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.

* * *

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

* * *

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)


Bohemian in a Sack Suit: The 1959 Brooks Brothers Novel

Wed 10 Mar 2010 - Filed under: 1950s,Lit,Top Drawer — Christian
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For Ivy-Style’s 200th post, I thought I’d break out something special I’ve been sitting on for awhile.

Last year, between Los Angeles and New York, I spent six months in my old environs of the Bay Area, including five weeks staying with a former flame (now married to a Hungarian who lost his baronetcy in the revolution), in Oakland on Lake Merritt.

Out for a stroll one day, I popped into Walden Pond Books, one of those massive used bookstores you can get lost in for hours, and of which so few remain today. In the back were several tables loaded with paperbacks from the ’50s, a mixture of science fiction and detective dime novels and reprints of stuff like DH Lawrence and Ovid’s “Art of Love” with lurid covers.

Of these hundreds of books stacked pell-mell, one caught my eye: a 1959 novel called “Try For Elegance” by David Loovis. The characters were described as “white-collar Beats” and included Teena, “a commuter between Park Avenue and Greenwich Village,” and Paul, “a bohemian in a Brooks Brothers suit.”

I had a feeling I’d stumbled across a real lost artifact, and rushed home with the three-dollar book to do some googling.

I found an article in The New Yorker that profiled Loovis and his debut novel. Turns out the author was an Ivy Leaguer who worked at Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship, and “Try For Elegance” was largely based on his experience there.

I can’t describe the serotonin-rush of serendipity that flushed over me because of this fortuitous find. In my six years of style blogging, this was without a doubt the coolest find. Who else would have noticed this book and been in the position to appreciate it, put it in context, and share it with an interested readership? If fate has a hand in blogging — if fate has a hand in anything — this was it.

As for the novel, its quality is about what you’d expect from an author you’ve never heard of who’s prone to describing the weather as “warmish,” “bluish” or “fallish.” But for our purposes here, “Try For Elegance” is a fascinating document for its dramatization of what it was like at Brooks Brothers (which is never mentioned by name) during its heyday.

Like his creator, Paul Dunar is the graduate of “a small Ivy League college.” He is a 29-year-old aspiring painter who’s been working at the store for a year, and who falls for a 19-year-old spoiled rich girl from the Midwest. Paul has a taste for good clothes, is conscious of being well dressed, and delights in the pleasure of being well turned out:

The silk jacket beneath his raincoat felt good, his trousers were perfectly pressed and his linen could not have been whiter. He too liked a handkerchief in his suit coat top pocket and as his raincoat fell open, he saw that it was thrust in at a casual and jaunty angle.

Here’s the first description of the store, which ends on a killer line:

It was with great pride that the Madison Avenue store proclaimed its one hundred and thirty years of continuous service; indeed, only two things appeared on its label: the store name and the year of its establishment. It catered in men’s furnishings and clothing to what is know as the perennial taste; suits designed with a narrow shoulder, made of subdued colored materials woven in England, and cut by the store’s own tailors; furnishings distinguished by flair without ostentation. In its long history, the store numbered among its customers American presidents and European kings, as well as all the people alive in the world during the last century and one-third who agreed that this was the style that mattered.

Here’s a sense of what customer service was like 50 years ago:

Of the twenty-six salesmen on the main floor of the Madison Avenue store, fourteen had worked there over ten years, six were members of the Quarter Century Club, and one man had actually been in the employ of the company for fifty-one years.

The latter gent was “more than an old salesman. To the well-bred of the era, he was a landmark, a reminder of youth and a happy, stable world.”

Quite a contrast to Paul’s floor manager, Mr. Pardee, who wears a gaudy watch and had “come in his teens from a tiny town in one of the far midwestern states.” Here’s Mr. Pardee:

He detested to the point of vehemence the term “Ivy League” although the store was generally considered as the long-time stronghold of that type of apparel. Dunar suspected Pardee’s lack of college background and a secret envy of the well-fed, rangy type of boy and man who mostly patronized the store had something to do with it.

Loovis devotes an entire chapter to dramatizing the feeding frenzy during one of the store’s semi-annual sales, during which Paul is poised to make enough money to move into a new apartment:

Even from a distance of three blocks, Dunar could see that a number of people had gathered and were waiting outside the Madison Avenue store…

He noticed the jam of people in front of the elevators. It was as if the cars were lifeboats, and it was necessary to get into one. But it was not often that the store offered reductions, in almost all its departments. And it was not too much to say that customer response to these private sales, unadvertised in the papers (notices through the mail only), was fanatic.

The store feeds the salesmen milk and sandwiches during the day to keep up their stamina, and at the end of the grueling day, during which the elderly salesman had collapsed from exhaustion, Dunar faces two and a half hours of writing up his sales book.

Here’s what The New Yorker had to say in its profile of July 11, 1959, after dispatching a writer to track down Loovis at Brooks:

We found him deep in wash-and-wear suits, on the second floor, and begged the privilege of an interview. Slender, dark-haired, and dapper, he said he’d be glad to give us a word or two between customers. To break the ice we remarked that he was the best-dressed author we’d encountered in many years.

Loovis later tells the magazine:

“The ‘elegance’ of the title doesn’t refer solely to physical surroundings, by the way. An elegant person is a gentleman, one who knows how to handle himself. He cares for his life, and intends to live it in association with others who care and with things that are beautiful and fine. In my novel, I deal sympathetically with a middle-class hero who wishes to play the game but is ill-equipped to do so.”

You’ll dig the vintage Brooks lingo here:

Mr. Loovis was called away to wait on somebody, and upon returning he told us that Brooks Brothers salesmen take customers in rotation and that, by bad luck, the customer who just had fallen to him had proved an egg, which is a BB term for a customer who takes a lot of time and then doesn’t buy anything. The opposite of an egg, Mr. Loovis told us, is a wrapup — a customer who knows exactly what he’s after and wastes no time getting it — while a sea bass is a big buyer, and a huckleberry is a pleasant fellow who moseys around the store for an hour or so, making no trouble, and eventually buys a necktie or some other small article.

Loovis closes by telling the New Yorker:

“The job gives me a good income and I believe in what I’m selling; there’s an undeniable integrity, a psychological validity, here at Brooks that I mightn’t find anywhere else.”


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