Brooks Brothers Black Fleece has always been one of my favorite brands. The fabrics and cuts are truly unique and they always have a range quality products season after season. This season has to be one of my favorites as they incorporated bright colors into their usual arsenal of blue and gray pieces. I was fortunate enough to sit down and have a little chat with Black Fleece’s very knowledgable Gabriel Zeller. I hope you guys enjoy it.
Hi Gabriel, I always see you at the Bleecker Street Store and you seem to be always flying around for work. What exactly is your role at Brooks Brothers Black Fleece?
Officially, I’m a Master Specialist for Black Fleece. But, I often joke about my title because I get involved in so many different aspects of the business. While most days I’m in our different shops showcasing the line to our customers, I also have some input in technical design, I work with our merchants, I dabble in P.R., and every now and then I work on the wholesale side a bit, more so now that we’ve started to offer Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers at Barney’s. Working with those involved across all spectrums of Black Fleece, I must say, the people I get to work with have there own sense of style, or at least may be interested in experimenting with something a little less predictable. Each one takes our clothing and mixes in their own expression and connection to what we’ve created. It’s very individual and creative for people to see our line, and many customers come in each season just to see what we put together for inspiration. Another added bonus to becoming more intimate with this line is that I’ve had to develop an expertise in many facets of production details and tailoring specifications that most would consider frivolous; as a result, I’ve become a resource for many. I’ve been in about a dozen magazines in Japan since we’ve started. I like to say I’m big in Japan. It’s always a little surprising when someone is traveling from across the world and they know your name, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.
For the past few years, we have seen Black Fleece at different price points and manufactured by various companies. How did Black Fleece get started? Could you give us a little breakdown on the history of Black Fleece?
Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers started when Anna Wintour suggested Thom Browne design a line with Brooks Brothers. We listened, and created Black Fleece in 2007. Initially, we had Black Fleece as a designer laboratory where we’d switch designers every couple of years. However, when we saw the demand and curiosity resulting from what Thom Browne created as our designer, we decided to continue our partnership. Thom grew up wearing Brooks Brothers, so we realized the value of his designing the line immediately. It also didn’t hurt that he had recently won the CFDA award for menswear in 2006. He most recently won the Cooper-Hewitt national design award for fashion. Having 194 years of Brooks Brothers archives to look through, there is a truly Brooks quality to the Black Fleece collection, although it is clearly interpreted in a different fashion. For example, back in 2007 we produced a collection of luxury which shocked many: suits upwards of $2,700.00 and $10,000 Astrakhan fur capes for men and women at Brooks Brothers. “What!? could you repeat yourself, I thought you said ten thousand dollars,” is what we heard a bit of. Yet, our customers would buy the suits in multiples and I even had some customers fighting over who got the last cape in a certain size. We’ve learned so many things about who we are as Black Fleece. We have a specific fit and articulate tailoring that creates a mood and an aesthetic that can be the perfect mix of classic dressing, unique fabrics, and Thom Browne’s distinctive forward-thinking.
To be sure, some things have changed over the years. We now proudly make our suits in the U.S. at our Southwick factory, which we acquired a few years back, and we have the capacity to make our prices lower given we are now both maker and merchant. So, prices have dropped from $2,700 to $1,600 for a suit. We’ve done tremendous work with our factories and can deliver a great quality garment at a fair cost. Brooks Brothers was always known for being a manufacturer and a clothier, and now we have added our Black Fleece Shirts and Ties to our own factories in the U.S. as well.
I’d like to think our target customer is someone who enjoys and appreciates getting dressed. Most of our customers both men and women are driven by our quality fabrics, unique and current fit, and perfected details.
Out of all the neighborhoods of New York, why the open the Black Fleece store in the West Village?
The Bleecker Street location for the first (of three) stand alone stores was mostly given by our love of the eclectic mix of Bleecker Street with its historical context. The whole experience for our customers is unique and special and our brand resonates very well within that type of environment. As we open our stand alone Black Fleece shops (Omotesando, Japan and our third on Filmore in San Francisco) it adds to our collection given the different feedback we hear. As an example, our ladies collection has developed a softness out of our feedback and we’ve seen huge growth there. Even though Bleecker Street has become a great opportunity for retailers and everyone seems to be moving in, it’s still a neighborhood and many of our clients stop by frequently to say hello. The shop feels like you’ve walked into someone’s living room. Well, at least someone with an amazing closet.
What aspects of Black Fleece do you really like? Is there a general theme that you truly appreciate?
I like to see concepts based on historical references that I wouldn’t normally consider. Sometimes I’ll see something and think “I’d never wear that” and after putting it on I couldn’t imagine not having it in the rotation.
Our tartans for this coming fall are like that for me. At first to see them it’s a little like “Na man, I dunno about this” but wear it and something else happens.
The current collection was very different from past. My favorite piece is the enlarged seersucker suit. It seems like you guys are really reinventing fabrics. Will we be seeing some crazy collections in the future?
The future of Black Fleece is going to be an adventure. We will continue to look from our Brooks Brothers archives and create relevant and current looks from them. I’m totally geeking out over a red, white and blue, fair isle knit duffel toggle coat, which I’m sure is gonna be a hit. I’m also looking forward to our Tartans to see how they’re worn by our more boldly dressed customers. These are very historical patterns exploded in scale to the very limit. For me, it allows for a real examination of the pattern and has a truly new aesthetic from our real history. Henry Sands Brooks, the father of the brothers, was a really sharp dresser and would find fabrics like these overseas and people would ask him to make clothing for them. That’s a lot of how he started his business in 1818: good old New York street style. This season is in many ways for me an homage to him.
I know you have a ton of Black Fleece, maybe too much. Is their a certain piece you are truly in love with?
Well, I sort of have this romantic idea about my first Black Fleece grey flannel suit. I remember the reactions on the street, how good the accurate shape felt on, and the fabric. The strength of the cloth allows for being a little less careful in it, you could probably sleep in it. Although it’s special, it’s not too precious. Critical Swag Tip. Usually, mid-summer I get a serious craving to wear heavy flannel suits, I know that sounds crazy but whatever, it’s true. When we started our B.F. special order fabric selection and I picked the fabrics, grey flannel was a no brainier, something every guy should own.
I have always wanted a peaked lapel suit from Thom Browne. I do not think Thom will ever approve. Will we ever see peak lapels at Black Fleece?
Nope. Even in our previous double breasted jacket we’ve worked with a notch lapel. Currently I’m really interested in our shawl collar for formal wear.
I know Brooks Brothers has a booth at Pitti Uomo in Florence. Will I be seeing you out there this June?
Odds are I’ll be there for a day or two. Working out the details.
Thanks for the chat Gabriel, always a pleasure.
Black Fleece by Brooks Brothers
351 Bleecker Street
Manhattan, New York 10014