A League Of His Own: His aloof demeanor may not be that of a man locked in the groove, but Charlie Davidson has spent seven decades making Ivy Leaguers and his very own jazz heroes “hip to my kinda clothes.”
By Christian Chensvold
From The Rake, issue 23 (click here for PDF)
Half a century ago, a certain social set really had its priorities in order. Life’s pursuits ran something like this: Jazz, tennis, newspapers, Yankees vs. Red Socks, Newport and Nantucket, sailing, contemporary literature, prize fights, prep schools and the Ivy League, cigarettes and cocktails, college football, Broadway shows, and New York parties that blended socialites with beatniks.
Somewhere in this cross between Old Money and the creative class, between college town and metropolis, between traditional and cool, lies what Charlie Davidson calls “my kinda clothes.” And what kind of threads are these? Multus ne multus, English country attire with an American twist and a guiding spirit of jazz-hip. This, after all, is the man who dressed Miles Davis in 1954 for the style chameleon’s Ivy League phase.
That midcentury date suggest Davidson is at the age when one is either long forgotten or a living legend. At 86, Charlie — as everyone knows him — is incomparably the latter, the last of a certain breed of American haberdasher from an age more golden than ours. He is the epitome of “old school,” and that old school, founded in 1661, is Harvard.
Since 1953 Charlie has operated The Andover Shop in Harvard Square, the off-campus commercial center of the distinguished university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Along with his original and still-extant shop, founded in 1948 in nearby Andover (where it serves the elite Phillips Academy Andover prep school), Charlie has been dressing students and faculty in tweed jackets and penny loafers since before the Ivy League Look’s 1950s heyday. The entire Anglo-American look of chinos and buttondowns, herringbone jackets and Shetland sweaters, argyle socks and tassel loafers that Ralph Lauren sells around the world, Charlie Davidson has been selling since before it was popular the first time around.
“Charlie is the last of the greats of the natural-shoulder business, back when it was the power elite who were wearing that stuff,” says bespoke clothier and menswear historian Alan Flusser. “Charlie goes back when it was just for prep school and college students in the Northeast, and remains as the lone standard bearer of East Coast/elitist-trad male style. His eye for colors and materials is first-rate, and he is masterful in his interpretation of conservative New England style. He has been able to make a living selling his vision of classic American traditional style longer than any other retailer. This speaks to Charlie as much as a force of nature as well as a force of personality.”
The Andover Shop is certainly an unlikely style mecca. It’s not on Madison Avenue in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, but in a college town adjacent to the sartorially reserved city of Boston. The shop is tiny and merchandise is spare and presented without fuss. But the advanced sartorialist will immediately notice the copious bolts of fabric that line the wall, a dizzying variety of rare English cloth that Charlie has accumulated over the decades. The off-the-rack house cut is a two-button jacket with an undarted front, while bespoke services start at a modest $2,500, well within the limits of Yankee frugality.
But to stimulate Charlie’s enthusiasm — to get him to bust out the really rare stuff — one must demonstrate genuine interest in clothes and a certain esprit. With his well known aloofness, some shy customers feel like commissioning a suit from Charlie Davidson is like going to an audition. “He’s a brilliant designer and an excellent merchandiser, but a very private individual,” says Richard Press, grandson of the founder of rival Ivy League haberdasher J. Press. “I always felt that The Andover Shop was a very private commercial enterprise. It served a fairly narrow range of people who met Charlie’s very difficult credentials of acceptability. He didn’t seem to welcome customers he didn’t feel belonged at The Andover Shop. He’s a vastly entertaining individual, but does not suffer fools lightly. ”
In a 1995 article for Atlantic Monthly, John D. Spooner shares an anecdote about Charlie’s lackadaisical attitude when it comes to serving unknown customers. Seems one day a wealthy businessman came into The Andover Shop and ordered three suits. Charlie said him they would be ready in a month. “After five weeks,” writes Spooner, “the customer, whose last name was Zachary, called to inquire after his suits. ‘Not quite yet,’ Charlie said. Another two weeks went by and Zachary was put off again. Charlie had not made the suits. ‘He’ll get the message,’ Charlie told me. ‘I am not sure I like the cut of his jib.’ Four weeks more and Zachary called, irate. ‘What the hell do you do over there?’ he asked, ‘make the clothes alphabetically?’ After hearing this line Charlie made the suits. Zachary had passed the test.”
When it comes to style, Charlie reserves his greatest appreciation for everyday men with individual panache (what he and writer friend George Frazier would call duende, or a kind of magnetic charisma), not ambulatory mannequins dressed by designers — or tailors, for that matter. “The customer knows more about style and taste than the merchant,” he avows. What he notices most in a well dressed man is the whole picture, “from his haircut to his shoelaces,” which suggests something deeper, a core competence in the art of dressing and exquisite taste. Charlie scoffs at curriculum-based dressers punctiliously concerned with rules and genre perimeters. Sophisticated dressers, he says, see a wide horizon beyond buttondowns and striped ties. “Charlie has a larger sartorial vocabulary than the died-in-the-wool traditionalist,” says Paul Winston, whose family ran rival trad clothier Chipp. And while he’s the oldest practicing torch-bearer of the Ivy League Look, Charlie is strongly opposed to “looking like a ’50s caricature,” and cryptically calls Ivy style more of an attitude than a wardrobe. “You know a preppy,” he says drily, “as soon as he walks in.”
Charlie Davidson was the right man in the right place at the right time, he asserts, and the result has been a life so satisfying that he wouldn’t even consider retiring. “It’s a party all day long,” he says, “just being enthralled by the people who walk in the door.” Though his father had been a Texas farmer, Charlie grew up in Andover and attended the noted prep school. That he would eventually found a shop with strong ties to the school is rather magnanimous, considering he was kicked out (that’s right: the greatest preppy clothier was a prep-school dropout). After serving in World War II Charlie spent one semester at Bowdoin College in Maine, then worked for J. Press in New Haven, Connecticut, serving the Yale community. Whereas Brooks Brothers, which traveled frequently to prep schools and colleges, provided the upstanding establishment look, J. Press was more youthful, Charlie says, “adding a little more stylistically to get kids away from their father’s clothes.” During his brief stint with Press, Charlie sold a hat to Gregory Peck that the actor wore in the film “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (Peck doffs it in one scene, revealing the J. Press logo). Shortly thereafter Charlie opened The Andover Shop in 1948 at the age of 22.
“It was the perfect moment,” Charlie recalls. He hosted trunk shows at such leading prep schools at Groton, St. Mark’s and St. Paul where, because of his youth and cool attitude, he became better known than the traveling reps from the bigger stores. Five years later he opened the second shop in Harvard Square, where Charlie found himself at an outpost through which countless 20th-century luminaries would pass through on visits to the famed university. “Harvard Square is the epicenter of the universe,” he says. “The whole world goes right by and comes in here.” Former President George HW Bush was a former classmate and Andover Shop patron who inquired about Charlie all his life, and when African-American author Ralph Ellison received an honorary degree from Harvard, Charlie Davidson was his guest.
A jazz fan since he was a teenager, Charlie went on to befriend boyhood crushes such as Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day. And in the mid-‘50s, when campus concerts became popular and jazz musicians began taking style cues from their audience, Charlie provided clothing to such jazz greats as Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan and The Modern Jazz Quartet, and became lifelong friends of legendary producers (and Newport Jazz Festival founders) George Wein and Charles Bourgeois. Recalling a night with Charlie hearing Bobby Short at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, Rake contributing editor G. Bruce Boyer says the entertainer rushed over to give Charlie a hug, while the band waved at him as though he was their favorite uncle. “I share Charlie’s love of jazz,” Boyer says, “but envy him because he actually knew so many great artists, and they loved him.”
Adds Richard Press, “Charlie brought jazz musicians within the boundary of establishment style but still let them express themselves individually.” Charlie also became the chief clothing consultant — and closest friend — of George Frazier, Esquire’s witty style columnist and author of the seminal essay “The Art of Wearing Clothes,” who was said to have developed his own understated yet dapper style — chalk-striped flannel suit, pink oxford buttondown, navy dot tie and boutonniere — under Charlie’s tutelage. “Charlie is special,” notes Paul Winston, “in part for having outlived the very legends he’s dressed.”
Even as an octogenarian Charlie reamins “mad for clothes,” passing hand-me-downs to his tailor and acquiring new things with delight. “I love getting something new,” he says, “while my old clothes are like old friends.” Some things never change, including, apparently, the world around him. When you’ve turned your vocation into your own private gentleman’s club with yourself as grand pooh-bah, there’s something to be said for having rose-colored blinders on. “People say how much Harvard Square has changed,” says Charlie, “but I haven’t noticed. To me nothing’s changed. The ties get wider, than they get narrower — that’s it.”
Notoriously press shy, it took some convincing for Charlie to talk to The Rake, (though that was nothing compared to getting him to sit for the camera). His reasons for reticence are myriad, but they partly come down to the ephemeral nature of style, which is something you ultimately have to feel, not notate by chiseling into a block of marble. “I hate giving interviews because by next week I’ll change everything I said,” Charlie sighs. “That’s why I can’t read articles about me. I’ll say, ‘I said that?’”
Photos by Tasha Bleu.
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.
* * *
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)
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.
* * *
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.
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.
* * *
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)
“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)
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.
* * *
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.