In August, after Authentic Brands Group purchased Brooks Brothers, the new owners announced their plans to hire a “big-name designer” to revitalize the bankrupt brand. Names like Nigo, the Japanese streetwear legend behind Bape, were floated as the potential designer who might give America’s most historic prep outfitter a streetwise revamp. But when push came to shove, the familiar was perhaps more appealing: today, Brooks Brothers announced that it has hired Michael Bastian to steer creative direction.
Bastian is an icon from the #menswear era—the movement in men’s clothing that ran from the mid-Aughts to the early ‘10s, championing heritage brands, Mad Men-adjacent tailoring, and real-heads-only products like double-monkstrap shoes. Bastian ran his own brand during that go-go period, turning out soft-shouldered jackets and dressy cargo pants, and picking up a few nominations (and one victory) for CFDA menswear designer of the year. He was a ready dance partner whenever a brand needed an injection of menswear zeitgeist, too: Bastion collaborated with the likes of Gant and Uniqlo in the early 2000s, bringing his quirky prep to the mainstream. But as men’s fashion moved onto maximalist designs, logomania, and ugly sneakers, Bastian faded into the background. His reappearance as the new creative director of Brooks Brothers feels like another harbinger that dressing up is coming back with full force.
“When I started my own line, it was to make things I couldn’t find at Brooks Brothers at the time,” Bastian told WWD. “So it feels like my design career has come full circle.” Those items that Bastian couldn’t find at Brooks Brothers, of course, are the ones he built his career on. Accordingly, WWD reports, the prep retailer’s focus will shift to find ways into athleisure with cashmere sweatpants, a chambray jogging sweatsuit Bastian found rifling through the brand’s archives, and “modern denim”—presumably jeans with stretch. Bastian will also oversee a graphic infusion: one sweater will feature a polar bear floating on a patch of ice (“A subtle reminder of global warming,” WWD writes), while the brand’s famous sheep logo will be retooled to imagine the wooly involved in various pratfalls, like falling off its skis. Now that’s just cute.
Elevating staples has long been the calling card of collaborators like Bastian—remember the phrase “classics with a twist”?—and that strategy seems to be a heavy focus of the designer’s stewardship of Brooks Brothers already. He’s remaking typical athleisure items in cashmere and one item heavily emphasized by Bastian and company is a cable-knit hoodie. Ken Ohashi, the brand’s new president, believes Brooks Brothers is “still significantly underpenetrated” in sportswear, he told WWD. “We put out a cable-knit hoodie and had 83 percent sell-through in a week,” he said. “So the customer is voting for it.”
Brooks Brothers pivoting towards athleisure is a solid-if-predictable route back towards relevance and, more importantly, profitability. Since the brand’s prime a decade ago, men’s fashion has torn down many of the walls that kept labels penned into making one type of clothing. Today, beloved brands like Noah and Aimé Leon Dore make their bones by infusing prep icons with a streetwear sensibility. Supreme collaborates regularly with Loro Piana on elegant coats and successfully hawks suits, cardigans, and blazers, once the sole domain of old-fogey brands like Brooks Brothers.
After Brooks Brothers announced it was in hot pursuit of a Name for its new designers, we at GQ imagined a roster of potential designers—John Elliott, Jerry Lorenzo, Mark McNairy—who had successfully married prep and athleisure/streetwear. Most of the folks on our list had emerged over the last decade and pushed menswear in exactly the direction Brooks Brothers is now moving. Instead, the brand went back to its most recent golden age and hired a reliable standby in Bastian. It’s not so much a revolution as it is switching out an emerald tie with little golfers on it for a crimson one with mallards—and that’s exactly how Brooks Brothers wants it. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Bastian said of his vision. “We’re just putting the spokes back in.”