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Are Some Brands Too Big to Die?

The rebirth of Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers and even Abercrombie & Fitch begs the question of whether or not brands should get a second chance?

man wearing brooks brothers tartan jacket
Brooks Brothers

Look around. While there are more new brands than any one mind could possibly fathom, there are countless established ones simply trying to keep up: Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, J.Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch, to name a few. These brands, once revered for pioneering certain pieces or entire parts of our wardrobes, have, some might argue, wilted with age, as anything managed by too many hands would over the span of several decades. Different executives set forth different goals and incentives, outlined new crowds and corners of the market to cater to and tapped creatives from other brands to helm theirs. The results, for the most part, seem promising at first but falter shortly thereafter. Why? Well, because nothing good lasts, I guess — at least not at that scale.

brooks brothers
Brooks Brothers
brooks brothers
Brooks Brothers

It's why Banana Republic tapped savvy executive Ana Andjelic for a Chief Brand Officer role only to lose her less than 10 months after she took the job. (Details on her departure are sparse, to be fair.) It's also why Abercrombie & Fitch, which turned its stale mall aesthetic into a formidable e-commerce operation, canned SVP of Men's and Women's Design, Aaron Levine, in April 2021 after six years successfully turning the ship around. Brooks Brothers was all but dead — truly; it filed for bankruptcy and shuttered 51 stores in 2020 — until it was acquired by the parent company that owns Forever 21; they enlisted Michael Bastian for the job of Creative Director with the hopes that he, a veteran of the prep aesthetic, could right the wrongs that lead to financial ruin. Among the label's first priorities under his leadership? To "put all the bones back into the brand — not reinvent the wheel, but get all the spokes back in the wheel," Bastian tells Esquire. But then it'll be on to sportswear — half-zips, sweatpants, stretch chinos and gym shorts. Ugh.

banana republic
Banana Republic

Will it work? We'll see. The brand's better known for its Oxford shirts and sweaters; both are back, by the way, but they probably won't get the same kind of promotion, save for placement in interviews in Esquire or GQ and in sponsored IG posts by young men living in NYC — so the sudden appearance of soft pants and slouchy T-shirts might turn off customers expecting a return to form. A similar thing happened in 2015 when Abercrombie & Fitch deviated from its sexy, albeit largely adolescent, image in favor of more modern, inclusive clothing and ad campaigns. Sales dipped for several years until they surged in 2020 and 2021 — right after they fired Levine. (They're still wrong for that.)

Net sales for the brand last quarter rose 10-percent compared to the year prior, signaling not only increased demand but improved conversions. The plan's working, it seems. But over at Banana Republic, a subset of Gap, sales are down 18-percent compared to where numbers were in 2019. The messaging might not be working, but it has spawned several "Is Banana Republic Back?" stories — this one included. Over at J.Crew, the same storyline's been foretold — X hot designer ushers brand into a new era — but the new creative lead, Supreme and Noah's Brendon Babenzien, won't see his designs hit shelves until late 2022. There's new energy afoot over at the Crew, but there's no telling whether it's working, or if it'll stick, until he's officially in charge (and had at least a few seasons under his belt).

j crew
J.Crew
j crew
J.Crew

But let's say, just for example's sake, it doesn't. Each of these brands — again, not picking on them, they're just examples that support my case — have faced hardships over the years. Hell, Banana Republic was founded in 1978; J.Crew in 1983; Brooks Brothers in 1818; Abercrombie & Fitch in 1892; it couldn't have always been rainbows and sunshine. So, what would happen if one really did disappear? Could it? Could consumers let it go? Could venture capitalists, too? Or, is there too much value in brand names? In the contributions they've made to clothing as we know it? Or is there always profit left to be juiced out of each label's history and lore?

On a much smaller scale, Best Made represents how even a young brand's DNA cannot die — at least not until customers no longer care and venture capitalists no longer see a way to make even more money. The brand, founded in 2009 by Peter Buchanan-Smith, catered to city-dwellers with a penchant for DIY and the outdoors. See: enamel-coated axes, bold beanies called "Caps of Courage" and so on and so forth. It suffered severe losses in 2019 and needed resuscitated by 2020's end. Then Duluth Trading Company bought the name and whatever inventory was left. The employees, the brand's existing stores and partnerships it had aligned under its previous owner, however, were not a part of the deal. As such, things went quiet for a while, but Duluth has the operation up and running again — axes, clothing, camping gear and brass-coated bravado included.

abercrombie and fitch
Abercrombie & Fitch

Will it perform? It's totally possible. For Duluth, the experiment didn't require a whole lot of heavy lifting — just a bit of money up front. Avid fans were surely excited to see it return, while those that steered clear while it was independent — oftentimes because it was too expensive — might bite now that things often go on sale. (The site's 25-percent off as I type this.) Companies this size can do that, cut the retail price and make up the margin elsewhere, while upstart brands oftentimes aren't able to make the same sacrifices. It's why, without sizable investment (and a divvying up of ownership rights in return), small brands don't break the surface. Inversely, it seems, that's why big brands stick around. Oh, and brand loyalty, I guess, but don't their designs look increasingly all the same?

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