Brooks Brothers’ mission statement has been around for nearly two centuries—since 1818, the year the company was founded—but not many people can recite it from memory.
Claudio Del Vecchio knows it by heart.
“It’s one of the most beautifully articulated and longest-running mission statements in American business history,” he says of the retailer’s original guiding principles, which he quotes frequently: “To make and deal only in merchandise of the finest quality, to sell it at a fair profit and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise.”
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Del Vecchio has a deep appreciation of heritage—which makes him something of a paradox, since he’s also a bold innovator. Since 2001, when he bought the struggling Brooks Bros. from Marks & Spencer for the bargain-basement price of $225 million, he has worked aggressively to upgrade its merchandise mix, renovate its fleet of stores, expand the franchise overseas and spearhead the company’s first designer label, Black Fleece, created in collaboration with Thom Browne. Indeed, with Del Vecchio as president and chief executive officer, Brooks Bros. has undergone more rapid changes than at any other period in its history.
Later this year, in another unprecedented move, the company will venture into wholesale department store distribution. Del Vecchio recently formed a partnership with Nordstrom, which in July will begin selling Brooks Bros. men’s and children’s wear in about 30 stores as well as online. But don’t expect Brooks’ storied sack suit. Offerings at the upscale Seattle-based retailer will be skewed toward a contemporary customer, which calls for a modern mix of slim-fitting suits, narrow ties, less voluminous shirts and campus-inspired sportswear.
For an Italian to turn around an iconic but declining American brand could be the ultimate men’s wear business challenge. To meet it, he knew he’d have to look forward, not back. “We have a healthy respect for the past, but we’re not completely influenced by it,” Del Vecchio says, sitting in his corner office at Brooks Bros.’ Madison Avenue flagship in New York, with a gas fireplace adding warmth to the room. From the outset, he explains, his plan was to be “an innovator, not a conservator.”
Squaring all this with the tradition of Brooks Bros.—the company that made the coat Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night he was assassinated—presents certain difficulties. But, despite his low-key manner, Del Vecchio, 52, doesn’t have a go-with-the-flow disposition. He may live in a more-than-comfortable house on the north shore of Long Island with his wife, Debra, and their two children, Angelica, 8, and Cristian, who’s about to turn 11. He may love playing golf and watching soccer. Still, Del Vecchio says, “I’m not looking for an easy life. I enjoy challenges.”
He certainly could have had an easy life if he’d wanted one: Del Vecchio is a billionaire whose father has the real money in the family. Leonardo Del Vecchio—raised in an orphanage because his widowed mother couldn’t afford to support him—is the founder of Luxottica, the world’s largest eyewear company. Last year he ranked 59th on the Forbes billionaires list, which put the senior Del Vecchio’s net worth at $10.5 billion. That makes him the second richest man (after chocolate mogul Michele Ferrero) in Italy.
This bit of backstory often stuns those who hear it after they meet Claudio Del Vecchio, whose personal style—sometimes slightly rumpled, always down to earth—doesn’t hint at great wealth. But his modest air is genuine. Like his father, Del Vecchio worked hard and rose through the ranks, starting at a Luxottica factory when he was 14, and then joining the company full-time after two years of college and an obligatory hitch in the Italian army.
At 22, he was charged with heading Luxottica’s sales force in Italy, and two years later he was sent to Germany to establish the company’s first direct foreign distribution. Del Vecchio still remembers the date on which he accomplished his mission: “For nine months I drove back and forth, and on April 1, 1982, we opened the subsidiary.”
A week later, he was sent to America to help manage the company’s U.S. distribution. He was 25 years old and spoke little English, but within four years he increased U.S. sales from $28 million to $100 million. Then, in 1990, he spearheaded Luxottica’s public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. “We were the first foreign company to go public in the U.S. before we went public in our own country,” he notes. “We actually had to sit down with the SEC, since there were no rules for this type of thing.” (Luxottica later went public in Italy, as well.)
By then co-ceo of Luxottica with responsibility for the Americas, Del Vecchio had some business dealings with Brooks Bros. around this time when he negotiated the retailer’s eyewear license, the first in its history. “I got to walk into this building 10 years before I bought it,” he recalls. His awareness of Brooks Bros. came long before that, though. Even when he lived in Italy, the American brand intrigued him.
“It had no distribution there,” he says, “but Gianni Angeli, the chairman of Fiat, was a customer and he was considered a fashion icon. He wore Brooks Bros. shirts, so I had a curiosity about it. Why was he so in love with it when he could buy anything he wanted?”
When Del Vecchio arrived in the U.S. in 1982, he says, “the first store I visited was Brooks Bros.…I used to shop in Façonnable in Monaco, which was very inspired by Brooks Bros., so it was a natural step up. I didn’t have to change my style.”
The transition from customer to owner wasn’t even on the horizon at that point. But Del Vecchio’s life took a sharp turn after 1995, when Luxottica acquired U.S. Shoe, which owned the LensCrafters retail chain. (“It wasn’t a friendly acquisition,” he says with his usual matter-of-fact candor.) In 1997, he was named ceo of Casual Corner, a struggling women’s apparel chain, and he resigned from Luxottica. He was on his own.