As the country’s oldest men’s clothing company, founded in 1881 in New York, Brooks Brothers has been at the forefront of corporate fashion in the U.S. During a recent visit to Mumbai, Claudio Del Vecchio, the CEO of Retail Brand Alliance, the holding company that owns Brooks Brothers, talked exclusively to Fortune India about his company’s expansion plans in India, sales performance, and innovation. Edited excerpts:
You kicked off in India in 2013 through a partnership with Reliance Brands. How has that worked out?
It’s been great. I would estimate our growth has been at 35% CAGR and we feel it’s sustainable for the next two years. We sell around 6,000 suits and jackets a year in India and around 150,000 worldwide.
Do you plan to expand or will you stay with the 10 stores you have?
We are on target with growth plans. There are two malls coming up in Mumbai’s BKC area. We will open a store in one of them by next year. There’s another we will open in Kolkata because that market is big on tailored clothing. In all, we will open 10 more stores by 2020, for both brands—Brooks Brothers and Red Fleece. [Red Fleece is a dressed-down range of men’s wear.]
Will you open a factory in India?
We don’t have to own one, but it will be important to engage a partner who understands how we manufacture, and makes things the same way.
What are the bestsellers in India?
They are the same as the rest of the world—shirts in units and suits in value. In India, we introduced made-to-measure early, which we don’t everywhere.
What was the hardest to learn about the Indian market?
A business needs two to three years to get around a market, and with our large portfolio, getting the product mix right takes time. We have got around 50% of our products right, and in the next couple of years, we should be able to make that 90%.
How do you pitch the heritage of Brooks Brothers to the Indian buyer?
Many Indians in the U.S. come to us for office wear and to dress up for ceremonies when they receive advanced degrees. When they return to India, they don’t have to be educated about Brooks Brothers. We haven’t been wrong about the brand recall.
Brooks Brothers famously suited several U.S. presidents. What about the current one?
Kennedy was the most visible, but 39 of the 44 people who became Presidents have worn Brooks Brothers suits during their swearing in, including President Obama and President Trump.
You bought Brooks Brothers for $225 million around 15 years ago. How has the journey been?
We are lucky to be running such a venerable brand. Our revenue is at $1.5 billion. I’ll know that we have done a good job when someone writes a book about us a hundred years from now and the chapter for these years reads as a good one. The shirts we sell now may appear to be the same as in the past, but they are 10 times better. We like to think that we are old because we are good, not the other way round.
What were the learnings from your time as director at your family business Luxottica that you have brought to Brooks Brothers?
Luxottica gave me an appreciation for manufacturing, innovation, logistics, and quality. Brooks Brothers benefited from it because these aspects, once fundamental to the brand, had somehow been forgotten. We were able to restore those attributes.
What are you doing to stay ahead in an era of disruption?
We take technology very seriously. In our Golden Fleece range of knitwear, we use “3-D knitting” to make the entire sweater without any seam. It improves fit as well as durability. There’s also a Merino wool collection that resists piling and is washable.
How are you dealing with consumers spread across the globe?
There’s a sense of urgency because we have to change faster to meet customers’ expectations. We can’t keep a thousand different products for more than six months in a warehouse. We are also spending a lot on “BAGA”—buy anywhere, get anywhere. You buy online and collect from a store, or buy in one store and return it at a different one.
How do you stand out among all the suit makers?
Brooks Brothers is all about providing the best quality and the best value for customers who best appreciate that.
What is your advice for Indian fashion businesses trying to achieve global scale?
You need good systems early on. Stay true to yourself and your brand’s mission but pay close attention to changes and be ready to adapt. Listen to your customers, and understand them and their needs. You have to not only give them what they want but also something they didn’t know they wanted.