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.

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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morys

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)

 

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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morys

 

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

 

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

 

Golden Years: A Wonderful LIFE

Mon 29 Jul 2013 - Filed under: The Golden Years by Richard Press — Christian
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loomistakes2

The laws of acceptance and exclusion were epiphanies I experienced during my days at the prep school Loomis, now known as Loomis Chaffee. My own humble status skyrocketed the day the November 22, 1954 issue of LIFE Magazine came out, which proclaimed the Ivy League Look a national style sweeping the country from its wellspring of J. Press in New Haven. The magazine turned up in every student and faculty room on campus.

Suddenly I was greeted with regal bows that I responded to with an embarrassed nod characterizing the newfound national celebrity of the family business. The St. Grottlesex schools, plus Hotchkiss, Exeter and Andover, were always more hip to J. Press than Loomis.

Before World War I my grandfather Jacobi began merchant-tailor trunk shows at boarding schools throughout the Northeast. Loomis was the only one that refused him entree. “Mr. Press,” Headmaster Nathaniel Horton Batchelder told my grandfather, “one-third of my boys receive financial aid. They can’t afford to buy custom suits, and I will not allow them to be embarrassed being unable to patronize your shop on campus.”

Grandpa thereafter declared Loomis “the most democratic prep school in the country.” His sense of fair play overcame his retail defeat, paving the way for three grandchildren to graduate from Loomis.

In 1954, the Ivy League Look was the preppy look of the time. Boarding schools required coats and ties for morning chapel, classes and the dining hall, with suits required for Sunday chapel. Since I was carrying the flag for J. Press, the bar was set much higher for me. My narrow closet was swimming in Shetlands. Note that in the above yearbook picture of the Loomistakes, a group of acappella songsters, I — the second from left — am the only one with a tie clip and grey flannels. Jeans were considered beyond the fringe. Khakis were standard gear often bought at $3.99 in local Army-Navy Surplus stores. Most of us favored white bucks, preferably dirty. Tab collar shirts were nearly as popular as buttondowns. Most of the sport jackets were tan with an even mix of blue blazers..

The Loomis singing groups were directed by faculty member Frank House, a Whiffenpoof and former member of the Yale Glee Club. A tall lanky guy who taught English and coached soccer. His wife was a walking double of Barbara Bush, an amusing coincidence since he was a first cousin of George Herbert Walker Bush. He stole the Loomis repertoire from the Whiffenpoofs:

The old songs, the old songs,
Those good old songs for me.
I love to sing those minor chords
In good close har-ahr-monee!

For the record, here’s where the Loomistakes went to college: Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth (moi), two to Middlebury, and the blonde second tenor in the middle, the all-American honcho, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An unidentified baritone in the photo flunked out.

And now a disclosure 59 years after the fact: the blonde WASP honcho beat me out for the honor of Class Best Dressed.

He got all his clothes at Brooks Brothers. — RICHARD PRESS

 
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