Family Guy: The Richard Press Interview

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.

IS: What was your grandfather like?

RP: He was a charismatic but scholarly individual with great leadership qualities. Originally he planned to follow the family tradition, which was rabbinical. But when he moved to the US, he discarded that and decided to go into commerce with his uncle.

He was a very studious man who had an enormous library of Judaica and Talmudic studies in his home. He was also a very charitable man, and rescued much of his family before the Nazi occupation.

IS: How did he rescue these family members?

RP: Going back to the late ’20s and early ’30s, they were family members to whom he provided funds to help them emigrate to the United States. The pale of Russia is the area where the czarist regimes had relegated a good part of the Jewish population. They were very religious, and lived in vastly poor agricultural villages. Elsewhere, the Polish and communist regimes were anti-Semitic, and a certain part of the Jewish community longed to emigrate to the US, as in “Fiddler on the Roof,” which in theatrical terms describes the period. My grandfather wanted nothing more than to move his family members from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to the US where they could reunite and prosper.

IS: Do you remember these extended family members?

RP: Yes I do: from my earliest childhood. Many of them spoke in broken English, but their children went on to become successful in the professions and commerce. All of them had the goal to be educated. And if they lived in Connecticut, it was to be educated in the Ivy League, preferably at Yale.

IS: When did you join the company?

RP: When I graduated college in 1959. I was a salesman, assistant manager — no one knew what to do with me. But in 1966 the manager of the New York store Walter Napoleon died suddenly at age 48, and I really took over and ran the operation in New York from then on. I was officially vice president of J. Press, and became president in 1978.

IS: When you joined J. Press, what were your ambitions?

RP: I told my father and uncle that I wanted to move to New York. I didn’t want to be ensconced in the New Haven and Cambridge stores: I wanted to be where I thought the area of growth for J. Press was. I felt we could popularize the brand. And we went from a 950-square-foot second floor on 341 Madison Avenue to a 5,000-square-foot store on 44th between Fifth and Madison two years after I entered the business.

I think that one of the major differences between Brooks Brothers and J. Press, beyond the obvious size, was that we were known as a campus store, whereas Brooks Brothers was much more urban. And I said in 1959 that we had to break through the image as a campus store and enlarge our philosophy of fashion beyond those who went to Yale, Harvard, Princeton, et cetera, and by the middle 1960s our clientele was predominantly non-Ivy League.

That was the biggest change in the composition of our business, and it was what I most wanted to accomplish in my career there. I wanted to enlarge the public perception of J. Press as strictly a campus store. I didn’t want us to seem too restrictive in our specialization. I felt that the new customer had different needs. If you look at our brochures, you’ll see that the two-button darted suit was sold only in the New York store, and it probably represented 40 percent of our suit sales there.

IS: And you were largely responsible for introducing the two-button darted suit?

RP: Yes. I got into a huge argument with my father and uncle, but in the end I won and introduced a two-button suit. I said, “Let’s be the only two-button natural shoulder and show that we’re progressive and forward moving.” I also introduced the four-inch-wide tie, and had a huge conflagration with my father and uncle, even though we’d had a four-inch tie in the 1930s, so I was simply reintroducing an older tradition.

The media often thought of the Ivy League Look as a strictly three-button, natural shoulder look, when in truth it had a much wider horizon. In the ’30s J. Press had a two-button, so that three-button, natural shoulder emphasis was a ’50s view of the Ivy League Look that wasn’t necessarily true a decade earlier. The Ivy League Look is not so restrictive, but it was very carefully tuned to English woolen resources, to cottons, and to the quality of materials and tailoring that we specialized in. That was the key to the Ivy League Look. But in the purist sense, however, the Ivy League jacket is undarted.

IS: What happened to the Princeton store?

RP: It’s a very simple but historically interesting story. In 1942 it had a staff of four and all of them were drafted and there was no one left to run the store.

IS: And the San Francisco location?

RP: In 1968 Jack Kennedy, one of our traveling salesmen, moved to San Francisco and opened the store there. In 1980 we were about to lose the lease on the store, and Kennedy wanted to move back to New Haven. We felt that our personnel resources were strained, and rather than find a new lease, and because my father was getting older and Kennedy could replace him in New Haven, we felt it was sensible to not move forward with further investment in San Francisco. It was successful and profitable the whole time it was there, and we felt it was prudent to leave on that note.

IS: How did the stores rank in sales?

RP:  New York was probably about 40 percent of the business, and the New Haven store had slightly larger volume than Cambridge and San Francisco. At the height of the travel exhibits, which was probably the 1960s, they represented approximately 20 percent of our total sales. Our mail-order business was also very strong, based on the many brochures we sent out.

IS: In 1986, you sold the business to the company’s current owner, Onward Kashiyama of Japan. How did this sale come about, and why did the family sell the company?

RP: Around 1972, Kashiyama acquired the license to merchandise apparel in Japan. We had established a very positive relationship with them since that time, and they had a very successful J. Press enterprise. Around the time of the sale, Irving was 80 years old and my father was 75, and we had received a number of offers to sell.

IS: And those offers came in because those in the apparel industry were aware of the advanced age of your father and uncle?

RP: Yes, and because they were aware of the value of the label at the time and its unique niche in the world of American menswear. So we had had two serious offers — I’m not willing to disclose from whom — and we felt it was appropriate to inform Kashiyama, and they indicated their interest in purchasing J. Press.

IS: Did it surprise you how big they were able to grow the business in Japan, placing it in hundreds of department stores?

RP: It didn’t surprise us, and we were very proud of the success they had. And it showed us that they had the strength of resources that it would be appropriate to sell to them. We were delighted with their success.

IS: Why do you think the Japanese have such fondness for the Ivy League Look and traditional American style?

RP: The sense of tradition is such a valid philosophy in Japan. They respect the generational continuity that J. Press represented, which was in line with Japanese values. And the Ivy League style was very compatible in the world of corporate growth that was so vibrant in Japan at the time.

IS: When the business sold, who owned it?

RP: J. Press Incorporated was owned by Irving and Paul Press. I had a minor ownership, and Irving had two sons and they had equal minor ownership, but weren’t in the business.

IS: Upon the sale, what did Paul and Irving do?

RP: They retired. Irving moved to Palm Beach, and Paul stayed in New Haven and was a great tennis player. He had a very peaceful and pleasant retirement until his death five years ago just short of his 95th birthday.

IS: What did the business sell for?

RP: I don’t feel comfortable disclosing that. It was a very fair deal, to quote Harry Truman.

PART TWO

IS: After the sale of J. Press, how long did you stay with the company?

RP: I stayed as vice president with the same responsibilities that I’d had as president and CEO. Kashiyama obviously made financial decisions that affected the course of business, but I really ran the business and was in charge of all buying, advertising and human resources.

IS: Why did you eventually leave the company?

RP: I had some philosophical differences with the parent company and decided I would be happier making a cross move in 1991. Norbert Ford had been the principal of a manufacturing firm called Gordon-Ford, which became Gordon of Philadelphia, that were the makers of most of J. Press’ summer clothing. Wonderful manufacturers, and when they went out of business, Ford became a member of the board at Hartmarx, which owned FR Tripler.

When we sold to Kashiyama, Ford said, “I think you’re going to feel restricted in your position and I’m going to keep my eye on you.” And after five years, the composition of J. Press started to change. The family imprint became less prominent on the firm, and Norbert contacted me and said, “How would you like to move to Tripler?” So after much negotiation I became CEO of FR Tripler & Company, which had a volume much larger than J. Press and had more of a mainstream corporate version of what J. Press was doing. I ended my contract with Kashiyama with no problems and we ended on good terms. I became president and CEO of Tripler for four years until the company was liquidated.

IS: Although you catered to different market segments, when you were at Tripler were you conscious of competing against the company that bore your family name?

RP: I was very sensitive to it, and tried not to intercede in any negative way, such as taking any customers or staff away.

IS: During your years at J. Press, how aware were you of your competitors?

RP: Well Chipp was next door in New York, so we were obviously very conscious of them. Fenn-Feinstein were our largest competitors up until the mid-’50s, and then they were bought out by Genesco.

The so-called purist Ivy League Look mainly existed at family-owned single stores like The Andover Shop, Georgetown University Shop, Arthur Adler, Arthur M. Rosenberg — the great stores that were purist were single family operations. Today it’s very difficult to make it that way. Paul Stuart is still family owned, and in Greenwich there’s Mitchell’s, but they don’t maintain a single, narrow fashion philosophy. One of the keys to J. Press’ success over the years was that although we were purist we were never afraid to change certain areas of our product.

IS: What did you do to differentiate yourself from the competition?

RP: I always thought we should move forward with new ideas that didn’t destroy the traditional image of J. Press. We weren’t boring or repetitive. J. Press at that time and even today has primacy in the variety of tweed and Shetlands for jackets, and this has its inspiration from the campus. It’s an American version of English clothing that had a certain snob appeal.

One of the most joyful experiences I would have was redesigning tweed. Our new resources would come, and I would recolor them so we’d have a different selection every year. I think that J. Press was a little more forward that way. We always had new looks, but were always within the acceptable parameters of  good taste. We were always searching for new ways, and that I think is gone with the wind.

We also carried certain foreign lines and were often the first in America to introduce them. J. Press imported Burberry coats from the late 1920s on. We also had a special line of hats made by Locke of England. Barbour coats were also imported by J. Press, and Brioni was introduced in the US by J. Press I believe in 1963. These were suits tailored in Italy but cut on the J. Press pattern.

IS: Let’s talk about Brooks Brothers. How did J. Press view them? Were they to be admired? Feared?

RP: They were an admired competitor.

IS: What did you admire about them?

RP: I always admired their pink buttondown oxford. They brought it to the floor; it was their origination. It was a brilliant color that worked magnificently — one of the great classic combinations is a pink buttondown with a narrow black silk-knit tie.

Until I was about 13 years old my grandfather would march me across the street to Brooks Brothers at 44th and Madison and everyone would literally bow to him — the idea of Jacobi Press going into Brooks Brothers! And he would take me to the floor that outfitted youngsters. And I did that with my own son, by the way. It was generationally dictated. I remember wearing their grey flannel suit for my interview at Loomis School when I was 13, and I loved that suit. I also wore the buttondown shirt in kids’ size 12. I was classically dressed in Brooks Brothers as an adolescent, and admired the look. It also obviously had some bearing on my own clothing philosophy and on J. Press. But I don’t like to think that we copied them. I think we were cognizant of what they had to offer, and we devised our own variations.

IS: What about the actual merchandising. Was your quality about the same?

RP: Yes, the quality was approximately the same.

IS: And the styling? You’ve previously said they were a bit more urban while you were a bit more campus. Is that a fair generalization?

RP: Yes, I think it is. For example, in Shetland tweed sport jackets, I think our range was often more individually colorized. I think we had more interesting herringbones and checks than Brooks Brothers did, but that’s my own prejudice.

Up until the ‘80s, and this was true of retailing in general, we carried approximately 48 unit lines in our suit department. So in herringbones we’d have different ones in navy, three shades of grey —midnight, mid-slate and light oxford — and then a lovat green. So if you carried that to pinstripes, chalkstripes, Glen Urquhart plaids and plain flannels, even though we were much smaller than Brooks Brothers, I think we carried a much broader range of suits and sport jackets than they did. But again this is my own view.

IS: Were there fit differences in the jackets?

RP: Yes. The lapel notch on the J. Press jacket was a bit higher. And also what differentiated us from the other Ivy League clothiers was of course the hook vent, but also the top notch on the lapel was slightly wider than the lower one. And this was not the case at Brooks Brothers, Norman Hilton, Southwick, or the other brands.

IS: What about the cut through the chest and shoulder?

RP: The shoulder was always pretty similar. We tried for a higher armhole, which gave the fitters in our stores a little more work. I’ve always felt that we had the reputation for doing more custom alterations on our clothing than our competitors, and this gave us a standard of quality that was superior to our competition. The reason we could do it was because we had the heritage as custom tailors.

PART THREE

IS: What do you think of cut of J. Press’ current jackets? Many feel the shoulder is a bit squared-off and boxy rather than sloping.

RP: It’s always been true that a natural shoulder is much harder to manufacture. The ratio of the back to the armhole — I won’t go into the technical details. You have to have manufacturing facilities that are capable of producing the proper ratio to get a natural shoulder. I haven’t seen anyone offshore able to do it. I think it’s a uniquely American talent.

IS: But do you think that the current J. Press cut is the same as it used to be?

RP: From what I’ve seen, it’s a perfectly accurate representation of the historic pattern.

IS: During the first few years following Brooks Brothers’ sale to Marks & Spencer in 1987, you were still working at J. Press. How were the changes going on at Brooks received at Press?

RP: They were positively received. The effect on J. Press was a positive one. It more firmly established J. Press as a true niche of conservative American style.

IS: I’ve heard anecdotally that some customers at the time abandoned Brooks for Press.

RP: I would not deny what you’ve heard.

IS: So you experienced a sales boost at that time?

RP: That’s correct.

IS: Let’s talk about some of the signature Press items and how they came about. What about the flap-pocket oxford?

RP: I believe Irving Press devised that as a way to differentiate from Brooks Brothers and the other competition. That signature private trademark represented a bond amongst the cognoscenti who did not need to advertise the public symbols of an advertised brand, such as polo sticks or crocodiles, but instead displayed their small personally initialed monogram on the lower left flap of their dress shirt, which incidentally was full bodied the better to drape an athletic torso or disguise a beer belly.

IS: And how about the hand-brushed Shetland “Shaggy Dog” sweater?

RP: Irving had a very close relationship with the principal of Druhmohr in Scotland, and between them they devised a way to individualize the J. Press sweater through brushing. Also, there were not set-in sleeves in the Press sweater. And through the 1980s the largest selling, at least 60 percent, of the Shaggy Dog sweaters was the light natural tan color.

IS: What about special J. Press fabric names like crash linen and coolie cloth?

RP: Crash linen evolved into a Dacron-linen blend, but it was originally 100 percent linen. It was made by the Travis mill in Georgia, and was a unique American linen. It was very popular in an cream/natural sport jacket, and we also carried it as a summer navy blazer. Coolie cloth was a Dacron and cotton cloth used for summer suits. I believe it was Irving Press who coined the names, and coolie cloth was immediately changed to cool cloth after someone complained that the term was insensitive.

IS: And the hook vent?

RP: Up until World War II J. Press was primarily a custom tailor shop. But after the war Irving and Paul decided to manufacture readymade suits, but knew they had to differentiate themselves from competitors.

They noticed that with single-vented jackets, particularly if a guy had a big ass, the vent would separate and it was very unsightly looking. So they developed the hook vent in collaboration with our designer at the time, a survivor from Auschwitz named Felix Samelson who survived by being a tailor to SS officers, so he didn’t make any mistakes.

IS: How did J. Press go from being a campus store catering to students to being considered today the epitome of unchanging conservatism aimed primarily at middle-aged men? Because society changed around J. Press, but Press itself did not change?

RP: When I was growing up in New Haven there were 4,500 students walking around York Street, plus the faculty and administration and everyone else, and 90 percent of them had on suits, jackets, grey flannel slacks and ties. Well after 1966, how many were doing that? Practically none. So if we’d maintained a campus-oriented store, we would’ve gone out of business.

I can give you a parallel cultural example. At Yale, the primary source of WASP dress mentality was maintained by Fence Club, the most aristocratic, Old Money fraternity. It was accessible practically only to the St. Grottlesex group. It was the ultimate patriarchal fraternity at Yale, and left the campus in the early ’70s. When it went out in the early ’70s, that certainly paralleled the extinction of Ivy League dress on campus by students.

IS: Yet when you sold in 1986 you were at our largest volume per square foot in your history, even though this was 20 years after the fall in popularity of the Ivy League Look. Who were your new customers?

RP: The campus aristocracy that we lost was replaced by a corporate propriety of dress. Our customers were no longer students, but members of corporate and government world. Even at our New Haven and Cambridge stores, the number of doctors and lawyers made up for the loss of students and faculty. And in New York, all the corporate entities along Park Avenue had executives that dressed appropriately, and the prime purveyor of appropriate businesswear was J. Press. We were more conservative, understated, buttoned-down.

IS: It sounds like what happened hinges on a difference in age of only a few years. An incoming college freshman in 1968 would have dressed very differently from a departing senior of the same year now entering the work world, who had grown up since high school on the Ivy League Look. And he’s the one who stuck with the look through the ‘70s.

RP: That’s true, but you’re leaving out something very important, and that is the change in the management population of government and business, and their uniform was always appropriate businesswear. The corporate world expanded, and many of them found it appropriate to adopt the kind of clothing that J. Press sold. As corporate America grew, it opened up the market geometrically that didn’t occur when it was restricted to campuswear and Ivy League graduates.

PART FOUR

IS: You’ve said J. Press always tried to be less boring, but also that you were more conservative and understated. Are you saying that you were adventurous in the ’60s, but understated in the ’80s?

RP: In the 1970s I was still in my late ‘30s, and I was always cognizant of the sartorial demands of youth and change. The key challenge I thought I faced in those days was how to represent change in a way that did not disturb the unique niche that J. Press represented. Now whether this was represented by brighter colors, or the introduction of patchwork tweeds and madras, there were ways we could introduce unique items that represented excitement and went against the thought that we were stodgy, but still did not stray beyond the boundaries of what we were known for. And it was a very delicate challenge, but one I thought I addressed very successfully.

IS: What it was like at Dartmouth during the heyday of the Ivy League Look, especially as a member of the Press family?

RP: My days at Dartmouth during the Eisenhower ‘50s remain an uproarious and robust memory. I was well prepared to survive the early academic rigor by four treasured years at The Loomis School (now Loomis-Chaffee). My beloved fraternity Chi Phi was described by Chris Miller in his Dartmouth memoir “The Real Animal House” as a slightly more civilized neighbor of his own Alpha Delta.

My J. Press genes dictated that I was usually the only house member with a tweed jacket and tie in the positively rotten basement environs that characterized our regular party scene. The sartorial milieu was a scruffy compromise between LL Bean and Emmet, a term used to describe the rural locals. The campus uniform was a Dartmouth warm-up jacket with jeans or khakis. But in spite of this, J. Press and The Andover Shop regularly scheduled retail travel exhibits to Hanover.

IS: Were you a minor celebrity as a family member of one of the leading campus clothiers?

RP: Yes, and I was often called “J. Squeeze,” which was the witty pseudonym of J. Press. Among  the cognoscenti in the Ivy League, if you said, “Are you a Squeeze man?” it meant do you buy your clothes at J. Press. But many of my friends honored our friendship by dressing to the nines.

IS: Are you familiar with the TV show “Mad Men”?

RP: Yes.

IS: The costume designer has been much praised, but I think is perhaps less savvy about certain niceties of men’s clothing, especially perhaps as they related to intangible things like social class. The show has always looked too slick to me — the hair too shiny, the clothing too Rat Pack — whereas it’s my understanding that Madison Avenue and the advertising industry was virtually synonomous with the Ivy League Look at that time.

RP: I think where they miss the boat is the depiction of corporate dress would be quite appropriate for the Midwest, but not the East. It’s not Madison Avenue or State Street, Boston. Their dress was definitely more reflective of New England tradition.

IS: What do you personally like to wear today?

RP: I’m in very rustic Connecticut, so I wear khakis and even jeans occasionally, with buttondowns or polo shirts. I’m a former skier, so I wear turtlenecks a lot, and in warmer weather I wear Bermuda shorts. When I’m in the city I’ll wear a blazer. I’ve worn only bow ties since 1960, and have a collection of 250.

IS: And during your time at J. Press, what were your preferences?

RP: My father, uncle and grandfather always had custom clothing. But I decided very early in my career to wear J. Press’ ready-made line. I wanted my wardrobe to reflect what the majority of my customers were hopefully going to purchase. I favored three-button grey flannel suits, chalk stripes rather than pinstripes, bow tie and oxford-cloth buttondown shirt.

IS: What about shoes?

RP: For a good part of my career I purchased my footwear from Barrie Limited, attached to J. Press in New Haven. I wore their burgundy shoes during the day, and black in the evening. If I had a business meeting I wore lace-ups because I thought it was “sportif” to do otherwise, but I also wore loafers.

IS: What do you think are the Ivy League Look’s chief virtues?

RP: A generational and historical continuity. It’s just as au courant today as it was in 1949. I believe the natural shoulder really came into being on the Yale-Princeton-Harvard campuses in the 1930s when much of Middle America affected padded shoulders and darted looks. The soft-shouldered wardrobe is a much more honest refelction of the physical charactersistics of the person wearing it. During the ’30s and ’40s, especially on the Ivy campuses, there was a real tradition for athletics, and there was no need for a young man to wear padded shoulders if he was something of an athlete. In the same way the buttondown shirt was much more comfortable than starched collars.

You recently posted about club collars, and I remember that they usually came in oxford cloth and were always worn with a pin. If you had a club collared shirt and tie and didn’t have a pin you’d look very off. Also, about 65 percent of our shirt sales were in buttondowns, and of the standard-collar shirts, a majority was oxford cloth rather than broadcloth. Another thing about the Ivy League Look is that it’s expressed in soft-finish materials, not sharkskins or mohair. Never anything shiny.

When my father died five years ago, he left a personal wardrobe of about 60 custom-made suits and 30 sport jackets. They really fit my son well, so I sent them to my son in Los Angeles, who is a talent agent. A couple of weeks ago he went to an Oscars party, and he was wearing my father’s 1961 tuxedo, and a well-known actor said, “Ben, you are absolutely the best-dressed guy in Hollywood at this moment.”

IS: When you see a well dressed man, what are the things you notice? Elegance? Traditionalism? Tailoring? Personal style?

RP: All of those things. And the honesty of how a man’s clothing reflects his true personality and talent, and is not the costume of his aspirations.

IS: What would the “costume of his aspirations” be?

RP: What he believes to be au courant taste, rather than his own sense of himself.

IS: So even though you were in the clothing business and offered a specific look for many years, you still believe there is plenty of room for individual expression within the genre?

RP: I think the key is that we did not dictate our taste to the customer, we reflected the customer’s taste. My grandfather had a Golden Rule: “Promote longterm value of the product, police the quality of craft, respond to the unique wardrobe requirements of a targeted customer base.”

IS: What do you think the J. Press of today could do better?

RP: They haven’t utilized the brand strength anywhere near the degree that’s possible. For example, why is it that the J. Crew store on Broadway in New Haven, selling knock-offs of Ivy League stuff, are doing such extraordinary sales per square foot, while J. Press still has two or three salesmen in the old 1912 floor space? Why haven’t they been able to enlarge that? When I was there we opened a very successful store in San Francisco, and we opened a store in Washington in 1988 during my last two years with Press. I’m surprised they haven’t opened more.

When I was last an employee of Kashiyama in 1991, J. Press in Japan was in hundreds of locations in department stores throughout Japan. When I ended my career I was disappointed. I was hoping they would be able to enlarge the resources of J. Press through the financial strength that they had, and they didn’t do it.

IS: Except for Brooks Brothers, nearly all the brands, stores and haberdasheries associated with the Ivy League Look were Jewish. Do you think the contributions Jews have made to WASP style have not been sufficiently acknowledged?

RP: You’re editorializing, but I think you’re right. A lot of the retail history of America is Jewish history.

Images: 1) J. Press brochure in 1959, the year Richard joined the company. 2) Richard in 1980, from a story in the New York Times Magazine. 3) Advertisement from 1959. 4) Contemporary J. Press look. 5) New Haven store. 6) Jacobi Press, 1912.

57 Comments on "Family Guy: The Richard Press Interview"

  1. Old School | March 28, 2011 at 8:22 am |

    Many thanks for this, Christian.

    Looking forward to the next segment.

  2. Jim Kelleth | March 28, 2011 at 8:55 am |

    I love J.Press! I still wear a Burberry raincoat that I bought in the Cambridge store in the late 70s when the labels included the San Francisco store. My jackets and suits from that time have gotten a little too snug, though.

  3. Great job. It is so important to get these histories down on “paper.” Sounds like the interview will give a nice overview of Ivy style across a century…and beyond. Looking forward to the rest of the interview.

  4. In 30s JPress had darted double breasted?
    I’m never have see a JPress 30s suit or coat.

  5. Bill Stephenson | March 28, 2011 at 12:31 pm |

    Absolutely fabulous! Thank you.

    Great memories from New Haven and New York. Always enjoyed the San Francisco store on trips there. Fascinating to find out the story of how Jack Kennedy played a role in that location.

    Great work in tying the history together. Jack Kennedy managed New Haven store during many of my years as a customer there. Great guy. Pretty sure that he managed shoe store next door, and joined JP from there.

    Always wondered about the Princeton store. Have never seen the real story before. I’ll bet that very few people know the actual reason for its demise.

    Harvard did away with greek letter fraternities. It was stunning to see that the Cambridge store was in the club house of my greek affiliation, when they were on Harvard campus. Incredible trivia, that is meaningful

    Well done ! This is a part of JP history that I don’t think has ever been documented before. Looking forward to follow ups.

  6. Thanks, Bill. Things really get interesting in the following parts. I think you’ll enjoy even more.

  7. When you look at the timing, the success of J. Press in Japan came from the fact that the VAN/Ivy Generation of the mid-1960s had entered the corporate world and finally had the money to buy “real” American Ivy brands. Plus you could get away with wearing a button-down at work. I get the sense that J. Press’ consumer base in Japan has always been the exact same cohort of people, who are now in their mid-60s.

  8. David, I know you’re swamped, but if you’re ever inclined, we’d love a dispatch from Tokyo about Press in Japan.

  9. Richard Meyer | March 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm |

    Thanks! Let’s have more sartorial comments, and skip all the racial and political extremist drivel. Viva J. Press, and all the others that keep the faith!

  10. Correct me if I’m wrong, but from everything I’ve seen on the net, Press in Japan is cheap junk. A glance at Onward’s website reveals some pretty sad outfits, and I’ve also seen photos of Press-branded dog collars and other cheesy trinkets.

  11. Harrington | March 28, 2011 at 8:28 pm |

    “The sense of tradition is such a valid philosophy in Japan. They respect the generational continuity that J. Press represented…”

    Sounds like us!

  12. <>

    Brioni. I wouldn’t have guessed that in a million years. I’d love to see photos of a J.Press/Brioni suit or sportcoat.

  13. Judy Samelson | March 29, 2011 at 9:22 am |

    One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mother and I getting stuck in the elevator at 341 Madison. We were in “the city” to visit my father who worked at J. Press. In fact, when he arrived in the U.S. (1947/48), he was hired by Jacobi Press — certainly because of his gifts as a tailor (he always liked to tell the story of how his “entrance exam” entailed ripping apart a suit jacket and then reassembling it for Mr. P) — but just as surely due to the elder Press’ understanding of the concentration-camp nightmare he had so recently survived.

    Since my father worked there till his retirement, I have many other memories of the company — including frequent subsequent visits over the years, greeting Irving and schmoozing with Peter and Henry and Ken and Clifford before heading to my now-late-Dad’s back-room shop — but none more memorable than encountering and befriending the inestimable Richard Press, who has told the company’s story with typical aplomb in this terrific interview.

  14. Wonderful to hear from you, Judy, and you’ll be pleased to know that your father is mentioned in an upcoming section of the interview.

  15. Judy Samelson | March 29, 2011 at 9:44 am |

    That’s great, Christian. Thanks. Can’t wait to read it.

  16. Judy Samelson | March 29, 2011 at 10:17 am |

    Oops. One must always READ what they write before posting….”my mother and ME…”

  17. No one else saw the headline and thought, what does Peter Griffin have to do with J. Press?

  18. Drew Poling | March 29, 2011 at 10:51 am |

    Interesting interview so far, Christian. And how nice to hear a mention of the old Georgetown University Shop. I worked there while I was a student at the university in the early/mid-eighties. A great shop fondly remembered and sadly missed.

    I’d be interested to hear about the evolution of “The Look”: what did it look like in 1902 and what were the steps it took as it became what RP calls the “purist” version?

    Looking forward to the next installments.

  19. This is great, Christian. I’m really enjoying it,and am looking forward to the rest.

    Too bad I never see any J. Press goods in my Leftist Coast thrift stores :-(

    Is that Rob Lowe in the green jacket?

  20. Isn’t that a fantastic photo from 1980? Delightfully over-the-top violation of the rule of only on GTH item at a time.

    Also a nice reminder to our friends in England who insist preppy was some kind of marketing gimmick rather than an expression of culture.

    In many ways it’s a marketing gimmick now, of course….

  21. What a great picture: madras pants, go-to-hell jacket and penny loafers. So 1980’s!

  22. What a great retailing story and tribute to The Press Family! Can’t
    wait for parts 3,4 and 5!

  23. Bill Stephenson | March 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm |

    Last response brings up a key point, often overlooked. At JP you were as likely to know the fitter because of a long term relationship, as well as you knew the excellent sales staff.

    Mr York was always the on that guided me to the right things. Likewise, the fitter who was Ralph for my many years there as a customer, was always the one to mark and alter the garment. They always fit perfectly, which was usually not the case in many other stores. You were up to the mercy of the fitter de jure.

    Ralph also was the final arbiter, when it came to a questionable fit. When Mr York and I found some jewel that was on sale, and seemed irresistible, Ralph always entered the scene before the sale was finalized.

    Many times he looked it over and said “I’m sorry sir, that just won’t do.” That was that.

  24. @Bill Stephenson

    Did you mean “du jour” when you wrote “de jure” (sanctioned by law) or am I missing something?

  25. @Greg K.

    Peter Griffin and J. Press: One of the most unlikely combinations I can imagine, unless one considers Homer Simpson and Brooks Brothers.

  26. Call me biased but I love visiting the Cambridge store. I only bought a cloth belt last time, but the service and quality of the clothes was impeccable. They answered all my questions and I was theer a while. Great belt too. If you are in Cambridge Massachussetts you must visit it!

  27. Bill Stephenson | March 30, 2011 at 3:48 am |

    De Facto. I’m sure your spelling is correct, and mine is not. Meaning attempted was ” fitter of the day”, as in “soup of the day”. Different ones, at frequent intervals.

  28. Michael Mattis | March 30, 2011 at 6:38 am |

    That green jacket, plaid trou affair is epic.

  29. NaturalShoulder | March 30, 2011 at 10:17 am |

    Christian – This interiew series is some of the best stuff you have posted. Thanks.

  30. Thanks for noticing, NS. I almost didn’t notice myself. I was so embroiled in the preparation (hours of interviewing) that I didn’t realize until it went up on Monday that it’s by far the most important post of our 330 so far, and probably won’t be topped.

  31. Scooby Dubious | March 30, 2011 at 12:34 pm |

    @Christian

    Good stuff.

    …but what about the beatniks? (wink)

  32. Patrick Sullivan | March 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm |

    Great interview. I particularly liked the detail about Auschwitz survivor Felix Samelson outfitting SS officers during the war — “so he didn’t make any mistakes.”

  33. Agree. It’s a great, though chilling, line.

  34. Thank god I’m not the only one who thinks J. Press suits have gone from natural shoulder to pseudo-natural more boxy-like. In fact, I would say most American suitmakers these days (including Brooks) have switched to more boxy, padded shoulders, yet somehow continue to market them as “natural” shouldered. They really seem no different from any other generic imported suit when it comes to its shape (though with higher quality fabrics.) A shame really, it certainly is one way to differentiate from the other masses.

  35. Wandering Gentile | March 31, 2011 at 11:13 am |

    “Except for Brooks Brothers, nearly all the brands, stores and haberdasheries associated with the Ivy League Look were Jewish.”

    Re: Brooks:
    Nobody’s perfect, I guess.

  36. A great interview Christian, you drew out some really interesting information from him. I went into J Press in Cambridge last week during a visit to that great city. Like Martin I bought a belt; more as souvenir and I kept my cash to spend in the Andover Shop in the next street. It’s hard to find any clothing manufacturer/retailer that produces the same quality now as in byegone days but what great history J Press has.

  37. Thanks, Woofster, our only ally in England.

  38. Old School | March 31, 2011 at 9:27 pm |

    It’s a pleasure reading Mr. Press’s perceptive insights, expressed so articulately, even eloquently.

  39. I admit to buying the belt as it is what I wanted. I buy my suits and jackets second hand from eBay as it is the only way I can get decent suits in the older less ‘shiny’ material on my budget. At my age used is a good look anyway. :)

  40. Richard Meyer | April 1, 2011 at 3:16 am |

    Glad to hear that Richard is a fellow brother of Chi Phi-I was a Kappa chapter member.

  41. Jim Kelleth | April 1, 2011 at 4:04 am |

    “Woofboxer”: You bought a belt at Press as a souvenir and then went shopping at the Andover Shop? Why? I was a Press in Cambridge last week and bought a suit that was tailored and deliver out of state days later. J. Press is the real deal. My father and grandfather shopped there, too.

  42. Thanks for this. It was something to look forward to in the afternoons, and a nice companion to off the cuff’s four part series on the brethren.

  43. What a wonderful series. Add to that the comments — the exceptionally well-written comments, I might add — of Judy Samelson, the tributes to the Cambridge store (which I share), and I’m off to my meeting with a smile on my face. Thanks, Richard. Thanks, Christian. Job well done.

  44. This was great. I looked forward to the new installments like chapters in an engrossing book and am glad Mr. Press will continue to contribute to the site. Top shelf, as usual.

  45. Jim Kelleth: Andover Shop is at least as real of a deal — probably realer — than Press. And I say this as someone who absolutely loves Press.

  46. Woofboxer | April 1, 2011 at 3:43 pm |

    @Jim Kelleth & @John:

    J.Press and The Andover – they’re both great shops and it was a treat for an ivy starved englishman to visit and buy something in each.

  47. Re: Japan J. Press stores

    As a commenter said above, they are nothing special. They’re all basically booths in department stores/fashion malls and sell mid-priced, slightly-Ivy generic suits/ties/jackets for men in their 60s (basically, the VAN generation.) They once in a while have some neat item but for the most part they lack any of the charm of the original American stores. And as far as I know, there are no free-standing J. Press stores in Japan.

    The thing I find most interesting about J. Press and Andover Shop is that the current stores (at least the ones I know in Cambridge) preserve a legacy of old-school campus retail format that is sure to completely disappear in the next 20 years. No one would open a new store that was such a (beautiful) mess. They would bring in crews of visual merchandisers and boxes of slick faux-antiques, and everything would change on a seasonal basis. Visit the stores now, because there’s no way anything like them will continue to exist.

  48. Joe Tradly | April 3, 2011 at 2:14 pm |

    “But in the purist sense, however, the Ivy League jacket is undarted.”

    Just for posterity and stuff.

    JB

  49. Now that your done with this post I just wanted to say thank you. This was a great interview and I’m sure that many of the readers, myself included, appreciate the hard work. Thanks!

  50. Jeffrey Shawn Haber | April 23, 2011 at 10:41 am |

    I am truly mesmerized by these wonderful historical anecdotes as they are so well delineated by Mr.Richard Press.I had the distinct privilege of working as a part-time clothing salesman for J.Press Inc.from 1976-1990 and even today(as I now teach High School in New York)I still adhere to the stylish J.Press Madison Avenue look.Although I have not seen Richard in 17 years-I am still a tremendous fan of his and of course I have never lost my admiration for J.Press.Richard-the best of luck to you with this new website. Jeffrey Shawn Haber

  51. harry freud | January 21, 2012 at 3:59 pm |

    for 49 years i did the window displays in ny,nh,cambridge.also did some in wash,dc.did almost all the brochures till i retired.lived in nh & played tennis with paul.had a long & good relationship with richard & irving.recently got a call asking if i might be interested in coming back to do display work.the japanese never really knew what they bought-just too big to handle the situation.they paid for a trip to japan for me & the week i spent there showed me their concepts were very different.good article

  52. Chas from CA | July 5, 2013 at 3:22 am |

    Dick-

    Wonderful interview. I still have many of the things I purchased from you and Ken at the 44th & Madison shop circa 1970 when I lived in NYC.
    Nice to see you in CA a few yrs. ago while you were visiting family….I was the guy in Whole Foods in Brentwood that chatted you up !

    Chas

  53. Note the black weejuns worn by the young gentleman in the 1980 photo — a choice favored by sophisticated Preppies in my day. Also, I wouldn’t consider either jacket or trousers as GTH, just acceptable choices for warm-weather attire — like a red jacket, say, at the English Sports Shop in Bermuda.

  54. Alex Gaydasch | October 9, 2013 at 9:43 pm |

    Wonderful interview! I have great memories of the JPress travelling man from whom I bought lots of stuff whenever he came to Chicago. I think Peter was his first name and his surname was Italian. Loved the guy; he died, must have been ten years ago (what WAS his last name?).

    A fond memory, not directly related to JPress: Before I shipped out to Europe in 1962 (I was in the Army), I went to BB and bought a blue blazer, grey flannels, several blue oxford button-downs, a couple of rep ties, and a pair of Lloyd and Haig cordovan bluchers (store around the corner from BB). I was the preppiest Private in post-war Berlin!

  55. Peter Rossetti

  56. Alex Gaydasch | October 16, 2013 at 11:38 pm |

    Thanks much. One more question: when did the Washington store close?

  57. s a bad side to the rise in popularity of digital content, and that.
    With anywhere near this much controversy
    clinging on to its name, it must come as no surprise that several in the world’s police officers authorities happen to be looking
    for ways to shut it down for good. The free Lyrics Search app is
    accessible at the Android Market.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

*