Golden Years: Cloning The Golden Fleece

In 1950, when I was 12 years old, Grandpa Press took me to Brooks Brothers for my Bar Mitzvah suit. He brought it back to J. Press for alterations and the first thing he did was rip off the Brooks Brothers label and replace it with one of ours.

Grandpa Press’ dismemberment of a Brooks Brothers label from my size 16 grey flannel suit followed the protocol established on York Street at the turn of the century: namely, copying Brooks Brothers.

All the players alongside the Yale campus — Langrock, Fenn-Feinstein, White’s, Isenberg, the Yale Coop — all “followed suit” when it came to Brooks Brothers. And when LIFE Magazine proclaimed the coast-to-coast explosion of the Ivy League Look, mainstream retailers got into the act by mimicking the 1901 Brooks Brothers Number One Sack Suit, not to mention the buttondown shirt, rep tie, seersucker, Indian Madras, the polo coat, and many other items.

However, in a memoir of his days at Yale, Episcopal Archbishop of New York Paul Moore, Jr. credited Jacobi  Press with doing more than anyone else to establish the Ivy Look. “His tweeds were a a little softer and flashier than Brooks Brothers tweed,” Moore writes, “his ties a little brighter.”

Soon his sons Irving and Paul used the Brooks text to devise their own curriculum, which included a flap pocket on the buttondown shirt, a hook vent on jackets, and a raised notch on lapels.

Manufacturers and retailers together joined in the conspiracy to clone the Golden Fleece, including Gant and Sero in New Haven, Hathaway Shirts from Waterville, Maine. Norman Hilton at Princeton, Julie Hertling in Brooklyn, Hickey Freeman in Rochester, H. Freeman in Philadelphia, Haspel Brothers in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Southwick produced many of the “346” suits for Brooks Brothers in addition to Paul Stuart, which earned the nickname “the poor man’s Brooks Brothers.” Current Paul Stuart pricing has certainly eliminated that perception.

Brooks Brothers bought Southwick in 2008 and relocated its deteriorating plant to a new and technically innovative facility in nearby Haverhill, MA. The move saved more than 200 jobs, a cornerstone for a famously depressed New England industry.

The “Ivy Style” seminar at FIT ended with a dialogue between Claudio Del Vecchio and Museum Deputy Director Patricia Mears. Del Vecchio mapped out the encyclopedia of change he has orchestrated to adapt the good old days to fit the requirements of an emerging domestic and international customer base in the digital age. Wherever it goes in the future, it will always be the one who started it all. — RICHARD PRESS

9 Comments on "Golden Years: Cloning The Golden Fleece"

  1. Thank you for this Richard.

  2. Another Brooks Brothers clone is Ralph Lauren.

    The President-elect has been photographed wearing Ralph Lauren polo shirts and there are rumors that he will be wearing a Ralph Lauren U.S.A-made suit for the inauguration.

    Perhaps we will see another preppy revival?

  3. He wore a Polo shirt and Boss coat yesterday.

    His suit will be made in Rochester in what used to be a HF factory.

  4. Charlottesville | January 15, 2021 at 2:59 pm |

    A very interesting and gracious post, Mr. Press.

  5. Old School Tie | January 15, 2021 at 3:47 pm |

    All that “copying” gave rise to the look that, in one form or another, we all love and seek to emulate. Thank you to one and all but first and foremost to BB. And thanks to Mr Press for a timely piece.

  6. Trevor Jones | January 15, 2021 at 4:20 pm |

    The Haverhill factory is so great for bring many jobs to a city that could certainly use them. Not to mention, it’s an arbiter of high quality, Made in the USA traditional menswear; no complaints there.

    Regarding Polo, I just watched the Scorsese-directed documentary on Netflix about Fran Lebowitz and, in episode four, she makes a very interesting comment on Brooks Brothers and Polo:
    “When Ralph Lauren started, what he really did was copied Brooks Brothers’ clothes. People who bought Brooks Brothers’ clothes were a certain type of person: basically WASPs. When Ralph Lauren started making his clothes, he copied these, but he made them, like, a little different. Like Brooks Brothers shirts — before they ruined the shirt department, which they did many years ago — a Brooks brothers shirt really didn’t fit anyone, ‘cause those people didn’t want their clothes to fit. Clothes that fit? Those were for other people; there was something a little, hmm, ambitious about clothes that fit. Ralph Lauren, not actually being one of those people, didn’t realize clothes aren’t supposed to fit, by which I mean they were more like clothes that not-WASPs wore. To me, the amazing thing was that, after a while, WASPs — who always wore Brooks Brothers’ clothes — started buying Ralph Lauren’s clothes: the actual people who he was copying started buying these clothes, even though they knew they weren’t the ‘real’ clothes. I don’t know why they did this — I wasn’t one of those WASPs or one of these WASPs — but I found this astonishing.”
    (Whew, that took forever to transcribe!) There’s certainly a lot to unpack here: that not all of these statements are actually true; that Fran was making an unrelated point and used this as an analogy; and, to me the most important, that when Polo first started, most of the clothes were made in England, Italy, or the US and had all the “correct” details (aka the Polo of yesterday was different — as Brooks Brothers is — than the Polo of today). However, Fran’s larger point is one of originality, that there’s something to be said about the original. I think Mr. Press is saying basically the same thing. Although we may lament what many of us see as the ‘demise’ of Brooks Brothers, that shouldn’t take away from the respect it deserves.

  7. Inspiring.

    I’m still trying to find a weaver who can replicate Reefer Twill.

  8. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.
    In this case, the clone surpassed the original.

  9. G. Bruce Boyer | January 16, 2021 at 2:02 pm |

    A poignant tidbit from The Authority that one could only wish was longer. With Richard Press’ writing the knowledge, wisdom, and love always shine through. A good example of how passion makes perfect.

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