The role of Yale in American popular culture and the sartorial legacy of New Haven together comprise the metaphor of my life.
Ivy Style jogged my memory a few weeks ago when we posted an ad for Macy’s showroom on York Street from a 1941 edition of the Yale Daily News. “Macy’s Knows Its Yale,” the advertisement bragged, unaware that Yale was about to trade in its civilian tweeds for military khakis. Macy’s closed promptly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, Saks Fifth Avenue opened a sleekly timbered University Shop on the same premises, just two doors from the fabled tables down at Mory’s.
What prompted each of the country’s largest and swankiest department stores to join a cavalcade of stars, including a blackfaced vocalist and America’s top crooner, eager to identify with Yale?
“America’s Crooner” Rudy Vallee, Class of 1926, worked his way through school playing the saxophone and singing at country clubs and proms with the Yale Collegians. Fellow band member and Yale Law School plugger Irving Press, my uncle, shared the stand with him as violinist. Vallee flaunted Yale in vaudeville appearances and Hollywood movies sporting a raccoon coat and warbling “The Whiffenpoof Song” into a megaphone. (Continue)
Until the 1960s, retailers respected the privacy of their celebrity clientele. The producers of “The Dick Cavett Show,” however, encouraged me to bend the rules.
Beginning in 1968, the credit “MR. CAVETT’S wardrobe furnished by J. PRESS” appeared at the end of his late-night talk show.
The producers had approached me with the idea of dressing Cavett. We agreed with them that Cavett, a Yale graduate, and J. Press was a good match for brand identification. Cavett entered Yale in the fall of 1953 out of Lincoln High School in Nebraska, an unlikely preparation for sharing cups and Welsh rarebits at the tables down at Mory’s.
His breakthrough as a standup comic occurred with socko appearances on “The Johnny Carson Show.” ABC-TV bought his act and placed him in the time slot opposite Carson. He was not interested in presenting himself as an Ivy League version of Carson, but his manner of dress still said New Haven rather than Johnny’s Pebble Beach. He wore natural-shoulder suits, sport jackets and blazers in the standard J. Press two-button model, front darted, mixing center-hook-vents and occasionally side-vented jackets, which he usually wore open. Trousers were plain front, never pleated, and complemented his rather slight stature. Dress shirts were straight point collar, never pinned, and he kept the collar stays in. Ties were 3 3/4 rep stripe and ancient madder.
Throughout the ’70s his sideburns grew longer and his suit collars wider in equal proportion. Our veteran fitter on 44th Street expertly crafted the jackets with slight waist suppression and trousers with a 20-inch knee and 17-inch bottom.
GQ recently labelled J. Press’ new York Street collection an attempt to rescue the brand from its “fusty” and deteriorating customer base. My decades on the floor at J. Press bring to mind the question whether retail conglomerates can successfully respond to the demands of a formerly dedicated clientele and still attract new customers.
Cavett’s wardrobe was a mirror image of the product culled directly from the 32-page semiannual J. Press brochure. The fabrics, colors, textures and patterns respected his outlier Nebraska roots while staying true to the clothing that surrounded him during his undergraduate years in New Haven. Cavett was never mock-Ivy, draped with buttons and spurs in flannel and tweed. The seven to nine-ounce clear finished worsteds maintained their shape and crisp appearance even on a set bathed for 90 minutes in the sweltering heat of spotlights.
Cavett rarely engaged us in over-the-top banter. Unlike Frank Sinatra ,who was always accompanied by a keening entourage, Cavett maintained a discreet privacy and bolted the store the minute he left the fitting room.
The guests of his show were uncannily chosen to match his acerbic wit. “The Dick Cavett Show” captured a niche audience ravenous for the sophisticated repartee of a Yale intellectual. Who would have thought it possible on national television years before cable and the Internet arrived?
Here’s Cavett with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, making for quite the contrast with today’s late-night fare. — RICHARD PRESS
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