“I feel like I’ve been auditioning my whole career for this,” says Michael Bastian of his new job as creative director for Brooks Brothers, the 203-year-old stalwart of American preppy style. Indeed, with his eponymous Gray Label, Bastian was often riffing on a sleeker, sexier, more adventurous version of the Brooks Brothers world—the type of clothes, he says, that he wanted to find at Brooks Brothers but couldn’t. No surprise then that his first order of business was to rework the mothership’s most iconic and beloved piece: the oxford cloth button-down shirt.
At just under $90 you can spend more on socks from some labels, but the appeal of the brand’s OCBD, as the style is known in menswear circles, is authenticity, since Brooks Brothers invented the category. That’s a lot of history to draw from—and a formidable dose of nostalgia. “Everyone has their idea of what the perfect one was,” Bastian says. “But the truth is they tweaked the design a lot over the years—there was never just one version.” The earliest versions, from the 1930s, were “cut so long they were almost nightshirts,” and the shirt didn’t settle into the basic form we know today until the 1970s.
The designer assembled an in house “forensic team”—including one member known as The Keeper of the Shirts—to research, analyze, measure, and deconstruct the entire archive and then reassemble Bastian’s signature iteration. But it wasn’t all about the fit. “Getting that perfect pink was really a priority,” Bastian says. “Brooks Brothers always made the best pink shirt—there’s just a drop of blue in it, and no yellow.” Other chromatic highlights include a button-down poplin shirt in a bold red Bengal stripe.
Bastian’s version is a casual revolution of precise details: heavier fabric, a shorter, roomy fit with a wider sleeve and a collar roll that’s somehow more elegant despite the shape remaining unchanged. (The secret, Bastian confides, is actually collar-button placement: “If you don’t get it exactly right, you won’t get that perfect curve, like a violin.”) The chest pocket is back, the six-pleat cuff shirring stays and the various fits and dress-shirt sizing are gone—a single construction now comes in S, M, L, etc.—though there’s good news for obsessives who want the new look, but cut just for them: “Custom shirting,” Bastian says, “is coming soon.”