Golden Years: A Farewell To Arms

My farewell at J.Press half a decade after the sale of the family business in 1986 was orchestrated by Norbert Ford.

Norbert was a charismatic entrepreneur who began his career dressing windows at the original Abercrombie and Fitch safari, rifle and menswear emporium on 45th and Madison. He was a scrappy senior executive, and when Abercrombie faded, Ford became partner of menswear clothing manufacturer Gordon of Philadelphia, changing the name to Gordon-Ford. Norbert Ford was savvy about sophisticated country wear. 

Gordon-Ford sold to Brooks Brothers and other top-of-the-line suburban and resort shops coast to coast. He made all the seersucker, linen, poplin and corduroy outfits for J. Press, originating the “suburban suit,” an amalgamation of the rustic country club/company signature regularly advertised in New Yorker Magazine. Norbert’s life was a striver’s rural fantasy, complete with a picturesque farm in Lebanon, New Jersey, from which he and his wife marketed smoked ham, home cheese, and sweet mustard for Christmas gift packages that were sold in town and country shops from Greenwich and Morristown to Lake Forest and Santa Barbara. After his original partner bought him out, he became an international fashion consultant and corporate director squiring a palace ruin on the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland.

A man for all seasons, he counseled me at the sale of the business to our Japanese licensee Onward Kashiyama. “I think you’re going to feel restricted in your new situation and I’m going to keep my eye on you,” I recall him saying.

As the family imprint and leverage waned, the composition of J. Press necessarily changed, which the new owners had every right to do. Norbert encouraged me to consider working for Hartmarx, where he was a board member. “How would you like to take the ball and run? Come on over to Tripler and let’s see if it’s a turnaround.” He must have delivered four or five Knute Rockne-like sales speeches over the course of a half-dozen lunches and dinners at The Yale Club. My prospective destination, FR Tripler, was a funereal, declining remnant of a bygone era. It boasted four floors and 10,000 square feet of fine men’s and women’s wear, and since World War I had been a cathedral of dignity on the corner of 46th and Madison, laid to waste by incompetence and neglect and virtually abandoned by its Midwestern conglomerate ownership. Managed from company headquarters in Chicago, Tripler, Ford believed, had lost its high-octane image. “What the place needs,” he told me, “is somebody to take charge who lives, breathes and stimulates the brand the way you and your family did at Press before you sold the business.” It led, in the end, to my flying to Chicago, where the chief executives of Hartmarx, Bert Hand and Harvey Weinberg, agreed on Ford’s plan.

An anticlimactic meeting took place the following week with my Kashiyama boss, a recitation of unmet company goals that we both knew were unattainable. I thanked him for his courtesy to both me and the Press family as I offered my resignation and quietly said goodbye to what remained of my grandfather’s dreams and his gift to our family. My bags were packed on Friday and on Monday I walked into FR Tripler, where an enormous banner was hanging from a ten-foot balustrade in the back of the store, “Tripler Welcomes Our New President, Richard Press.” 

A sign on the door signified a 10 o’clock opening, as Burt Hand and the Chicago crew celebrated my hiring with a spread of bagels, donuts and coffee. The New York Times Business Section noted the move with the headline “From the J. Press Fold To The Top of Tripler.” Stephanie Strom’s article quoted me as saying, “You can decide whether this is fact or fantasy, but when I left J. Press, I looked up at the picture of my grandfather on the wall, he winked at me and said, ‘Richard, go for it.’”

As I fed him the news, my father, Paul Press, hugged me for the first time since my kindergarten days when leaving the house at six in the morning for Winchester’s factory in New Haven to make rifles, an obligation of his draft deferment for the duration of World War II. These many years later he once again offered me a paternal embrace, saying, “I sure as hell hope it works.”

Re-invigorating FR Tripler indeed worked well — for three exciting years — until that day the cloud burst when parent company Hartmarx Retail went belly-up broke, prompting forever my retail farewell to arms. — RICHARD PRESS

20 Comments on "Golden Years: A Farewell To Arms"

  1. George Fulop | June 6, 2018 at 10:16 pm |

    Bravo, sir!

    I almost feel as if I were there!

  2. Just Sayin' | June 6, 2018 at 10:24 pm |

    Very interesting light shed on a footnote in the history of menswear in NYC, thank you. What do you think would have happened at J. Press if you’d decided to stay? Would anything be different today, or would the course have stayed largely the same?

  3. Andy Owen | June 6, 2018 at 10:33 pm |

    A great story, finely wrought. In what year did your ascension occur, Richard?

  4. Richard E. Press | June 6, 2018 at 11:14 pm |

    Ascension: 1991

  5. Rene Lebenthal | June 7, 2018 at 4:35 am |

    Wonderful Story. Thank you for sharing your memories with us….

  6. An invaluable insight.

  7. Thomas Mukherjee | June 7, 2018 at 6:13 am |

    Superb recollection. The wealth of detail this almost palpable as others have said.
    It is a shame that ‘Squeeze’ has not maintained the same quality over the years, at least that is so in my opinion. Had they done so, young men such as George above whose father seems to be overly generous would not need to go the costly bespoke route to reputed London and Paris tailors such as Jacobs and Frost.

  8. Thomas Mukherjee | June 7, 2018 at 6:16 am |

    *wealth of detail renders this almost palpable

  9. Poison Ivy Leaguer | June 7, 2018 at 7:05 am |

    Loved Gordon-Ford’s slogan! “Look the same, but look different.”

  10. Thank you for yet another great piece.

    Whether we attribute to Marx, Darwin, Smith, or Schumpeter, “creative destruction” is a reality. Evolution is no longer a theory, but a fact. In all aspects of life. But the notion of change is overemphasized. At a microscopic level, we’re the same creatures who stood tall and wandered out of the forest millions of years ago.

    Another moment on the evolutionary calendar coincided with this one: A younger Ralph Lauren was figuring out how–(eureka!)–to make Ivy League clothing interesting again. By the mid 90s many of the old college shops, no Japanese retail conglomerates eager to buy, were long gone. Cue the evolution theorists: death gives way to resurrection. Easter follows Good Friday. The ghosts of Chipp and J. Press and old Brooks were seen wandering along a sartorial Road to Emmaus. The disciples listened as he spoke of oxford cloth, tweed, and British silk repp, and, curious, they asked, “Henry Sands Brooks, is that you?” The reply came back: “No. Call me Ralph.”

    J. Press is very much a brand/branding story. The look was once affiliated with a family and even a particular university town. Since every brand demands an symbol, we’re right to ask how it is that a sheep-and-scissors compete a polo player sitting on a galloping pony? Aspiration (striving) undergirds evolution. Jung was right about myths but wrong about which one makes the most sense of human existence. Forget the Greeks. It always comes back to The Great Gatsby.

    For all the talk of evolving, the unromantic truth is that within a species very little changes drastically. Eyes, nose, legs, feet–the shapes and forms change but not the basics of function. What goes around comes around–again and again. Recalling the Tripler-Hickey-Freeman connection, I wasn’t surprised to learn a couple of years ago that “Hickey” makes the “Blue Label” clothing for…
    …Ralph Lauren.

  11. Jonathan Sanders | June 7, 2018 at 9:31 am |

    Love to hear more about Norbert Ford.

  12. George Fulop | June 7, 2018 at 9:45 am |

    It really is fascinating stuff.

  13. George Fulop | June 7, 2018 at 9:49 am |

    @ Richard Press
    Would you consider going back into the business if you had the investors? The State of Ivy needs you yet!

  14. Anony Mouse | June 7, 2018 at 1:09 pm |

    Another great entry from Mr. Press.

    On a tangential note, I inherited a couple of Gordon of Philadelphia made tweed jackets from my father in law (I think he bought them at Eljos, but I could be wrong). They are absolutely great in Ivy style, with lapped seams everywhere (even shoulder and down the back). Interesting to learn that Mr. Ford took them to even bigger heights of manufacturing and styling.

  15. Charlottesville | June 7, 2018 at 2:47 pm |

    Thank you, Mr. Press, for another evocative and informative reminiscence. The ads are great as well. Was the artist Laurence Fellows? Also, I hope everyone here is celebrating National Seersucker Day appropriately. I’m wearing a J. Press sack suit in gray and white seersucker, and a Liberty print cotton tie from Eljo’s and feel like a million bucks, although the price when I bought them was considerably less than that of Mr. Fulop’s new trousers.

  16. Superb article, Squeeze! Thank you for sharing this evocative piece of sartorial history.

  17. I remember buying a pair of bit loafers from Tripler in the early 80’s as a 20 year old and walking through Grand Central with my Tripler shopping bag thinking I was pretty grand.

  18. Marc Chevalier | June 9, 2018 at 10:03 pm |

    I cherish a houndstooth silk Tripler scarf which was given by Conrad Hilton to his butler. I found it in a dresser drawer at the deceased butler’s estate sale.

  19. Bruce McCarthy | January 5, 2020 at 4:09 pm |

    Nothing has changed since I worked at Tripler (1962=1966) management,marketing non existing

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