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Golden Years: Getting High On Reefer Twill

Sat 29 Mar 2014 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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We continue our exploration of the double-breasted jacket’s place in the Ivy genre with these recollections from King Richard XLIV.

* * *

The best-selling blazer in J. Press history was gathered by its roots from Aunt Florence.

Irving Press’s spouse was a lady who lunched at the fringes of La Cote Basque and other spots alongside Babe Paley, the Duchess d’Uzes, and other paradigms of ’60s New York Society. The reefer twill luncheon suit she wore on several occasions prompted a suggestion of versatiltiy she imparted to her husband: her suit might just be just the right material to make into a men’s blazer. Irving retrieved a swatch of the cloth from the dressmaker for Seymour Landsman, a principal at Linett, prime clothing provider to both Chipp and J. Press. “Get a hold of this material,” he commanded Landsman, “make it into a blazer, and confine it to J. Press.”

Adhering to the times, J. Press got high in the ’60s on Reefer Twill (the catalog image above is from 1969). The maritime history of the fabric was peacoat British, but the version J. Press devised featured distinctly rough-hewn, steep-ribbed twill, a startling departure from the soft hand of the flannel blazer classic. My personal favorite was a double-breasted forest green that flaunted two rows of Dartmouth buttons, but the preference of most Squeeze customers was the traditional single-breasted in navy.

Double-breasted suits and blazers at J. Press were tailored in the natural-shoulder style of our three-button model that departed from the single breasted version only via deep side vents. Reefer twill blazers were lined throughout in strident regimental striped Bemberg. Double-breasted suits and blazers never gained more than 10% advocacy at J. Press, but allowed us a response to detractors who called us stodgy and unbending.

In 1962, J. Press even attempted a foray into womenswear in our newly enlarged downstairs quarters on Forty-Fourth Street. The effort achieved scant success and quietly disappeared the following year.

Six degrees of separation, the merchandising and design savvy of a woman, the boss’s wife,  inspired the greatest J. Press hit of the decade. — RICHARD PRESS

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Golden Years: Goodbye To All That

Thu 19 Dec 2013 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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JPress_demo_Dec2013_460x345_0_0_460The walls are slated to come tumbling down on the J. Press building in New Haven at 262 York Street. The structurally unsound building is scheduled to be razed next month.

The J. Press story began the turn of the century, serendipitously around the corner from the current J. Press quarters, on College Street. JC Goldbaum was a bespoke tailor on Chapel Street who had sold to Yale students since the Civil War. Grandfather Jacobi Press learned both tailoring and the English language as an intern in Goldbaum’s second-floor quarters. Two years after arriving in New Haven an immigrant from the Pale of Russia, he knocked on doors showing swatches to students in the Yale dorms at the same time while he was running Goldbaum’s tailor shop.

My grandfather was a dapper man, carefully decked out in three-piece English woolens, garnering his wardrobe as if to-the-manner born of Professor William Lyon Phelps, Coach Walter Camp, and other notables on the Yale campus. He adopted the gift of gab and a quick sense of humor, and soon was regularly invited to serve the tweed-clad elites on bended knee. He also drummed up most of Goldbaum’s business. The older gentleman obliged Grandpa’s acumen, selling him what had become Goldbaum & Press in 1902, which then became J. Press

In the half decade since its founding, the enterprise bearing his name expanded geometrically in capital and prestige. The narrow confines of the old shop were bursting at the seams with multitudes of garments stuffed from every corner. Seizing the moment, in 1907 Grandpa Press bought the fashionable French Second Empire-styled building directly across from Pierson College at 262 York Street. Originally built circa 1860, the gregarious urban townhouse was the home of Cornelius Pierpont, a prominent merchant grocer, manufacturer and street railway man. Mr. Pierpont’s trophy occupied 30,000 square feet on three floors over a warehouse-sized basement, and featured multiple front and back entrances that over the course of its history were able to accommodate Barrie Ltd. Shoe Store, Klingerman’s Luncheonette, Stonehill Rare Books, Valentine’s Barber Shop, and, during the administration of President George W. Bush, half  the second floor to accommodate the Secret Service guarding the President’s daughter during her undergraduate years at Yale.

When I entered the family business in 1959, the building employed seven clothing sales associates, two fitters, a patternmaker, cloth cutter, cloth marker, merchandise manager, office staff of 12, three shipping clerks, truck driver, house cleaning attendant, window-dresser, and 14 tailors on the third floor above the executive office of my father, Paul, who was chief financial officer. Twenty-five tailors occupied a separate custom shop on Broadway.

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The New Haven Preservation Trust is actively lobbying J. Press owners to respect historical precedents in their plans to rejuvenate the property. With York Street genes coursing through my veins, but no longer part of J. Press, I may only bray to the moon the World War I requiem of 1st Viscount Gray of Fallodon: “The lights are going out all over York Street and we shall never see them lit again in our time.” — RICHARD PRESS

Top photo by Mark Alden Branch for the Yale Alumni Magazine.

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Golden Years: The Tables Down At Mory’s

Fri 25 Oct 2013 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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Last week I spoke at “the dear old Temple Bar we love so well.”

Mory’s, founded in 1863, moved from “the place where Louis dwelled” of “Whiffenpoof Song” fame to its currently shabby chic colonial quarters on York Street in 1912. Originally a private club, townies were never allowed on the premises unless they were employees. One of them, Carl, was a famously surly waiter for whom my dad provided gratis wardrobes to steer his Mory’s clientele to J. Press.

Here’s a fable from the heyday: Bill DeVane, venerable dean at Yale, was at a booth when Carl approached the table, threw a menu down and stood glaring. DeVane noticed Carl was scratching his behind. “Do you have hemorrhoids, Carl?” the dean asked. “If it ain’t on the menu,” Carl snapped, “we ain’t got it.”

Growing up in a college town is priceless, whether it’s Berkeley, Charlottesville, South Bend or Princeton. You can never say, “Goodbye Columbus.” (Continue)

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Golden Years: Richard Press To Speak At Mory’s

Thu 10 Oct 2013 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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Golden Years: An Apologist For Tradition

Fri 13 Sep 2013 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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photoIvy Style wraps up its recent series of posts on menswear rules with these thoughts from Richard Press, who is pictured at left with his uncle Irving, circa 1984.

* * *

How did personal taste and idiosyncrasy fit within J. Press offerings and customer consultations when the business was family owned? Here’s a precis from three generations of Presses who made the rules and sometimes broke them.

Before World War I, York Street in New Haven was lined by custom tailors who also dabbled in furnishings to meet the requirements of the students and faculty they served. My grandfather, Jacobi Press, tailored three-piece tweed, flannel and worsted suits for them, always searching for new resources in the British Isles to distinguish his fare from the competition. Suits were the order of the day. Single-breasted blue blazers were the only unmatched jackets he offered, usually accompanied by grey flannel trousers, whipcords or white duck trousers, the singular uniform for resort wear.

The Guns of August impelled my grandfather to break with tradition. Foreseeing the possibility of a trade embargo, he boosted his stock of English merchandise before America’s entry into World War I. During the war, his civilian trade evaporated and domestic gabardine was the fabric used for the for military officers’ uniforms he tailored during the duration. At war’s end he was faced with a grossly unequal quantity of tweeds and flannels mixed with unlikely gabardine remainders from uniforms that were impossible to divide into suits. His solution was to make up odd tweed jackets separately and accompany them with odd grey flannels and gabardine trousers. Yale customers cheered the new look, which became a uniform of choice for the tables down at Mory’s.

After World War II, the GI Bill of Rights heated up a simmering melting pot for those not born into the white-shoe traditions of the Ivy League. The exploding population of veterans chose to adopt the historical wardrobe of their campus peers, making it their own, and revolutionizing the retail requirements of the campus stores. Jacobi’s sons, Irving and my father Paul, engineered a full deep bench of ready-to-wear clothing made exclusively for J. Press with favorable prices to fit the budget for non-trust fund Ivy Leaguers.

The Ivy League Look was not only the wardrobe of choice for Joe College. The coffers of corporate America were teeming with Ivy graduates on Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the all councils of power during the heyday of The American Century.

Delineating J. Press from Brooks Brothers and other Ivy retailers, the Press brothers conceived of a variety of signatures setting their wares apart from that of others. Center hook vents were the trademark on all suits and sportcoats. High gorge lapels deftly accommodated the extreme J. Press sloped shoulder. Full-body dress shirts camouflaged muscular torsos of varsity football players, together with the beer bellies of their boozer buddies. The cognoscenti identified with the snob appeal of flap pockets on every J. Press shirt.

Ready-to-wear sportcoats and suits promoted soft finished fabrics of understated coloring. Black was verboten, restricted for formal wear. Neckwear categories were selected across the pond by Irving Press. He made certain his choices were restricted to J. Press. The Irish poplins, ancient madders, English reps, wool challis, and India madras were not available only on our counters. Irving designed and trademarked the famous Shaggy Dog hand-brushed Shetland sweaters specially made for J. Press by Drumohr of Scotland.

Tradition is not unbending. I left Dartmouth for a stint in the army before entering the family business in 1960, the dawn of JFK’s New Frontier. Changes I orchestrated for the new era were often met by clashes with my father and uncle, who were determined to maintain the order of past times. My goal was to engage the enthusiasm of the Mad Men in our Ivy meat market on 16 East Forty-Fourth Street.

Non-Ivy Leaguers were previously neglected and we engaged their preferences for two-button, front-darted suits in the New York store. Tradition had roots not necessarily reflected at the time, but were standard in the 1930s. Four-inch wide ties reflected demands from junior A-listers sporting their fathers’ vintage clothing recovered from family trunks. I ordered them. Uncle Irving threatened me, “You’ll pay for every goddamn one we don’t sell.” Walter Cronkite spotted them about town. I appeared on his newscast, beating Ralph Lauren to the wide-tie punch. Lilly Pulitzer approached us and designed caricatures for us with Yale Bulldogs, Dartmouth Indians, Princeton Tigers, and the whole Ivy caboodle.

We nudged India madras ties into wraparound belts for summer wear. Tussah silk buttondown shirts made their debut as a scrappy formal dress shirt with black studs. Taking a cue from 1930s Gentleman’s Quarterlies, I revived wing-collar shirts for dinner jackets.

Hosiery meant socks and garters. Jacket length was at the tip of a clenched fist. Forty regular jackets had a forty-inch chest. Idiosyncratic customers chose custom for peak lapels, side vents, roped shoulders, and Duke of Windsor fabrics, but stayed in the Press camp out of loyalty and respect for the quality inherent in all offerings.

My grandfather’s family’s rabbinical tradition died in the shtetl when he came to America. The fourth generation of Presses opted out at the sale of J. Press to Onward Kashiyama in 1986. The beat goes on, though to the tune of a different drummer. Hollywood Entertainment Manager Ben Press promulgated family tradition at last year’s Golden Globes decked out in a 1968 dinner jacket bequeathed by his grandfather Paul. Alex Shekachman of the London Daily Mail pegged him one of the evening’s best dressed.

Alas, family blood no longer courses through the veins of the great Ivy retailers. Brooks Brothers, Gant, J. Press and Paul Stuart follow the direction of their international parent companies. Meanwhile, Ivy/Prep derivatives swim in an ocean of cute names, paying scant attention to the workmanship and quality in the archival treasure of the look.

Bang the drum slowly, for anything goes. — RICHARD PRESS

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Golden Years: A J. Press Tie For Dr. King

Fri 23 Aug 2013 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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jpmlkAs we approach the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Richard Press shares this memory about the time his father bequeathed to King a small gift.

* * *

My father Paul Press met Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Reform Jewish Temple in New Haven. Dad was president of the temple and Robert E. Goldberg its rabbi.

Goldberg, a jocular and very left-wing Talmud scholar, was a close friend of playwright Arthur Miller and officiated his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He was also arrested with Dr. King in 1961 during a peaceful civil rights demonstration in Albany, Georgia.

They shared the same jail cell, and while incarcerated Goldberg invited to speak at his New Haven temple.

On the day of his visit, my father, as president of the temple, picked up King at the railroad station. After the event, on the way back to the station, both men admitted they were starved. Dad suggested they head over to Yankee Doodle, the popular Eli hangout directly behind the J. Press store on York Street.

Wolfing down cheeseburgers, fries and chocolate milk shakes at the narrow sandwich counter, King suggested, “Mr. Press, how about taking a visiting preacher on a tour of J. Press?”

King admired the hundreds of ties strewn along the open counter, picking up reps, ancient madders and wool challis, asking their derivation and how each should be worn. Breaking the interrogation, Dad picked out a midnight blue emblematic tie with crests from one of the Yale colleges. Dad folded it into a long narrow tie bag emblazoned with the J. Press circular logo. “Dr. King,” he said, “here’s a souvenir of your cheeseburger stop at Yale.”

Several years later, the men met by chance at the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico. “Dr. King, you may not remember me…” my father began.

King immediately interrupted him. “Paul Press, Bob Goldberg’s friend from New Haven. Don’t worry, Mr. Press, I still wear the tie, but I threw out the bag.” — RICHARD PRESS

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