Kennon-Green & Co. Global Asset Management and Value Investing

The Secret World of Brooks Brothers

Growing up in relatively modest circumstances, I had no idea how different clothes shopping was for men once they became successful.  Honestly, I never thought much about it but the assumption was that in terms of logistics, it would be just like shopping at Wal-Mart only with better surroundings, better service, higher quality and higher price tags.  You know, you walk into a Neiman Marcus or a Saks, look around at the merchandise, and then pay for it at a register if you were satisfied.

[mainbodyad]I was totally, completely wrong.

I’m not even talking about the best-of-the-best such as Kiton or Brioni, which are the fare of James Bond. I’m not talking about the brands favored by the trendy set, such as Burberry.  Nor am I talking about the stuff made on Savile Row.

I’m talking about retailers for business owners, attorneys, accountants, bankers and professors, who make the world go round; the places that become affordable once your household income crosses into the six-figures per year (which is a dentist in a small town married to a real estate agent or, likewise, a school teacher married to a police officer) and that are just taken for granted in most families.  I’m talking about the type of place where a guy who owns $15,000,000 worth of hotels with no debt, wants to look nice but not stand out might shop, but an investment banker making $400,000 a year looks down upon.

I See Why Charlie Munger Is Crazy About Brooks Brothers

Take famed men’s clothier Brooks Brothers as an example.  The company has been dressing American Presidents since the mid-1800’s.  Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charlie Munger is “crazy about Brooks Brothers” according to his daughter, Molly.  He would reportedly give his eight children gift certificates to the legendary clothing store long before he ranked among history’s greatest investors.

If you walk into a Brooks Brothers store, you would be making a mistake to just browse through the dress shirts, sport coats, and suits.  Why?  The company is a true haberdasher, just like in the older days (unless you are in your 80s, you probably don’t realize that almost all clothes used to be custom made for you, not picked up based upon pre-manufactured sizes!)  To show you just how detailed the process is, I wrote an explanation of ordering custom men’s dress shirts.

The Brooks Brothers staff keeps huge books of fabric at a large, dark desk.  Perhaps you want a sports coat?  You go through the books and choose from more than 250 fabrics, which you can feel and see.  You select your fabric, you take measurements so the garment fits your body comfortably based upon your preferences, you choose how many pockets you want, where they go, and the style, the buttons, and even the lining.  Do you want a pink cashmere sport coat with white silk lining and mother of pearl buttons?  They can do that.  How about a dark green water-resistant, lightweight wool sport coat to wear on the golf course in the morning when it is still a bit chilly?  They can do that, too.

The same goes for trousers.  You can get the perfect fit, precisely tailored to your body, in the fabric you want, and personalize them to your heart’s content … pleats, no pleats, loose here, tight there, button or zip fly, cuffed or non-cuffed, large break, medium break or small break … you can create exactly what you want in the fabric of your choice.

Design Custom Dress Shirts for Very Little Extra Money

Brooks Brothers Kansas City Store from the Made-to-Measure Desk

When you design a Brooks Brothers shirt, you choose from countless fabrics and pick your collar style, cuff style, cut, and much more. The measurements are made to your own body so the fit is perfect; you should almost never walk in and just pick up a shirt because the custom made-to-measure selections are really affordable for anyone average or better in terms of household income ($50,000+ per year).

Likewise, dress shirts and suits have thousands of available fabrics, patterns and options including collar style, cut, cuff … it is all about what you want for very little extra money.  During the company’s dress shirt sales, you may be able to get 3 special order shirts for only $199, which is a fraction of what you would ordinarily pay.  These may not be bespoke shirts from Turnbull & Asser or Charvet but they are going to be leagues ahead of anything else you’ve worn at a price that can’t be beat.  Besides, if they are good enough for Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charlie Munger, who has no qualms about voicing his opinion, most of you should be satisfied.

(Personally, it always amuses me when I used to hear people talk about which shirts are “better” or “worse” because when it comes to dress shirts, I have everything from the best-of-the-best in my closet to J.C. Penney.  This includes a lot of Brooks Brothers.  I wear what I want based upon my mood, the fabric, color and fit.  If you get your self-worth from the clothes you wear and are embarrassed to walk out in public in a shirt that cost less than $400, you have much bigger problems.  Buy what you like because you like it.  Forget everybody else.)

In many cases, the prices aren’t much more than the cost of the off-the-rack garments.  At regular retail prices, you might be talking $1,000 to $1,100 for a coat and trousers designed for you, and that doesn’t include the regular sales the company has, which can cut that by 35% or more.  Given that these will last for years, they probably will end up costing less on a “per wear” basis than a $30 top from American Eagle.  Don’t believe it?  Think about this: If you had designed a classic sport coat as part of your wardrobe 12 years ago, it would have been during the Bill Clinton administration when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House and you’d still be able to put it on today and it look new, provided you took care of it.  (A navy blazer hasn’t gone out of style in 150 years so it’s a fairly safe choice.)

Someone making a comfortable living of, say, $100,000 per year in the Midwest (it would take more if you lived in New York or Los Angeles where the cost of living is much higher) could, over the course of two or three years, put together a fantastic wardrobe and look like he stepped out of the pages of GQ.  Above and beyond that, though, he would be wearing clothes that he designed and that fit him precisely how he liked.  I, for one, don’t like pleats all over my pants (they look old).  Most people don’t realize that you could have Brooks Brothers design no-pleat flat front pants, just like Banana Republic, in the fabric of your choice.  Instead, they walk into the store, look around, and walk out if they don’t see anything they like.  It is sad that mass produced merchandise has made this the standard reaction to shopping.

The Secret to How We Get Stuff for a Fraction of the Cost

Aaron and I pay all of our company bills on an American Express card.  What if we were to take the points we have, and convert them to Brooks Brothers gift cards?  For example, 250,000 points is a $2,500 gift card.  If we waited until the annual 50% off sale, we could essentially get $5,000 worth of clothing at virtually no cost to us!

This is the sort of “smart shopping” I think is necessary if you are going to become financially independent.  It lets you leverage your purchasing power and save cash.  Every additional penny you invest is more money to compound for your family.

In other words, let’s look at this from an abstract, educational, math perspective: If I were to walk into Brooks Brothers today and buy $5,000 worth of clothes, that would be it.  But if I waited for the 50% off sale and used converted 250,000 American Express points, I wouldn’t be out a penny.  I’d still have my $5,000 sitting in the bank.  At 12% (the average return on book value for an American company, so we’ll use that as a proxy for the private businesses even though it’s much higher), by the time I’m older – let’s go with the age of the world’s most famous investor to put a human face on it, so we’ll say Warren Buffett’s age – that is an extra $1,812,621.73 in net worth for me because I was intelligent about my purchases.  Thomas Crown was right when he said, “Everything is obtainable.”  You can have your cake and eat it, too.

[mainbodyad]If you don’t have an American Express account, Brooks Brothers offers a platinum credit card (always pay it off every month!) that earns reward points that can be converted to gift certificates, achieving much the same thing.  Only, the rewards card sometimes have 10x point specials, letting you keep even more of your money.

The point is, it is possible to have even a magnificent wardrobe without taking any money of your pocket.  If you approach it intelligently, buying quality made-to-measure merchandise that was specifically designed for your tastes can be more affordable in the long-run than just going into cheaper stores and buying things that won’t last and that are one-size-fits-all.

For those who have little or no debt, are saving for retirement and have plenty of emergency reserves, my guess is that you could start affording nicer merchandise by hitting up sales and using points on as little as $50,000 annual income.  The real break comes when you cross $100,000, which, as I pointed out before, would only take an average police officer married to an average school teacher.  Make a list of what you want and work on acquiring it over several years; don’t just go in and drop cash.

Cashmere Sports Coat Fabrics from Brooks Brothers

You can order custom made cashmere sports coats from Brooks Brothers for between $1,100 and $1,800. These fabrics were amazing. I wish you could feel them – it would be like wrapping yourself in a blanket that is so soft you want to fall asleep.

Image Editorial Credit: Ken Wolter /