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Brooks Brothers files for bankruptcy — and yeah, there’s a Jewish backstory

It would appear that not even the elite wear Brooks Brothers when they’re working from home.

The coronavirus pandemic has felled a preppy giant, with the storied clothing brand filing for bankruptcy this month. Established in 1818, the clothier claims to have dressed 40 presidents and popularized Harris tweed. Regulars at country clubs and trading floors are familiar with its hallmarks: The contrast collar, the polo, the prohibitively expensive oxford shirts and sports jackets. But you may be less aware of the Jewish icons who left their mark on the store’s history.

With a name like “Brooks,” you’d be forgiven for thinking it was originally something much more ethnic, as with many notable landsman (Mel, Albert, James). That’s not the case, though. Founded by Henry Sands Brooks, the clothier predates the moment when a large swath of Eastern European immigrants came to New York to dominate the shmatta business. (Though, to be fair, when Brooks arrived in New York he did first work as a grocer.)

Things changed and, in 1946, Winthrop Holly Brooks sold his family business to Julius Garfinckel and Co., which owned Garfinckel’s Department Store. Wisely, the company kept the Brooks name. Garfinckel was just one of many firms to have acquired the company since its early 19th-century founding, British and Italian ones among them. But the store’s most notable salesman was a kid named Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx.

When Lifshitz moved on from selling ties, he rebranded himself as Ralph Lauren, and, in an unlikely twist, launched a go-to brand for the yacht club crowd. His beginnings were not without controversy. Some accused Lauren of having cribbed his former employer’s design for a button-down polo in the 1970s, and even nabbing the name “Polo” for his own tennis shirts and his flagship label.

While the fraternal name and those who wear it have lent Brooks Brothers a bro-y and oft-maligned quality, the company also makes clothes for women. In 2014, Brooks brought on designer Zac Posen as creative director to revitalize their women’s collection.

Posen, a regular on “Project Runway,” dressed Gwyneth Paltrow and Michelle Obama, so the company kept its enviable bona fides until a global pandemic struck.

When the smoke clears and things return to normal, we hope the brand’s famed golden sheep sticks the landing. Alas, like so many of us, the logo remains suspended in midair. Its fate: uncertain; its look: pricey.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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