What do the Chief Executive Officer of Brooks Brothers, Claudio Del Vecchio, and a group of eighth graders from PS126/Manhattan Academy of Technology have in common? Besides having a strong sense for fashion, both have an interesting connection to Catherine Street in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Brooks Brothers is the oldest clothing retailer in the United States; in 1818 Henry Sands Brooks established the first Brooks Brothers Men’s Clothing store (then called H & D.H Brooks Company) located on the northeast corner of Catherine and Cherry Street. The clothing store’s original address in the early nineteenth century was across the street from the present location of PS126/Manhattan Academy of Technology at 80 Catherine Street, built over a century later in 1965.
The information about Brooks Brothers’ first locality was unbeknownst to school administrators, teachers, parents and neighborhood residents, until eighth graders from PS 126/MAT were involved in a local history curriculum called the Lower East Side (LES) Young Historians. The curriculum requires students to do extensive research on a topic that addresses the theme of social change. Several students were interested in researching how the fashion industry in New York City reflected the twentieth century.
Moreover, through the guidance of their teachers, students connected the local history concept to their fashion hypothesis, and in the process of examining newspaper archives, they stumbled upon the Brooks Brothers’ connection to Catherine Street. When Claudio Del Vecchio, son of Italian billionaire Leonardo Del Vecchio, founder of the Luxottica eyewear empire, heard about the LES Young Historians local history curriculum from one of his staff members, he wanted to meet the students. Eleven students were chosen to meet the CEO at the boardroom of Brooks Brothers’ Corporate Headquarters on Madison Avenue.
“Adults spend their entire life trying to make it to a company’s boardroom and here our middle school students, at thirteen years old, were given a unique opportunity to discuss their research and introduce their video to Mr. Del Vecchio” said Chris Piccigallo, a teacher and one of the co-creators of the local history curriculum. The video created by students and teachers was designed to explain the importance of memorializing many of the historical milestones that were uncovered by students about Catherine Street’s forgotten past.
One student in the video proudly explained, “How Catherine Street was a fashionable thoroughfare for shopping, it’s also where the famous Lord & Taylor opened their first clothing store in 1826” and she went on to say that, “In 1863 the Brooks Brothers store on Catherine Street was attacked
by rioters protesting the Conscription Law during the New York City Draft Riots because the men’s store supplied the uniforms for Union soldiers and officers.”
After the students and teachers introduced themselves to Mr. Del Vecchio, he viewed their video, and later remarked in his soft-spoken voice “So much history has occurred on just one street.” Claudio has always appreciated Brooks Brothers’ Ivy League style while at the same time he has brought his Italian sartorial influence to the company after purchasing it for $225 million from Britain’s Marks & Spencer. More importantly however, the CEO, replied, “after the details of buying the company fourteen years ago was completed, I looked into the company’s archives and became fascinated with Brooks Brothers’ history.
Mr. Del Vecchio while growing up in Italy was always intrigued by Brooks Brothers clothing since Gianni Agnelli, the principal owner of Fiat, the Italian car manufacturer, preferred the clothing store’s made-to-order shirts and wide cuffs. He wondered if Agnelli, who was considered a fashion trendsetter in the 1960s (until his death in 2003) wore the Brooks Brothers brand, the retailer must be worthy of leading especially when the venerable clothing store was in need of a new direction during the late 1990s.
From the moment he entered the boardroom Mr. Del Vecchio, sometimes referred to as Mr. D, appeared very humble and unassuming, a characteristic that not always follows many CEOs. The tall and slender CEO greeted students in a navy blue Brooks Brothers’ suit, a green-navy stripe silk tie, and a white button-down shirt, one of the company’s trademarks. The oxford cloth and button-down polo shirt was first noticed in England by John E. Brooks, grandson of the founder, when he observed during a polo match “the players’ collars were buttoned down so as to prevent their flapping in the wind.”
After the student-led video was shown in the boardroom, Claudio invited the LES Young Historians into his office and showed them a grandfather clock once owned by the Brooks family. The students gathered around the CEO and listened attentively to the history behind the clock. Mr. Del Vecchio was very comfortable around the students and he had an expression of pride in telling the story. The sense of pride in Mr. D also extended to when one eighth grader described how impressed she was with the quality and elegance carefully displayed on each floor, Claudio responded, “What you see in the store, is the work of many hard working people.”
Prior to meeting the CEO, students were given a private tour of the eleven story building. The first five floors are open to customers. Each floor caters to a particular clientele which includes: young and middle aged men, women and children. The students toured from the basement, amidst the crates and boxes of clothing, to the very top floor of the company’s executive offices. Each student looked in awe at the clothing style and prices and was very appreciative of those involved in organizing the tour and meeting with Mr. Del Vecchio.
While the students and teachers asked questions of Mr. Del Vecchio from the history of the company to his immigrant background, another eighth grader inquired about what makes the company so successful? Without any hesitation, Claudio replied “When a worker is passionate about his/her work this can be infectious and that energy will resonate with the customer. Our business is making the customer happy, and that’s what we do so well.” As the meeting was concluding several of Mr. Del Vecchio’s executives said he needed to take an important call in the next few minutes, but before Claudio left he posed for selfies and once again shook everyone’s hand. Hopefully, the visit was not just a unique and memorable moment for the eighth grade students, but it also served as an inspiration for students to lead a company much in the same way Claudio Del Vecchio does, with grace, passion and a level of respect for history.