In the late 1980s, the City of London was crawling with wannabe ‘Masters of the Universe’ — the term Tom Wolfe uses in Bonfire of the Vanities for the swaggering young bond traders of Wall Street. Suddenly it was no longer cool to be a Sloane Ranger. Instead, young City types behaved as if they divided their time between Manhattan and the Hamptons.
One way of giving off this vibe was to produce ‘Bolivian marching powder’ at parties. A cheaper and safer alternative was to wear a shirt from Brooks Brothers.
They stuck out a mile, thanks to their button-down collars. Other shirtmakers made button-downs, of course — you could buy them in Marks & Spencer. But only Brooks Brothers knew how to balance the length of the collar with the positioning of the buttons so that the material rolled into a distinctive ‘S’ shape. Also — and this was crucial — Brooks Brothers didn’t have an outlet in London. You had to buy them in America, preferably at their flagship store on Madison Avenue. This was in the days when people still boasted about having been to the States.
I remember the first time I visited that Madison Avenue shop, in 1988. Although I didn’t work in the City, I loved everything preppy, and the range of pastel colours was dazzling. They were the sort of shirts that made Daisy cry when Jay Gatsby flung open his wardrobe ‘because they were so beautiful’. You could buy them with ordinary collars, but that defeated the point of the exercise: only Brooks Brothers button-downs gave you the S-shape, which looked equally dashing worn with a tie or open-necked. Gianni Agnelli, the supremely stylish head of Fiat, wore nothing else (though, bizarrely, he often left the lapels unbuttoned — a fashion that failed to catch on, like his even odder habit of wearing his watch over his shirt). So out came the credit card.
I remember reading an article by the novelist William Boyd in which he said that he didn’t see any point in wearing anything but Brooks Brothers button-downs. I think he said he owned 70 of them. That was my goal, too. It would mean lots of trips to America, and the shirts were unlikely to attract admiring glances on the Battle Farm Industrial Estate, Reading, where I worked at the time, but what the hell.
Then disaster struck. Brooks Brothers — which had more or less invented button-downs, borrowing the idea from English polo players — changed its recipe. For reasons I still can’t fathom, at some point in the 1990s it shortened its collar lapels so that they sloped straight down to the tiny buttons. This had the effect of flattening the elegant roll so that it virtually disappeared, making Brooks Brothers shirts look like the run-of-the-mill button-downs sold on the British high street. With one snip of the scissors, the Ivy League look was gone.
For aficionados, this was like the disastrous ‘New Coke’ experiment of 1985, when Coca-Cola changed its flavour. The public was horrified; within three months the company had backtracked, reintroducing the old recipe as Coca-Cola Classic and then quietly ditching the imposter.
Brooks Brothers stood its ground, however. Every time I visited America I would go into the nearest store, hoping that they’d seen sense, but no. I would moan to the shop assistants, some of whom shrugged and said that they couldn’t make sense of it either. Customers had complained, but to no effect.
Today, the Brooks Brothers button-down collar is still miserably shrunken. The company’s website bangs on about its ‘iconic’ shirts, but even the ‘traditional fit’ model is missing the collar roll. Brooks Brothers now has a big shop in Regent Street, but going there just makes me cross, because they’ve butchered the product that made them famous.
All is not lost, however. A couple of years ago I came across Mercer and Sons, a shirtmaker that used to be based in a Rhode Island fishing village, though it has now moved to Montana. Its website tells customers that it went into business ‘when the primary maker of traditional button-downs cheapened its product… skimping on materials’. Who can they mean?
Mercer advertises ‘genuinely full-roll soft collars, the benchmark of style on Madison Avenue for decades’. I’ve bought half a dozen of them online — they cost around $150 — and, yup, their collars do indeed roll gently into an authentic ‘S’. Patterns include Venetian golf leaf with jade and white stripes, Skye blue Bengal stripe, Sicilian orange with Italian blue windowpane, plus plain white and simple blue and pink pastels. They are the most handsome shirts I’ve ever seen — enough to reduce Daisy to floods of tears, and maybe a few former Brooks Brothers customers too.