When you are at the top, everyone else wants to be like you. That’s because what you do every day. without really thinking about it, gives them something they want. So we believe the news that Boeing is going to end production of its iconic giant 747 and that Brooks Brothers has filed for section 11 Bankruptcy are more than just business decisions. They represent the passing of an age.
When the Boeing 747 was launched in 1970, it represented the epitome of the American idea. Huge and powerful like the engines of a Saturn V rocket. Brash like rock or soul music. Democratic, like the Constitution, opening the skies to everyone. And whatever livery was on the plane you knew this was America. The huge shadow loomed low in the skies over airport approaches throughout the world. Who can forget that funny hollow sound on take off as the early models pulled out of Heathrow in the sunny far off skies of fifty years ago? When President Reagan wanted a new Air Force One at the height of his imperial powers, what else would he order but a 747?
And if you were in the first class lounge, the chances were you were wearing a classy suit and tie from Brooks Brothers, the tailor of choice for rich and powerful white American men who peopled the world beating corporations of the time. Esso, IBM, ITT, all had the look and feel of future success. Even off duty, your Brooks Brothers polo and chinos signified you weren’t quite as relaxed as the others. Something might come up-perhaps a decision to invest a billion dollars, or approve the rum punch at a party in Martha’s Vineyard. It was ,and is, good stuff, perhaps a little expensive.
The trouble for the Brothers and Boeing was that things were changing. More and more women, with very different ideas on dress were entering the corporate world. Brooks Brothers introduced a women’s section in their catalogue, and doubtless it was good. But someone else had got to the ladies first. And modern styles in biotech and IT start ups don’t always lend themselves to preppy button downs and fine jackets, however good the design and manufacture. As for the poor old 747, well apparently it’s a bit of a gas guzzler, like the cars of the seventies, no longer fit for a world of melting icecaps and growing deserts.
Boeing is far from finished, because they still make superb aircraft. Brooks Brothers is far from finished, because they still sell superb clothes. But the brand they in turn represent, Brand America, is itself now struggling to adapt to a fast changing world. And what follows may not be quite as democratic.
Personal note: On a trip to America, to buy our very first Brooks Brothers shirts, we had the honour to be invited onto the flight deck of Virgin Atlantic 747. We have never forgotten the kindness of all the staff from the Captain downwards, nor the interest of the occasion. The date? September 11 2000.
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