Last week, the National Guard stood outside Brooks Brothers at the corner of Newbury and Berkeley streets. It was part of a show of force in business districts around the city designed to protect property from protesters.
If only someone could protect the 413 jobs located some 30 miles north, in Haverhill, where a factory that produces the company’s iconic suits is on the verge of shutting down.
Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini said he has had “some nice conversations” with Gianluca Tanzi, the company’s chief operating officer. But the future doesn’t look bright for a factory that is Haverhill’s second-largest employer and a melting pot of workers who come from 40 different countries.
“There’s no market for ‘Made in America’ anymore,” Fiorentini said Brooks Brothers has told him.
That’s a harsh conclusion for a company founded in 1818, and which is the oldest clothing brand in continuous operation in America today.
And tough news for a mayor who helped lure Brooks Brothers to Haverhill, in 2008, with a tax incentive package from the state that he said was “worth millions.” While the shutdown tied to the coronavirus pandemic hurt Brooks Brothers, said Fiorentini, “They’ve had trouble long before COVID-19. People are not buying suits,” he said. “The tariffs didn’t help either,” he added, referencing the added cost of buying goods, including cloth, from China, imposed by the Trump administration.
On one hand, this is a very familiar story: A business wrangles whatever concessions it can get from a state, then abandons ship when the bottom line no longer supports its presence there. But at this moment in time, as the country fights the twin pandemics of the coronavirus and racism, the story is about more than numbers. It’s about society’s priorities and values. It’s about calling in the National Guard to protect property and merchandise from protestors while relegating social and economic justice, as usual, to the bottom tier.
According to The New York Times, Brooks Brothers plans to lay off nearly 700 employees at factories in Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina. “I feel very bad about this,” CEO Claudio Del Vecchio told the Times. “The factories never made any money for us, and at this moment all resources need to be maintained and saved to make sure we can come out on the other side of the crisis.”
In March, Brooks Brothers won praise when it announced it would use those factories to produce personal protective equipment to help fight COVID-19 — an effort described in a company press release as part of its “DNA.” On May 12, Del Vecchio also put out a statement saying the company was proud of the work done at all three factories and was looking forward to welcoming customers back “as part of our Brooks Brothers family.”
In recent years, the shift to more casual business dress has been tough on a legendary brand known for its suits, shirts, and ties. That market looks even grimmer since the coronavirus pandemic sent white-collar workers home to Zoom meetings, where the below-the-waist dress code is sweats and loungewear.
As Brooks Brothers struggles for survival, Del Vecchio, the Italian industrialist who bought the company in 2001, told the Times he doesn’t think buyers care at all about the shutdown of American factories. “There are a very small percentage of our customers who told us they really care about ‘Made in America’ ” he said. “When we look at sales, we really don’t see a lot of reason to believe we would be penalized. I think we — I — am more sorry about closing the factories than the customers will be.”
Fiorentini said he does not believe it’s true that customers won’t care. But if it is, "the time to tell us is before the tax break, not after,” he said.
But what if Brooks Brothers is right, and “Made in America” is no longer a reason to buy? That says more about us — and what we think is worth protecting — than it does about any business — and community — trying to survive.