If a worldwide pandemic, business shutdowns, domestic terrorism, and congressional discord have caused you to feel depressed, cheer up! A new book by menswear veteran Joe Barrato reminds us that we’re in a wonderful industry, filled with incredible people and untold opportunities to learn and grow.
It’s tough to summarize the book, as indicated by its title, Beyond Category. From sharing his personal career path to profiling visionary merchants (Cliff Grodd, Wilkes Bashford, Murray Pearlstein, Stanley Marcus, the Mitchells) to introducing us to notable creatives (Richard Gere, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Wagner, Peter Jennings, Luciano Barbera, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald), Barrato relates charming anecdotes that inform and entertain. Noting how many celebrities fail to recognize their own greatness, Barrato observes, “As celebrated as they came to be within their industry, their greatest talents lay in their humanity and kindness.”
Barrato began his career as a stock boy at Brooks Brothers while still in high school and worked there through college, learning from great merchants of that era. So naïve was he as an intern that he didn’t register the joke his colleagues were playing on him by setting up “accidental” elevator visits from a sexy female associate. Needless to say, he soon began climbing the stairs (10 flights!) rather than risk these embarrassing encounters.
From Brooks Brothers, Barrato took a job as a road salesman for a trouser company, then went to work for Ralph Lauren in 1968, a year after the company was founded. He recalls running around the city with Ralph to fabric suppliers, often without enough cash to pay the taxi drivers. He shares details on how Ralph launched the first-ever department store concept shop, how he opened his first mono-brand store, how he projected trends and stirred consumer emotions like no one before him. But for all his genius, Ralph was not easy to work for. Writes Barrato, “At 28 years old, I was inexperienced running a company. It was a challenging, labor-intensive position, with crazy hours—and working for Ralph was different than being his friend. He expected your loyalty and rewarded you for your hard work but if you didn’t possess a strong work ethic, you simply did not belong there.” Ultimately, Barrato felt overwhelmed. With three young children at home, he “wanted to be Joe Barrato, not the man behind the star” so he left to open his own menswear stores on Long Island and Wall Street. “In my heart, I never truly left Polo,” he writes. “The unique brotherly connection Ralph and I shared as young industry hopefuls will remain with me always.”
As CEO and president of Brioni USA for two decades, Barrato gained confidence and recognition, traveling the world, meeting fascinating people, doing cool things like outfitting Pierce Brosman for James Bond films. In addition to teaching fashion history and the art of sprezzatura, Beyond Category imparts enlightened insights on food, wine, family, friendship, music, and baseball. (Only Joe would become a Yankees fan because he loved the team’s pinstripes!) As Louis Armstrong once said about jazz, “If you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know…” The same might be said about style.
Beyond Category can be purchase on Lulu.com (Joseph J. Barrato, Memoirs); Barrato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.