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Brooks Brothers Premieres the Great Gatsby—Well, His Closet

The story behind the venerable haberdasher selling a Gatsby collection

For the next few weeks, the shopper who steps through the doors of the Brooks Brothers New York flagship store is bound to marvel over what seems like a nifty bit of time travel. One moment, he’s on Madison and 44th in 2013; the next, he’s standing at Jay Gatsby’s place in West Egg in 1922. But it’s not magic, ol’ fella, it’s marketing.

A few weeks ago, the upmarket clothing brand quietly trotted out the potted palms, rolled the plush red carpet, hung up an extra chandelier and put its Great Gatsby collection on display.

Yeah, we know: The introduction of any blockbuster movie—Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby opened today—is bound to usher in a spate of me-too promos. But in this case Brooks Brothers belongs at the party. Costume designer Catherine Martin not only modeled the film’s 500-piece wardrobe off Brooks’ early 1920s catalog offerings (some of which F. Scott Fitzgerald bought for himself), but the store made the costumes, too—yes, right down to Leonardo DiCaprio’s tux. And now those clothes, their Gold Coast frippery toned down just a bit, can be yours. From regatta blazers to boater hats, Gatsby’s bow tie to Nick Carroway’s green shawl-collar sweater, it’s all for sale in New York and 150 locations worldwide.

Normally, the buttoned-up, 195-year-old Brooks Brothers doesn’t dabble in this sort of tie-in stuff. “We’re not a highly promotional brand,” vp of global relations Arthur Wayne told Adweek. “But,” he added, “we do it when it feels right.”

It obviously felt right in this case—but the road from movie costumes to wearable fashion was a long and unplanned one. While Brooks Brothers actually has an extensive history of making costumes for film and TV (Ben Affleck’s suit in Argo and Kermit the Frog’s tuxedo in The Muppets, to name but two), it usually doesn’t go public with the information, let alone promote it. The notable exception happened four years ago when the store debuted a (very) limited edition Mad Men suit—a slim gray sharkskin number with a $998 price tag. All 250 of them sold out in five days. “We did test the waters with Mad Men,” Wayne admitted. Apparently, the water was just fine.

Nevertheless, Wayne said, originally there were no plans for a Gatsby line. “Three years ago, Catherine Martin called us for the simple reason of doing some research and wanting to look at our archive,” Wayne said. “She was aware of the Fitzgerald connection to Brooks Brothers.”

Moore kept visiting, and over time, the store’s role evolved from consulting into making the costumes themselves—first for the extras in the party scene, then for the day scenes and eventually for the principal actors’ clothes. (Alas, Leo himself didn’t come in for a fitting; Martin handled that part of it herself.) “It wasn’t until all the items came out of production and were sitting on the rack in my office that I set up a meeting with Lou Amendola, our chief merchandising officer, and said, ‘I think we have more than movie costumes here. Many of these items are translatable.’”

Amendola agreed, which explains the stores now offering enough Jazz Age fineries to fill the trunk of a Dusenberg. The flashy but painfully cool collection is probably as much as a brand like Brooks Brothers is likely to swig from the pop-culture keg, but to Brooks’ thinking, the thinking is reversed: The Great Gatsby didn’t inspire these clothes so much as a 90-year-old Brooks Brothers catalog inspired Catherine Martin. “It’s life imitating art imitating life,” Wayne said, explaining that classic items like boater hats, suspenders and white-linen herringbone suits have been solid sellers for years. In a sense, it simply took a movie to make them more visible.

“This goes way above the typical product placement,” said Andrew Saffir, founder of The Cinema Society, which throws film parties in New York for the sort of people used to standing on red carpets in Los Angeles. “For one, there’s a very real history between the brand and Fitzgerald. Second, Brooks Brothers are so associated with and known for patrician and traditional American clothing, their suits and dinner jackets lend themselves perfectly to [the Great Gatsby’s] characters and milieu.”

Saffir is saying more than it seems. While many a brand has drawn no small amount of inspiration from ages past, Brooks Brothers is one of the few to have actually been there for it—a thing that cannot be said for Ralph Lauren (credited with designing the duds of Jay Gatsby, played by Robert Redford, the last time Hollywood cranked out a Great Gatsby film in 1974). The same holds for Banana Republic and J. Crew, both of which might be channeling Don Draper’s skinny ties and narrow labels in their Mad Men-inspired collections—but neither brand existed in the early 1960s (or the late ones, either).

The only downside to Brooks’ authentic Gatsby threads: the country club prices to match. Those white and brown Spectator Wingtips? $598. A regatta blazer goes for $798. And the full tux? Including the onyx cufflinks, it’s $1,861.

But hey, if you want to look like you’re off to Gatsby’s place (and not the multiplex), what else are you going to wear?

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