The life that late I led in the heyday was “Mad Men” in real time. Until the 1950s, retailers respected the privacy of their celebrity clientele. I played by the rules, and the paparazzi never discovered my bromance with Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Frank Sinatra walked into J. Press on a quiet weekday in 1968. I proffered my usual greeting, “Hi, Dick Press, how may we help you?”
“Lemme see the 38 regulars,” he said.
I took him to the back of the store and he tried on half a dozen suits. He carefully took in every angle from the unforgiving three-way mirror. Then, with a well timed stage pause, Sinatra broke into a grin, slapped me on the shoulder, and said, “I’ll take ’em all.”
Sinatra’s retinue included saloon keeper Jilly Rizzo, songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, Joe Fish (one of the Fishetti Brothers from Chicago who fronted the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach), his investment advisor from Allen & Company, and his dentist, an oral surgeon from NYU who had the locker next to mine at the City Athletic Club. Sinatra selected a complete outfit for each of them.
Suited up and standing outside the fitting room in their Cambridge grey herringbone worsteds, they looked like they were going to chapel at Groton.
A few days later, Felix Samelson, the J. Press fitter, was chalking and pinning everybody. After half an hour, Sinatra called out, “Let’s get the hell out of here and go to the Biltmore.” The Biltmore Hotel, with its famous clock and glorious dark wood bar, was the favored gathering place for Ivy Leaguers. Three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon the bar was a morgue, and it never knew what hit it. Soon Sinatra had the Jack Daniels flowing in a tsunami.
“Richie,” he said to me, “maybe you and your gal meet me at the Colony Club Friday for dinner then we’ll go see Frank Jr. at The Rainbow Room. Hey, maybe you can get a table for the J. Press gang.” That’s right, I had to fill the room for Frank Jr.
Sinatra made many more trips to the store. He knew everybody on a first-name basis and graciously signed autographs. Much more Jack Daniels flowed at the Biltmore, Toots Shor, and even his place at the Waldorf Towers.
Then I got a phone call. “Mr. Press, this is Mr. Sinatra’s assistant. Frank wants you to know how much he enjoyed your friendship, the clothes and all the kindness you have showed him, but he feels it’s time to move on.”
Ah, well. It was a very good year. — RICHARD PRESS
In 1950, when I was 12 years old, Grandpa Press took me to Brooks Brothers for my Bar Mitzvah suit. He brought it back to J. Press for alterations and the first thing he did was rip off the Brooks Brothers label and replace it with one of ours.
Grandpa Press’ dismemberment of a Brooks Brothers label from my size 16 grey flannel suit followed the protocol established on York Street at the turn of the century: namely, copying Brooks Brothers.
All the players alongside the Yale campus — Langrock, Fenn-Feinstein, White’s, Isenberg, the Yale Coop — all “followed suit” when it came to Brooks Brothers. And when LIFE Magazine proclaimed the coast-to-coast explosion of the Ivy League Look, mainstream retailers got into the act by mimicking the 1901 Brooks Brothers Number One Sack Suit, not to mention the buttondown shirt, rep tie, seersucker, Indian Madras, the polo coat, and many other items.
However, in a memoir of his days at Yale, Episcopal Archbishop of New York Paul Moore, Jr. credited Jacobi Press with doing more than anyone else to establish the Ivy Look. “His tweeds were a a little softer and flashier than Brooks Brothers tweed,” Moore writes, “his ties a little brighter.”
Soon his sons Irving and Paul used the Brooks text to devise their own curriculum, which included a flap pocket on the buttondown shirt, a hook vent on jackets, and a raised notch on lapels.
Manufacturers and retailers together joined in the conspiracy to clone the Golden Fleece, including Gant and Sero in New Haven, Hathaway Shirts from Waterville, Maine. Norman Hilton at Princeton, Julie Hertling in Brooklyn, Hickey Freeman in Rochester, H. Freeman in Philadelphia, Haspel Brothers in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Southwick produced many of the “346” suits for Brooks Brothers in addition to Paul Stuart, which earned the nickname “the poor man’s Brooks Brothers.” Current Paul Stuart pricing has certainly eliminated that perception.
Brooks Brothers bought Southwick in 2008 and relocated its deteriorating plant to a new and technically innovative facility in nearby Haverhill, MA. The move saved more than 200 jobs, a cornerstone for a famously depressed New England industry.
The “Ivy Style” seminar at FIT ended with a dialogue between Claudio Del Vecchio and Museum Deputy Director Patricia Mears. Del Vecchio mapped out the encyclopedia of change he has orchestrated to adapt the good old days to fit the requirements of an emerging domestic and international customer base in the digital age. Wherever it goes in the future, it will always be the one who started it all. — RICHARD PRESS
Jacobi Press opened his Princeton branch on Nassau Street in the mid-1930s and assigned my father regular checkups on the store.
Lou Prager, founder of Chipp in 1947 with another J. Press alumnus, Sid Winston, was pried away from the New Haven store to become manager of J. Press’ Princeton store. Gregarious and charismatic, he instantly became a local celebrity, befriending many notable Princetonians. Lou introduced his minions to my father during his visits there, an act of noblesse oblige that maintained the fiction Paul Press was royalty — or at least clothing royalty.
One member of the favored crowd was indeed royalty: Prince Fumitako Konoye, son of the new Japanese premier and captain of the Princeton golf team. A Lawrenceville graduate, tagged “Butch” by his teammates, Fumi sang in the glee club and was a member of Key and Seal, the swanky Princeton eating club. Celebrating Fumi’s championship at the University Open Golf Tournament in 1937, Prager and my father hosted a party at the Nassau Inn that seemingly included half of Princeton, all on the J. Press tab.
But a storm was brewing. The Daily Princetonian quoted Fumi in 1939 warning classmates, “Stay out of the Asian dispute.” When the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis became a military alliance in 1939, Fumi’s campus posture had become precarious. He chose to leave the university before his graduation on a battleship his father sent to pick him up.
A 1940 news dispatch from Tokyo, with the headline “Butch Goes To War,” reported that Fumi had left for China to serve as a private in the Japanese army. Captured at the end of the war by the Russians in Manchuria, he died 1956 in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp.
Historical archives recently disclosed young Konoye served as a conduit for messages between President Roosevelt and his father, three-time prime minister of Japan, whose attempts at rapprochement with the United States met with abject failure among opposed-to-the-war expansionists, headed by future Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
The J. Press shop in Princeton closed immediately after Pearl Harbor. The entire J. Press staff followed the example set by their former customer, who had become an enemy in the Japanese army. Unlike Konoye, who left Princeton on a battleship, the J. Press Princeton staff bid farewell to Old Nassau and took up KP duties in nearby Fort Dix, New Jersey. — RICHARD PRESS
Richard Press, looking every bit the dapper sage and witty columnist, shot by Rose Callahan for her “Dandy Portraits” series.
In our last post, Ivy Style founder Christian Chensvold shared his embracing of black, the forbidden color of the trad wardrobe, as, if nothing else, a means of being a crow among the kelly-green parrots. Now columnist Richard Press recounts his rude awakening when he joined J. Press in 1959 and dared suggest the company stock a black item.
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The only time the Man In The Grey Flannel suit was ever draped in black was in the casket for his funeral. This lesson I learned at the start of my career in the family firm.
George Graham, the brilliant importer of English goods, was showing me and my uncle Irving, the great arbiter of Ivy style, his Welch Margetson British tie selections. I soon found myself salivating at the sight of a flamboyant yellow and red paisley blooming against a black ground, and enthusiastically suggested it.
“Strictly for cloak and suitors,” Irving said, painfully dismissing my choice as if I were a Borscht Belt comedian in the Catskills. “Anything like it with a navy ground?”
And just like that a longterm classic was born of that swatch book, and I had learned my lesson. Black may be suitable for evening wear, but that’s about it. There’s simply little place for it in the wardrobe of an American gentleman.
In 35 years at J. Press we never carried a black rep stripe or a black ancient madder necktie or scarf. However, there were two exceptions to the rule: a black silk knit tie to wear with oxford-cloth buttondowns (especially yellow and pink), and a black emblematic tie with a pink pig for the Porcellians at Harvard. Oh, and the Yale Fence Club tie and scarf, which came with double yellow stripes against a black ground.
When I moved on to FR Tripler, I found things were quite different than under the strict decrees of my father and uncle. Tripler carried black Chesterfield coats by Hickey Freeman; at J. Press they were always charcoal with only a black velvet collar. In furnishings, including Shaggy Dog sweaters, hosiery and sport shirts, the dirtiest color at J. Press was navy.
The snobbery of well fitting, meticulously tailored clothing of English and Italian fabrications in tasteful colors immune to becoming outdated is largely a remnant times past. Don Quixote tilting against the presiding windmills of vulgarity still chooses brown leather for day time and relegates black to evening wear only. — RICHARD PRESS
Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand did “The Way We Were” as a movie. I’m performing it in real life at the FIT Museum.
Today “Ivy StyIe” opens at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and I’d like to extend a personal invitation to all who are able to come and visit. It’s been an absolute joy to work on and has brought back many memories of my own college years.
The exhibit incorporates elements of Ivy League life over the past century, and I was able to assist with some of the memory work. When decorating parts of the exhibit’s dorm-room area, I was reminded of my monk’s cell in Streeter Hall at Dartmouth. It was so monastic I would often flee it for the Tower Room in Baker Library and the embrace of the soft leather armchairs among the book-lined alcove lofts. The vistas of the White Mountains, barely visible through the six-paned Georgian windows, made it difficult to concentrate on any book I was reading.
Likewise, the exhibit’s chemistry classroom installation reminds me of my struggles to stay afloat in math and science courses, while I thrived in things like Comparative Literature and History. The elite social room area, represented with a tailcoat and dinner jacket, rekindles the jealousy I felt for those who could sip a chilled martini at Yale’s Fence Club after the football game, while I was stuck with flat Gansett slopped from a rusty keg into a waxed beer cup by a maladroit Chi Phi pledge in our dank and odorous party cellar in Hanover.
I helped to set up the FIT exhibit through a vale of tears and laughter shared with Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT, and fellow consultant G. Bruce Boyer. While I spent dozens of seasons peddling three-button suits on the floor at J. Press, Bruce was penning elegant books about the origins of menswear as Fashion Editor of Town and Country. Bruce mastered the sophistry and minutiae of the goods I peddled.
The blood that courses through my family’s veins is encapsulated in the centerpiece presentation of the sportcoat collection of my father, Paul Press. In the exhibit they are featured between the dorm room and social club, in the same way that he wore them in the campus stores in Cambridge and New Haven. Custom-tailored half a century ago in the third-floor workroom on York Street, they were pinned and chalked by Ralph Chieffo with fabric cut over paper patterns drawn by Dominic DiPetto. My father argued with Ralph to raise the cuff or move the button holes. There was blood, sweat and tears in every stitch. His Harris Tweed jacket still has a perceptible aroma of peat from its genesis in the Outer Hebrides. Glen Urquhart plaids and Scottish District checks retain the super-soft touch of cashmere and unmatched color fabrications that remain a signature of fabric supplier W. Bill of London.
Sometimes the memories that come flooding back aren’t even my own. Former Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Jr. recalls his college days in his book “My Harvard, My Yale.” He and his pals were once bailed out of the New Haven jail on a Sunday morning by my grandfather following a rowdy fracas outside Mory’s. They were singing Christmas carols to their fellow inmates when Jacobi Press, the local college tailor, appeared in a three-piece suit, watch chain and derby to bail them out. “J. Press had a small store on York Street and did more than anyone to establish the Ivy look,” Moore writes. “His tweeds were a little softer and flashier than Brooks Brothers tweeds, his ties a little brighter. J. Press’s sons assisted him and still run the business. We became friends as well as customers of the Press family.”
The story for our succeeding generations is the saga fluently presented in the MFIT exhibit, whose initiation begins at an entrance occupied by Brooks Brothers. The main wall is inscribed with a tribute to Brooks and Princeton by F. Scott Fitzgerald, excerpted from his debut novel “This Side Of Paradise” from 1920. Ephemera from the Brooks Brothers archives are also presented in a vast panoply of material from the past century.
Ralph Lauren is also fittingly honored with a star turn at the MFIT. “When I was a young man going to college I always loved the Ivy League Look, its ease and traditions,” he has written. “When I began designing menswear, I studied the timeless elements of this classic style.”
At last count more than 60 mannequins have been dressed for the show, some of them in full-on postmodern prep. The riffs by Michael Bastian, Thom Browne and Jeffery Banks go mano-a-mano with my dad’s Donegal Tweeds from the heyday.
Though it doesn’t appear in the exhibit, F. Scott Fitzgerald provided another apt quote: “There are no second acts in American life.”
“Ivy Style” — both the website and the exhibit of the same name — have provided me with a second act. I hope you’ll come and enjoy the performance. — RICHARD PRESS
Photo courtesy of The Daily Prep.