Same Or Different?: Ivy Versus Preppy

Wed 25 Jul 2012 - Filed under: Clothes,Top Drawer — Christian
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A couple of weeks ago we put up a tongue-in-cheek post about the difference between Ivy and preppy. That got us thinking around the virtual office, and so we present a double-shot of ruminations on the topic. First up is Ivy Style founder Christian Chensvold, while in our next post “Golden Years” columnist Richard Press will share his thoughts on style and semantics.

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When I founded Ivy Style, my editorial plan was to cover both the Ivy League Look as well as prepdom, seeing them as inextricably intertwined. Viewing Ivy and preppy as separate from each other seemed to me just as silly as the dubious assertion that there is in fact a legitimate genre of clothing (with a concomitant set of lifestyle values) called “trad,” or that the Ivy League Look was “all about marketing” rather than an expression of the tastes and culture of a certain segment of American society, another tired canard I’ve read on the Internet.

It always seemed to me that what we’re dealing with is hardly two things opposed to each other, but branches from the same tree, or to be more specific, different stages in the growth of the same branch across a timeline that reflects the ever-changing nature of fashion and society. (Continue)

Boola, Boola! Boyer On Ivy, 1999

Mon 2 Jul 2012 - Filed under: 1990-present,Clothes,Top Drawer — Christian
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You may have seen a piece (in our Ephemera section, for example) that Bruce Boyer wrote for Forbes in 1999 called “Boola, Boola.” Well we’re happy to announce that Monsieur Boyer herein unveils his extended director’s cut. The article is full not only of his lively writing and historical facts, but has the temporal interest of adumbrating our “Ivy Trendwatch” by quite a few years.

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Boola, Boola: American Internationalism and The Ivy League Revival
By G. Bruce Boyer

At a fund-raising dinner in Miami, back when he was running for the Presidency, George Bush (Senior) told his audience how upset he was by an attack on him in Cuba’s daily newspaper Granma. “They called me a fascist in a democratic suit,” he grumbled. And of course the newspaper had gotten it nicely half-right: Slightly disheveled in a sack-cut suit, and given to colorful Shetland crewneck sweaters, khaki windbreakers and deck shoes, Bush is perhaps the best presidential example we have of American democratic business dress.

And as a graduate of Andover and Yale, why shouldn’t he? For the greater part of this century that dress has meant Ivy League clothes, an Eastern Establishment approach to the wardrobe for democracy’s ruling classes that was purposefully nonchalant and colorful. Easy fitting clothes without too much body consciousness about them. Or fashion, for that matter.

Three-button sack suits — cut purposefully nonchalant without darts and with little padding and interlinings, jackets are meant to hang straight down from the shoulders — and oxford cloth buttondown shirts, tassel loafers, pastel-colored Shetland crewneck sweaters, Harris tweed sports jackets, regimental striped ties, and bright argyle socks have been the mainstays of Ivy League style since the mid-1920s. From the 1930s through the 1960s men’s magazines regularly scouted the Ivy League campuses for the latest styles that would find their way to country club and chic resort. When Esquire listed the most prominent “birthplaces of style” in 1934, both Yale and Princeton were in the top ten.

After World War II it’s understated and comfortably nonchalant style became THE sartorial symbol of America’s managerial elite. Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit popularized the idea that Madison Avenue was Ivy’s true home, but it really was taken up by a wide spectrum of men, from cutting-edge jazz musicians (Miles Davis was resplendent) to politicos (Robert Kennedy, calculatingly  tousled). Its exaggerated understatement became the basis of America’s post-war look as we accepted the mantle of international leadership in the West.

Every college and university town had at least one clothing store – the veritable “campus shop” – catering to the sartorial needs of faculty and students. Some of these shops – one thinks of Princeton’s Langrock, the Georgetowne University Shop, Cambridge’s Andover Shop, Julian’s College Shop in Chapel Hill, and J. Press in New Haven  – had national followings.

Today all but a handful of these institutions are gone, given over to video shops and pizza restaurants. Unfortunate, because Ivy League styling is making something of a comeback. All the components are certainly there of le style preppy/ lo stile college  in Europe, where every clothing manufacturer has come up with his own version of the Brooks Brothers buttondown, with its rolled simulated negligence, and the small-shouldered, closer-fitting, three-button suit is the latest sartoria silhouette. After years of selling us one fashionable trend after another – from highly engineered Milanese power looks, to caricatured versions of British m’lords, the Europeans are bringing us to re-evaluate our home grown classic wardrobe.

The movement towards this peculiarly American genre has been building for some time. If the Eighties was the age of the big-shouldered power look in tailored clothing, the Nineties has moved men towards a more casual, sophisticated elegance. It has been in fact a casual revolution that emphasized comfort, color, and texture over the muscular silhouettes and earth-toned fabrics that the important Italian designers like Armani brought us over decade ago. The formality of the dark worsted power suit has been replaced by the deliberate deshabille melange of checked shirts and cashmere ties with soft flannel suits, of wearing a quilted paddock jacket over a business suit to town, or a navy blazer with a polo shirt, corduroys, and suede tassel loafers.

Ever since tailored clothing has become more and more of an option as business dress, the suit has had to move decidedly in the direction of comfort, meaning softer fabrics and construction: lighter-weight cloths, less padding, less stiffness, less shaping.

All of which is the essence of the Ivy League tailored silhouette. The jacket with its smaller, shirt-sleeve shoulder, straight lines, soft chest construction, and narrower trouser, presents a trimmer, uncluttered, intently understated look, enlivened by bright colors and more tactile fabrics: Pink and yellow oxford cloth shirts, Shetland tweeds in plaids and windowpanes, pastel cashmere socks, brightly striped ties.

And after years of the Europeans influencing us, it now appears to be the other way ‘round. There is a sort of fashion nullification in all this, and while the Euro hyper-designed monstrosities are still seen on the runways, American designers have begun to control the high ground of inspiration for clothing seen on the street. Ralph Lauren is of course the Godfather of Designer Ivy, Tommy Hilfiger a close second.

It’s no coincidence that Brooks Brothers, the name most traditionally synonymous with the Ivy look, has freshened itself up after a decade and more of drifting stagnation and confusion. Nor that the Italian manufacturers have been deserting the their cool, high-tech approach with all it’s over-sized sleekness and sludge-colored crepey fabrics for a calculated casualness of lightweight flannels, cashmeres, and tweeds. The French mimic preppy with a vengeance. In Paris the native Faconnable store and the American Polo shop – across the street from one another – are almost indistinguishable to the untutored eye.

This casualization of the wardrobe has been easy for us to re-absorb, since we invented it. We invented soft and comfortable tailored clothing and sportswear, as well as the idea of mixing town and country, business and sports clothes together.

While sportswear has regrettably devolved into the truly unkempt sweatsuit look –  and many people unfortunately look at their least athletic while wearing pseudo-athletic gear – at its most unseemly in supermarkets and restaurants, business wear has profited. Tailored clothing is softer and more comfortable than ever. Color and texture are back. It’s a new internationalism, but it’s got a particularly American flavor.


Family Guy: The Richard Press Interview

Mon 28 Mar 2011 - Filed under: Top Drawer — Christian
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For years Richard Press would leave work at the J. Press store in New York and head to the theater — not to be an audience member, but to shine on the stage.

Though he entered the family business directly upon graduating from Dartmouth in 1959, Richard had the acting bug. He eventually attended night classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 1974, and went on to perform in Off-Broadway plays during the slow times of the year in the menswear retail business.

This flair for the dramatic infuses his personality, Richard says, and manifests in his many contributions at J. Press, where he ultimately served as president. Richard was always sensitive to the sartorial needs of the young, and had a desire to innovate in order to flourish the company from a business as well as creative standpoint.

In the following interview, Richard discusses how a Jewish immigrant from Latvia founded one of the great Ivy League clothiers, his tenure at J. Press during the heyday of the Ivy League Look, the sale to Onward Kashiyama and his eventual exit from the company that bears his patronym, how Ivy style changed from campus clothing to a uniform for corporate America, his personal style preferences, and the fond rivalry between J. Press and its much larger nemesis, Brooks Brothers.

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IS: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your grandfather and the origins of J. Press.

RP: My grandfather came over from Latvia in 1896. His uncle had been a tailor in Middletown, Connecticut, since the Civil War. When he married, he moved to New Haven where he was introduced to a Mr. Goldbaum, who had a tailoring shop. He bought into the business, which became Goldbaum & Press, and in 1902 he bought out Goldbaum and founded J. Press.

In 1912 he built the store on York Street. That same year he also opened a store off of Wall Street in New York, which stayed there until 1938, when we moved to 341 Madison Avenue. We moved to 44th Street in 1961, then across the street in 1988, and they moved to the new location on the corner of 47th Street several years ago. In 1924 he opened a store in the Delta Upsilon Club at Harvard in Cambridge, and in 1935 opened a store in Princeton. And of course the traveling road shows to prep schools around the country were a large part of the operation from after the first World War until we stopped doing it in about 1970.

Jacobi had a daughter and two sons. Irving Press was born in 1904, and my father Paul was born in 1911. My father worked in New Haven and was the chief financial officer. Irving was based in New York and was the stylist and designer and buyer of all the clothing until I took over at the end. My grandfather died a week before my bar mitzvah in 1951. (Continue)


Clothes Mad: The English Ivy Obsession

Sun 3 Oct 2010 - Filed under: 1990-present,Top Drawer — Christian
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“Sussed” is one of those British slang terms that suggests maybe we really are divided by a common language. It is often used by fans of the Ivy League Look in England — finding its cognate in the American concept of hip — and is used to describe the result of a long and earnest cultivation, the point at which one becomes recognized by one’s peers as being in-the-know.

The Ivy Look” by Graham Marsh and JP Gaul, recently released in the UK and due out November 1 in the US, is fueled by a sussed sensibility. Published by Frances Lincoln, where Gaul (pseudonym for John Gall) works as its London sales manager, “The Ivy Look” is a sparsely written homage to the obsessive cult of Ivy in the UK, which, as we’ll see, has little to do with the Ivy League Look in America.

England vs. Japan

The two countries where Ivy has the strongest following are England and Japan. Though both are separated by thousands of miles from the original source, their attitudes towards American style are a study in contrast.

In Japan, Ivy style is revered with a kind of polite affection coupled with tremendous respect for its original source: college campuses. In the recently republished “Take Ivy,” as well as countless photo shoots for magazines like Men’s Club (as documented on the blog Heavy Tweed Jacket), the authenticity-obsessed Japanese regularly dispatched writers and photographers to capture American students in their native habitat.

But the English never did this, probably because Ivy was always a kind of secret society for the sussed few, not something for the mass readership of men’s fashion magazines (which kind of makes the publication of “The Ivy Look” disingenuous: you can’t be both sussed and mass-market). English clothing shops that carried Ivy clothes were also small and independent, not retail behemoths like VAN Jacket in Japan. And while there are countless Japanese Ivy fan sites on the Web, there’s not a single English Ivy blog.

As a result of the insular clique that comprises the UK Ivy fan base, an odor of dogmatic fervor hangs over it. What’s more, on Internet message boards, Ivy in the UK often seems characterized by a love-hate relationship with America, suggesting the longstanding rivalry between England and its former colony the United States.

But the biggest difference between Japan and England when it comes to American style is that “Take Ivy” is reported from primary sources, while “The Ivy Look” is interpreted from secondary ones. As Marsh and Gaul write in their foreword:

It seems appropriate that the authors came to learn and fall under the spell of the Ivy look through exposure to three quintessential American art forms: cinema, advertising and modern jazz. It is by exploring the most stimulating and compelling examples from these elements that the backbone of the book is formed.

This narrow and subjective point of view infuses every page of “The Ivy Look.” (Continue)


The Man Who Brought Ivy To Japan

Mon 30 Aug 2010 - Filed under: 1960s,Personae,Top Drawer — Christian
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In celebration of powerHouse Books’ publication of “Take Ivy” on August 31, Ivy-Style examines the life and career of Kensuke Ishizu, founder of Japanese clothing company VAN JACKET and the man who commissioned “Take Ivy.”

The article is by W. David Marx, who previously wrote on the Japanese youth cult the Miyuki-zoku. Marx himself has also brought Ivy to Japan: The Harvard grad currently resides in Tokyo.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study of Ishizu in English.

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Since the 1960s, Japan has been an important part of the story of the Ivy League Look, and during a few dark periods the island nation has played an important role in preventing the style from possible extinction.

Anyone interested in the Ivy-Japan connection will eventually encounter the name Kensuke Ishizu — perhaps on the inside cover of the newly released “Take Ivy.” Ishizu (1911-2005) was the founder of Japanese Ivy league-inspired clothing brand VAN (officially VAN JACKET), and easily the most important figure in post-war Japanese fashion before the rise of the international avant-garde designers Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.


Kensuke Ishizu was born into a prominent family in Okayama, a large city in Western Honshu. His father ran a paper wholesaler, which he was expected to eventually take over. At a young age, Ishizu developed a slightly unhealthy obsession with Western clothing. As a teenager, he requested his mother to send him to a specific school because he liked the cut of their uniforms. Biographer Takanori Hanafusa notes that this was highly unusual for the era. Until the 1950s, interest in fashion among Japanese men was generally taboo — a taboo Ishizu was central in breaking.

After relocating to Tokyo for university in the early 1930s, Ishizu used the full extent of his family’s wealth to pull a Gatsby. He drove around the city in his own car, bought expensive British-style bespoke suits, spent his nights at dance halls, and fooled around with girlfriends in the empty second-floors of noodle shops. Ishizu started living with his girlfriend in Tokyo, a younger girl he had known from Okayama, and once they got caught, they came home at 22 and were properly married.

After Japan’s imperialist expansion into China, Ishizu got away from his family for a while to move to Tianjin. Here Ishizu helped run a traditional Western gentleman’s store called Ogawa Yoko in the Japanese concession. In 1943, however, as the war started to turn against Japan, Ogawa Yoko’s Japanese employees decided to close the store and properly enlist. Ishizu joined the navy and took charge of a munitions factory. When the Chinese army eventually showed up to liberate the city, Ishizu was thrown into jail.

He was eventually released, and Ishizu befriended the American soldiers who later controlled the city. He became particularly chummy with a first lieutenant named O’Brien who had gone to Princeton. This would be Ishizu’s first time to hear about the Ivy League, but certainly not his last.



Take Ivy: Last Gasp of the Ivy League Look

Mon 12 Jul 2010 - Filed under: 1960s,Top Drawer — Christian
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When powerHouse Books releases the first English-language edition of “Take Ivy” on August 31, eager readers will finally get a chance to see its enchantingly atmospheric photos as they were meant to be seen: within the hardbound covers of a picture book. Though widely disseminated on the Internet, scanned photos seen on a computer screen just can’t evoke the sense of time and place the same as ones printed on paper and held in the hand.

Gazing at these idyllic scenes of campus quads, where groups of stylish young men live out the best years of their lives in tranquil isolation, cut off from the pressures of work and family that await them, it’s easy to feel drawn into some kind of halcyon golden age far removed from contemporary college life.

And this is what makes “Take Ivy,” created by photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida and three writers, such a special book. For in fact what it depicts is not a golden age at all, but the last rays of twilight on a declining silver age.

Although Hayashida and his team could not have known it, they were preparing the obituary for a moribund celebrity whose demise is imminent. “Take Ivy” chronicles the beginning of the end of the Ivy League Look, the final group of classmen for whom oxford shirts and penny loafers were a uniform, and the last gasp of a sartorial tradition that had slowly germinated, codified, and risen to popularity over the course of 40 years.

Midway through “Take Ivy” is a photo of a freshman wearing a sweater emblazoned with the expected year of his graduation: 1968. He could serve as a single representative of his generation at this time of unprecedented change. Clean cut and “collegiate” (how archaic that word sounds!), when he receives his diploma, he will probably look very different. And a decade later, the staples of his wardrobe — natural-shouldered sack jackets, oxford-cloth button-downs, Weejuns, discreet rep ties — would become symbols of stodginess and elitism in a new age of free-thinking egalitarianism.

Released in September of 1965 and apparently shot in spring of the same year, “Take Ivy” is a chronicle of the penultimate year of the heyday of the Ivy League Look. Only one year remained in which this style would still be considered smart by the majority of students. When the fall semester of 1967 began, following the torrid Summer of Love, America would begin to change with head-spinning rapidity, and the Ivy League Look would tumble into sudden free fall like a sartorial albatross hurled from the top of Nassau Hall.

In his novel “The Final Club,” Princeton alum Geoffrey Wolff tersely summarizes the rapid fall of the Ivy League Look. Referring to the Ivy Club, Princeton’s most exclusive eating club, he writes:

Lining the second-floor hall were group portraits of Ivy members, and Nathaniel paused to examine them. Till 1967 the club sections were photographed indoors, in the billiard room; dress was uniform — dark suits, white shirts, Ivy ties. In 1967 a white suit was added here, an open collar there. In 1968 the insolent, smirking group moved outside, and was tricked out in zippered paramilitary kit, paratroop boots, tie-dye shirts, shoulder-length locks, and not a necktie in view.

The photos in “Take Ivy” show the Ivy League Look as a house of cards trembling in the winds of change. The students pictured are more stylish than those of today, but they are also less formal than those who had come before. “Take Ivy” shows more tees than ties, more sweatshirts than Shetlands. While the clothing items themselves are purebred Ivy, the students’ lack of formality, elucidated in the text, is the first step in the gradual casualization of the college wardrobe, a process that has reached its logical conclusion in the flip-flops and pajama bottoms on today’s campuses.

If “Take Ivy” were a glass whose contents were the Ivy League Look, it would be both half empty and half full. Much is gone, but much remains (though what remains won’t be there for long). With their seemingly effortless nonchalance, the students teeter on the edge of a fence, with the past on one side and the future on the other, simultaneously upholding tradition and dismantling it. And it’s for this reason that “Take Ivy” is bittersweet on the eyes.

A few years later, in jeans and sideburns, after Vietnam War protests, public-figure assassinations, and a zeitgeist demanding a complete revaluation of all values, these students would have looked back on their college years the same way we look at “Take Ivy” nearly half a century later: as a simpler time forever gone. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD


Preppy Evangelist: The Lisa Birnbach Interview

Thu 29 Apr 2010 - Filed under: 1980s,1990-present,Top Drawer — Christian
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Six months ago Lisa Birnbach, author of the 1980 bestseller “The Official Preppy Handbook,” agreed to do a Q&A interview with Ivy-Style. Shortly after settling in New York, I contacted Birnbach, who said she was too busy to talk as she was finishing a sequel.

Then, when word recently leaked out about the forthcoming tome (“True Prep,” set for September release), it set off such a media frenzy that Birnbach’s publisher called a moratorium on publicity until the book hits shelves.

But Birnbach, in a beau geste that is very preppy, graciously honored her promise to Ivy-Style.

Below is the last you’ll hear from her until the fall, when I suspect she’ll again become a very public figure proselytizing in the name of prep.

But while the first book was a reveal of a largely unseen world of Northeastern upper-middleness, “True Prep” takes a more democratic approach, Birnbach says, and aims to preach a gospel of civility and good manners in a crass and vulgar age. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

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IS: How did the new book come about?

LB: It came about when I met Chip Kidd. In the back of my mind there was always the possibility that I would revisit the “Preppy Handbook.” But it’s a very self-contained manual that didn’t really require updating, particularly as we said that nothing changes.

Chip came up in Facebook as a possible new friend, and I thought, “Oh, there’s that talented designer. I wonder if he’ll accept me?” Well I got an email back from him saying, “Is this really Lisa Birnbach? I’ve always wanted to meet you.” So we had lunch last May, and in the third hour he started to tell me how much online life there is dedicated to or inspired by the “Preppy Handbook,” none of which I was aware of. Somehow we started talking about a new book together, and here we are.

IS: How would you summarize what has happened to prepdom in the last 30 years?

LB: Polar fleece. Thirty years ago, not only did I never wear synthetics, I traveled to all 50 states saying, “No unnatural fiber has ever touched my body.” Now I have children that have not known a world in which there was anything but fleece. They wear recycled water bottles all day. And I embrace this synthetic, and like it or not it’s an accepted part of our sartorial vocabulary.

But the reason for this book is that the world has changed more profoundly than we could have thought 30 years ago. The group of people calling themselves preppies, or who want to be preppies, or who like preppies, are certainly more inclusive and less exclusive. People thought I was brilliant 30 years ago because the “Preppy Handbook” kind of predicted conservative backlash. Well I don’t think I deserve credit for predicting that, but whatever gift of intuition I may have, I never could have predicted portable telephones, the Internet, the loss of privacy, and the way people interact.

IS: The ‘80s are considered a pretty preppy, clean-cut and Republican decade, especially compared to the ‘70s and ‘90s. How much of what came after the OPH do you think you influenced? A few years later Hollywood makes the movie “Making the Grade,” Ralph Lauren grows his empire — to what degree do you think you set the zeitgeist into motion?

LB: I really don’t know. That’s a great question. I’m thinking… the silence you hear is my brain trying to work. (Continue)

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