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His experience with the now-defunct women’s chain, which required major investment but lacked brand strength, prompted him to look elsewhere. “So I went to Marks & Spencer,” he says, “because my impression was that Brooks Bros. wasn’t being taken care of.”
Others had the same idea—Brooks’ potential suitors included Men’s Wearhouse, May Department Store Co., Polo Ralph Lauren and Dickson Poon—but that changed with 9/11. “After that, most of the other [interested] companies disappeared, and we ended up paying less than we thought we would,” Del Vecchio says.
Still, turning the business around would mean a massive overhaul. “From Day One, we knew that the benefit from adding systems and improving the sourcing could justify the acquisition,” he says. “But the biggest question mark was, would the customers come back—or were they gone forever?”
By now, the answer is unmistakable: Not only did old customers return, but Del Vecchio also found new ones—especially overseas. Today, the retailer operates more than 116 full-price and 101 factory outlet stores in the U.S. and some 175 stores in other countries, with the highest concentration in Japan (77), China (32), Hong Kong (13) and the U.K. (4). Brooks Bros. has also opened stores in Milan, Paris, Athens, Chile and Mexico. This year, the company will pass $1 billion in sales and turn a tidy profit.
“Claudio has done an unbelievable job in reviving this iconic American brand and globalizing its market,” says Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo Inc., an investment banking company. “He was able to understand the heritage of Brooks Bros. and go back into its archives…to use the past and translate it to the present and the future.”
Bill Roberti, a former Brooks Bros. ceo, remembers Del Vecchio’s passion for the brand when he negotiated the eyewear license with Luxottica. Since buying the company, Roberti says, the current ceo “has done a fantastic job of improving the quality and delivery of the product.”
Also impressed is Joseph Gromek, another former Brooks ceo, now president and ceo of Warnaco Group. “Claudio has a great deal of respect for this great American institution,” he says. “I admire much of what he has been able to accomplish.”
No doubt his boldest accomplishment was the launch of Black Fleece, a collection that combined classic Brooks Bros. fabrics and tailoring with the edgy, shrunken silhouette of Thom Browne. After a shaky start, the label gained traction, and its sales were expected to hit $10 million last year. Although some viewed Black Fleece as iconoclastic—especially in 2006, when it was first unveiled—Browne sees it otherwise. “Claudio has truly embraced the heritage of Brooks Bros.,” the designer says, “and evolved the brand and business in a very respectful way.”
In fact, experimentation is an integral part of the brand’s tradition. Brooks is the source of many men’s wear innovations now taken for granted. It introduced seersucker in 1830; the first ready-made suit in 1845; the button-down collar in 1896; the repp tie in 1920, and argyle socks, in 1949. Despite its conservative image, the retailer has a remarkable instinct for change.
So, clearly, does Del Vecchio. In 2008, he bought Southwick, one of the U.S.’ last remaining men’s wear manufacturers, which had fallen on hard times—a move that saved 300 jobs. Last spring he inked a long-term deal with Scotland’s celebrated St. Andrews Links golf course to produce a line of golfwear. Del Vecchio has also collaborated with Janie Bryant, the costume designer for Mad Men, to produce clothes for the show as well as a Brooks Bros. Mad Men Edition suit that sold out in 10 days. “Claudio has found a way to restore the nostalgia we all felt for ‘our father’s Brooks Bros.’ while making the brand entirely relevant and modern,” says Bryant.
Given his Italian accent—he was born in Borgo Valsugana, a small town in northern Italy—Del Vecchio might not be expected to have his finger on the pulse of American culture. But he is proud of the roots he has planted in this country. As he likes to point out, he bought Brooks Bros. on Thanksgiving, his American wife was born on Columbus Day, and his son Matteo, from a previous marriage, was born on the Fourth of July. “I’m a very patriotic man,” he says with an understated smile.
Debra was vice president of operations at Luxottica when they met. (Del Vecchio jokes that it was actually he who “married the boss,” since she was “a manager and she spoke English and was very influential.”) Today, she concentrates on raising their children and working for many charities—such as Helen Keller Services for the Blind and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation—about which both Del Vecchios are passionate.
Another passion is good food. Del Vecchio isn’t shy about admitting he’s “an excellent chef”—he even opened a restaurant in the Nineties, when he lived in Hartford because the local eateries failed to meet his high standards. Called Spris, after an Italian aperitif, the place was “very social, like when I was growing up in Italy.”
“My mother’s family was in the hospitality business,” he explains, adding: “Both my grandmother and my mother are unbelievable cooks, so I got very spoiled.”
Spris is now closed, but Del Vecchio doesn’t rule out the possibility of opening another restaurant. Until then, he plans to stay focused on expanding Brooks Bros.—just don’t ask him how large he wants it to grow. “That’s my last motivation,” he says. “I don’t want to become the world’s biggest company, or even a really big company.” Although $1 billion is an impressive milestone, it pales next to retail giants such as Macy’s ($25 billion) or Men’s Wearhouse ($2 billion).
But Del Vecchio views it from another perspective. “This business doesn’t end with us,” he says. “When they look at this business 100 years after we’re gone, I hope the chapter they write about us will be a good one. The only thing we can take with us is our reputation and hope that the people who come after us will remember us.”