure, the American elite all wore the Brooks suit. International clients were also legion. The custom department’s order ledger was a who’s who of the American intelligentsia. Artists like Warhol mixed with congressmen, doctors, lawyers, designers and bankers all sipped champagne together while getting fitted for the great American symbol of gravitas.
Brooks was the suit of choice for every aspiring or successful person whether they were in a mainstream industry or a counter culture one. The corporate elite would wear a Brooks suit with a French cuff, Bengal striped shirt and a number one, Repp tie while the Jazz crowd would pair black and white spectators and a coconut straw hat with a charcoal pinstripe. Even if you did not wear one, you recognized the Brooks Brothers suit as a badge of success and taste.
Standards were maintained by the vice presidents who were responsible for the quality and taste of a given area, such as shirts. And they dreamed in Oak and Cherry wood. Brooks ordered and designed most of its fabrics directly with English mills; patterns and qualities were made exclusively for Brooks Brothers.
In 1974, there were over 400 special orders a week which for the time was a significant amount. Additionally, these customers changed almost nothing on the basic suit including the fabric; interested only in a better fit for the reigning president of suits. Brooks’ taste was so well contemplated and plugged into the Eastern establishment that no one tampered with the details. The ordinary man ascended and Kings genuflected to wear this most equalizing of garments.
Standards were so stellar that in the 1960s and 70s, the garment industry rated Brooks a “number 6” quality, which meant custom grade, while Paul Stuart was a mere “number 2”.
At its zenith, Brooks Brothers represented a monolithic quality. A shirt lasted forever. And Brooks’ standards were the same for everything; for everyone. If tailored clothing was not made by Brooks with a high degree of hand work, it was not sold on their premises.
Ultimately, constant cost cutting and quality shortcuts eroded the granite reputation of Brooks Brothers. At one time because of their invincible standards, Brooks was the store where if you were not satisfied with an item after several years you could bring it back for a replacement. Now, Brooks is just like any other store trying to market a mixture of garments and furnishings.
Brooks Brothers Golden age ended 20 years ago but Nino Corvato continues to make suits that incorporate the Brooks credo of comfort, solidity and patrician reserve.
Nino stays away from the sack coat. He prefers the English look with suppression to the garment and an overall balance. However, he doesn’t like the English finish and details. He likes the cleaner Italian finish and attention to finishing touches.
Nino does preserve the Brooks inspired true natural shoulder which is soft, round and fitted closely to arm and shoulder head. Nino also incorporates the Brooks softness in a garment which is solid and seemingly indestructible.
Nino learned a great deal from Brooks but especially the ability to make a garment soft which few tailors can do. The Brooks natural shoulder was a unique thing of beauty and very hard to make. Nino believes his service at Brooks shaped his core approach to making suits which incorporates the Brooks soft tailoring technique with their natural shoulder.
What makes a soft garment? Part of the secret of the success of a softly tailored garment is placing the interfacing in symmetry with the fabric, thus about an 8-9oz canvas for a 14oz wool.
Nino continues to make his suits in his shop on Madison Avenue which have an overall look of excellence. The American intelligentsia, or at least that sliver of it still in the know, continues to patronize him for a suit that is stylish, handsome and quietly authoritative.
But Nino can and does make a custom version of the dart-less sack suit for customers both young and old. For there are those who want to relive the Brooks golden age and those who wish they could have known it.
Corvato Custom Designs
420 Madison Avenue, Suite 406
New York City
By appointment only (212) 980-4980
Suits start at $4,000 for some super 100s and can cost $10,000 for worsted cashmere. Expect to place a 50% deposit.
Wait time is approx. 8-12 weeks. Prices are as of May 1st, 2009 and are subject to change without notice.