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How did personal taste and idiosyncrasy fit within J. Press offerings and customer consultations when the business was family owned? Here’s a precis from three generations of Presses who made the rules and sometimes broke them.
Before World War I, York Street in New Haven was lined by custom tailors who also dabbled in furnishings to meet the requirements of the students and faculty they served. My grandfather, Jacobi Press, tailored three-piece tweed, flannel and worsted suits for them, always searching for new resources in the British Isles to distinguish his fare from the competition. Suits were the order of the day. Single-breasted blue blazers were the only unmatched jackets he offered, usually accompanied by grey flannel trousers, whipcords or white duck trousers, the singular uniform for resort wear.
The Guns of August impelled my grandfather to break with tradition. Foreseeing the possibility of a trade embargo, he boosted his stock of English merchandise before America’s entry into World War I. During the war, his civilian trade evaporated and domestic gabardine was the fabric used for the for military officers’ uniforms he tailored during the duration. At war’s end he was faced with a grossly unequal quantity of tweeds and flannels mixed with unlikely gabardine remainders from uniforms that were impossible to divide into suits. His solution was to make up odd tweed jackets separately and accompany them with odd grey flannels and gabardine trousers. Yale customers cheered the new look, which became a uniform of choice for the tables down at Mory’s.
After World War II, the GI Bill of Rights heated up a simmering melting pot for those not born into the white-shoe traditions of the Ivy League. The exploding population of veterans chose to adopt the historical wardrobe of their campus peers, making it their own, and revolutionizing the retail requirements of the campus stores. Jacobi’s sons, Irving and my father Paul, engineered a full deep bench of ready-to-wear clothing made exclusively for J. Press with favorable prices to fit the budget for non-trust fund Ivy Leaguers.
The Ivy League Look was not only the wardrobe of choice for Joe College. The coffers of corporate America were teeming with Ivy graduates on Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the all councils of power during the heyday of The American Century.
Delineating J. Press from Brooks Brothers and other Ivy retailers, the Press brothers conceived of a variety of signatures setting their wares apart from that of others. Center hook vents were the trademark on all suits and sportcoats. High gorge lapels deftly accommodated the extreme J. Press sloped shoulder. Full-body dress shirts camouflaged muscular torsos of varsity football players, together with the beer bellies of their boozer buddies. The cognoscenti identified with the snob appeal of flap pockets on every J. Press shirt.
Ready-to-wear sportcoats and suits promoted soft finished fabrics of understated coloring. Black was verboten, restricted for formal wear. Neckwear categories were selected across the pond by Irving Press. He made certain his choices were restricted to J. Press. The Irish poplins, ancient madders, English reps, wool challis, and India madras were not available only on our counters. Irving designed and trademarked the famous Shaggy Dog hand-brushed Shetland sweaters specially made for J. Press by Drumohr of Scotland.
Tradition is not unbending. I left Dartmouth for a stint in the army before entering the family business in 1960, the dawn of JFK’s New Frontier. Changes I orchestrated for the new era were often met by clashes with my father and uncle, who were determined to maintain the order of past times. My goal was to engage the enthusiasm of the Mad Men in our Ivy meat market on 16 East Forty-Fourth Street.
Non-Ivy Leaguers were previously neglected and we engaged their preferences for two-button, front-darted suits in the New York store. Tradition had roots not necessarily reflected at the time, but were standard in the 1930s. Four-inch wide ties reflected demands from junior A-listers sporting their fathers’ vintage clothing recovered from family trunks. I ordered them. Uncle Irving threatened me, “You’ll pay for every goddamn one we don’t sell.” Walter Cronkite spotted them about town. I appeared on his newscast, beating Ralph Lauren to the wide-tie punch. Lilly Pulitzer approached us and designed caricatures for us with Yale Bulldogs, Dartmouth Indians, Princeton Tigers, and the whole Ivy caboodle.
We nudged India madras ties into wraparound belts for summer wear. Tussah silk buttondown shirts made their debut as a scrappy formal dress shirt with black studs. Taking a cue from 1930s Gentleman’s Quarterlies, I revived wing-collar shirts for dinner jackets.
Hosiery meant socks and garters. Jacket length was at the tip of a clenched fist. Forty regular jackets had a forty-inch chest. Idiosyncratic customers chose custom for peak lapels, side vents, roped shoulders, and Duke of Windsor fabrics, but stayed in the Press camp out of loyalty and respect for the quality inherent in all offerings.
My grandfather’s family’s rabbinical tradition died in the shtetl when he came to America. The fourth generation of Presses opted out at the sale of J. Press to Onward Kashiyama in 1986. The beat goes on, though to the tune of a different drummer. Hollywood Entertainment Manager Ben Press promulgated family tradition at last year’s Golden Globes decked out in a 1968 dinner jacket bequeathed by his grandfather Paul. Alex Shekachman of the London Daily Mail pegged him one of the evening’s best dressed.
Alas, family blood no longer courses through the veins of the great Ivy retailers. Brooks Brothers, Gant, J. Press and Paul Stuart follow the direction of their international parent companies. Meanwhile, Ivy/Prep derivatives swim in an ocean of cute names, paying scant attention to the workmanship and quality in the archival treasure of the look.
Bang the drum slowly, for anything goes. — RICHARD PRESS