Yesterday Gant announced it will open three new retail stores later this year in Boston, Georgetown and Los Angeles. Today former J. Press president Richard Press talks about his New Haven partners and rivals, who got their start in the J. Press stock room.
When his sons got out of the army at the end of World War II, Bernie Gantmacher asked his pal Jacobi Press if he could give his sons Elliot and Marty a job in the stock room at J. Press.
Gantmacher had owned a shirt factory in New Haven since the ’20s and occasionally supplied J. Press. Packing the ties, shirts and arranging the haberdashery in the York Street store, the Gant boys inhaled the scent of Ivy and the rest is history.
They formed Gant Shirtmakers in 1949 and by the mid-’50s the discreet “G” on the bottom front of every Gant shirt became part of American menswear history. Soon campus stores in and outside the Ivy League, menswear shops beyond the Northeastern seaboard, and upscale department stores opened up Ivy League sections (before the invention of the clothing genre “preppy”) coast to coast. And a signature product was the Gant buttondown shirt.
I remember going head to head with Elliot and Marty at a party in New Haven. “We worked in your stockroom and you only buy a few sport shirts from us,” they said.
“Good luck selling to our competitors,” I replied. “We are grateful for your success.” The postprandial conversation continued merrily amongst the New Haven shirt cognoscenti.
Success prompted a similar situations at Paul Stuart, known in the ’50s as “the poor man’s Brooks Brothers.” The Gants also engineered a hundred-plus store contract with the Hart Schaffner Marx Retail Group, including Wallach’s, which maintained one of its many thriving stores around the corner from Paul Stuart on Fifth Avenue. That was the end of Gant at Paul Stuart, but Gant gained hundreds of new retail store customers.
Brook Brothers, J. Press, Chipp and The Andover Shop were the retail merchants serving the niche market of the boarding-school-to-boardroom Northeastern Elite.
Gant sold its Ivy-styled buttondown to American men who didn’t want to look like Main Street Babbitts. I recently visited the Gant shop in my old neighborhood on York Street, across from the Yale campus. It’s the same roost occupied once upon a time by Langrock and Arthur M. Rosenberg. Gant’s Yale Co-op line offers a keen glimpse of the past with much opportunity for future enhancement. The shop is archival without being dowdy and is a necessary stopover with visits to the British Museum of Art, the Yale Rep, or the Yale Admissions office — or Sally’s Apizza on Wooster Street.
The photo above was taken as I gathered some remnants of the past for the MFIT’s Ivy Style exhibit. — RICHARD PRESS
Today former J. Press president Richard Press once again becomes a citizen of Manhattan, leaving the suburbs of Connecticut for an Upper East Side apartment. Evidently life begins (or at least begins again) at seventy.
• • •
Twenty-five years in the hinterlands is long enough. Today my wife and I move back to New York City, land of our original dreams.
Pictured is a souvenir of Father and Son Day 1978 at the City Athletic Club: me and my son, who in those days upheld the J. Press cut tradition at the Buckley School in New York.
The City Athletic Club was my home away from home that I shared with my best friend from my Loomis days, Gene Mercy, where we devoured cherrystones from Mike at the Clam Bar in the lounge topped by martinis at the second floor bar.
Today the City AC on 54th Street is long gone. The member roster included Senator Jacob Javits, producer Max Gordon, Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, Henry Kravis, Ron Perelman, Ralph Lauren, my Paul Stuart competitors Cliff Grodd and Paul Stuart Ostrove, not to mention Ivan Boesky, who appeared with me as an actor in an off-Broadway production of “Abie’s Irish Rose” at the Van Dam Theatre.
Now it’s time to seize the moment. I look forward to contributing to the Ivy Style exhibit at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, along with blog maestro Chensvold, author and sage G. Bruce Boyer, and the museum’s deputy director Patricia Mears, plus her enthusiastic band of FIT cohorts.
Back to the future. — RICHARD PRESS
A New York Times obit for a recently deceased Borscht Belt social director described his job title, “tummler,” a Yiddish word for someone who stirs up tumult or excitement, a jack of all trades.
J. Press salesman George Feen (above left), known around New Haven as “Little Georgie Feen”, was a tummler on York Street in the 1950s.
Feen once fixed up a Lauren Bacall lookalike —from Yale Drama School and an alleged nymphomaniac — for a date with a tight end on the football team, who traded George his 50-yard-line seats for the Harvard game in exchange for opening night tickets to “My Fair Lady” at the Shubert Theatre. Those he sent over to a New Haven cop, who fixed a ticket for the Crown Street liquor dealer who was selling booze to Yale’s ultra-patrician Fence Club, where the social chairman steered the tapped pledges back to Little Georgie Feen, who sold them J. Press tweeds at a discount. I still haven’t gotten over the naked pictures of the nymphomaniac he kept in his wallet and showed me when I was 13.
Georgie’s tentacles even extended to Harlem. He finagled an introduction to jazz legend Duke Ellington after a concert at the New Haven Arena, luring the elegantly dressed bandleader with fabric books of Dupioni silk. The Duke allowed him to take measurements. Little Georgie handed him his J. Press card and promised him the gift of a silk dinner jacket made from the Dupioni swatches.
He travelled to Harlem to deliver on the promise. Ellington loved the gift and gave him more orders, this time at regular price. The patronage lasted a couple of years. A more enduring relationship was engendered when Billy Strayhorn, the Duke’s doppelganger arranger and lyricist, admired the tuxedo and followed suit at the J. Press New York store until his death in 1967.
Little Georgie Feene, a tummler on the roof in the pale of Yale. — RICHARD PRESS
1954 photo from the Life archives.
If you can’t get enough of our “Golden Years” columnist Richard Press, former president of J. Press and grandson of Jacobi, then you’re in luck. A little coaxing was all it took for him to start tweeting and the septuagenarian says he’s already addicted.
Richard will be sharing terse anecdotes, words of wisdom, style tips, news updates (like on that book he’s working on), and where to get the best bagels and lox. It’s also a good place to reach out to him as in our recent reader Q&A with him.
If you don’t already use Twitter, consider opening an account. You don’t need to post anything: Plenty of people simply use Twitter as a news feed without posting. You’ll probably find plenty of people and organizations who post breaking news about the things you’re interested in.
Richard Press’ Twitter handle is @RVPress59, and Ivy Style’s is @IvyStylecom. How tweet it is. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
The above image may look like a mere typography symbol, but is actually a work of art.
Richard Press, Ivy Style’s “Golden Years” columnist, former president of J. Press, and grandson of Jacobi, will herein host a virtual question-and-answer session with Ivy-Style.com readers, and the floor is now open.
Use the leave comment feature to ask Mr. Press anything you’d like to know about traditional American style, or any other topic on which you’d like to hear him opine.
Suggested talking points include:
College life in the ’50s (Richard graduated from Dartmouth in 1959)
J. Press during the heyday of the Ivy League Look
What makes a man stylish (Richard’s seen a lot of well dressed men over the years)
How to comport oneself like an American gentleman
Good books, movies and music
What to wear tomorrow
The meaning of life
Richard will answer as many questions as his time permits.