Thanks so much for this and for taking the time to write, such an interesting read and very insightful. Definitely got some inspiration to start writing myself after reading this. Cheers again.Classic American clothing, as it was defined by Brooks Brothers and its cultural satellites (e.g. J. Press, The Andover Shop, and the countless no-name boutiques that sold "trad" and "prep" clothing) started to go into decline after the 1960s. In the immediate post-war years, youth and rebellion started to become increasingly dominant themes in fashion. The culture wars of the 1950s and '60s can be broadly represented by the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit on one side and the rebel rocker on the other -- one being the Establishment and the other being the new, young, and cool generation (e.g. Brando and James Dean striking a pose).
By the 1970s, this style of clothing was too closely associated with the Establishment to have any real appeal to a new generation. It was also around this time that Brooks Brothers started getting passed around to various international owners. Winthrop Holly Brooks was the last member of the Brooks family to own and lead the company. He sold it to Julius Garfinckels in 1946, and John C Wood -- who's widely recognized as the last "greats" in Brooks Brothers' history -- served as the company's CEO. When Woods left, he was interviewed by the New York Times about what he thinks is his lasting legacy. He said something to the effect of: "I made Brooks more Brooksy than before."
Garfinkels expanded Brooks Brothers and then sold it to someone in 1987. That person then sold the company to Marks & Spencer in 1988, which set off a chain of events that later led to the company's downfall. To put it shortly: Garfinkels expanded Brooks Brothers because they want to capitalize on their investment, and then Marks and Spencer put the expansion into overdrive. By greatly expanding the company's footprint, they locked the company into a network of bad real estate deals, which would prove to be a ticking time bomb. When Retail Brand Alliance bought the company in 2001, they expanded it even more. This is the summary of Brooks Brothers' downfall.
Ralph Lauren started Polo in 1968 in the backdrop of all this -- the heyday of Ivy Style, the post-war culture wars, and the counter-cultural revolution of the '70s. During this period, prep and trad increasingly became irrelevant, as they were too closely tied to the establishment.
By the 1970s, Raph Lauren was starting to get picked up by notable stores -- succeeding even in this backdrop. And in the 1980s, when men's fashion was all about Italian designers such as Armani and Versace, Ralph Lauren kept the torch alive for classic American clothing.
I became interested in clothing in the 1990s. This is well after the culture wars of the 50s and 60s, the counter-cultural revolution of the 70s, and the Marks & Spencer-led downfall of Brooks Brothers. My first introduction to classic American men's clothing was at an RL flagship. Importantly, Ralph Lauren at the time felt relevant to non-white people like me (I'm Asian, don't aspire to be a WASP, and was introduced to Ralph Lauren because I was into dancing. My friends were 'Lo Heads). Brooks Brothers always felt too stuffy to me. Even though I recognized it as a symbol of success, it wasn't something I aspired to wear. But there were other cultural influences around RL -- Tyson Beckford, dancers, rap artists, etc. Ralph Lauren was still a symbol of WASPy success, but one that felt more relevant to me.
For many men who grew up in the '80s and '90s, their first introduction to American classics -- the tweed jacket, oxford button-down, Shetland sweater, polo coat, madras, etc -- was at a Ralph Lauren flagship. This is notable because all these things are things that Brooks Brothers introduced to the United States in the early 20th century through their 346 Madison Avenue store. But by the 1980s and '90s, Brooks Brothers was increasingly less relevant. Ralph Lauren took all these things -- along with the "prole" gear that defined the other half of classic Ameican style in the post-war period, such as chambray shirts, jeans, and workwear -- and introduced them to a new generation of men.
For those of us who went further in our clothing interest, we later found the "original" source for these things. So instead of an RL button-down, we gravitated towards companies that tried to replicate the mid-century Brooks Brothers version. Instead of Ralph Lauren's colorfast madras, we sought the bleeding ones from niche companies. Instead of Ralph Lauren's ready-to-wear tweeds, some went bespoke. So on and so forth.
A friend of mine in Italy works as a fitter for a bespoke tailoring company. While visiting San Francisco, he and I went out for drinks. He brought out his phone to show me a photo of him and Ralph Lauren, who he had recently met. I remember losing my mind because Raph Lauren is basically my introduction to clothing. Anyway, he and I reminisced what it felt like first walking through a Ralph Lauren flagship in the '90s. I remember him saying: "It felt like you were walking through JFK Jr.'s personal closet." The references to sport, prep, and classic American tailoring were so amazing. It was like the coolest, most refined, sporty guy you could imagine, and you were somehow walking through his wood-paneled dressing room.
That's also what an RL flagship felt like to me, and how I fell in love with so many of those classic American pieces. When I saw those same pieces at Brooks Brothers, it simply didn't have the same effect -- those were just lawyer clothes. But Ralph Lauren united the two sides of classic American clothing -- trad and workwear -- under one banner, despite them previously being at odds with each other. He also took the dominant post-war themes in men's fashion -- youth, cool, and sexiness -- and transported them onto trad clothes.
A lot of classic American clothing has been subsumed into "normcore," such as button-down shirts and flat-front chinos. But Ralph Lauren kept the flavor of that look alive for another generation. WIthout him, I don't know what would have happened to that look after the 1970s.