Ivy isn’t Ivy anymore. Now it’s called “preppy.” Except Brooks Brothers is back in the fold announcing, “American Ivy” and “Trad & True New Arrivals for Fall.” It all gets very confusing. Last year’s items weren’t “trad and true?” Maybe they were just preppy.
The Ivy Style exhibit, which opens September 14 at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, lets viewers make the choice whether the historic Ivy League Look I grew up with has evolved naturally into preppy or been vulgarized beyond repair. There’s plenty of old Brooks Brothers in the FIT mix, together with J. Press, The Andover Shop, Chipp, Gant, Langrock — all the old standbys.
Preppy and Ivy was the life that late I led. It was in my blood, genes, and most of the air I breathed. The Ivy League Look was officially declared dead in the late ’60s? Baloney.
The Ivy campuses exploded in the ’60s. The assassinations, Vietnam protests, and civil disorder all cast their mark on the Ivy League as on the rest of America. Amid the unrest, corporations continued to prosper, the suburbs fostered a second-tier business elite which fulfilled its business and social obligations wearing Ivy League suits to the office and patchwork madras on the 18th hole. It was the best of times in the worst of times and I was on the fringes of glory.
“Dick Cavett’s Clothes by J. Press,” appeared weeknights for a long run on ABC-TV beginning in 1968. Ryan O’Neal, the first preppy pop icon, was outfitted for “Love Story” at J. Press’ Cambridge store. Robert Redford’s corduroy for “All The President’s Men” was chalked on our mezzanine floor. Lisa Birnbach’s preppy sendup included J. Press in the Locust Valley Lockjaw Hall of Fame. PYG (pink, yellow, green) worked the margins, but corporate America did not tolerate sloppy dress. There were no casual Fridays.
In 1980 Harvard and Yale banners hung over the counters, Ivy League songs played in the background and old-fashioned Ivy League was aggressively merchandised by J. Press licensee Onward Kashiyama in 75 stores throughout Japan. Jesse Kornbluth’s article in the June 15, 1980 New York Times Magazine headlined, “New Boost For The Old Guard: Japanese men are discovering the (American) stores synonymous with good taste.” Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers also joined the frenzy across the Pacific.
In 1983, suit bags with prominent J. Press logos were stage props for “Preppies,” a musical satire at the Promenade Theatre across from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side. Mel Gussow, NY Times critic, opined, “The show is intentionally traditional, upholding the J. Press dress code of button-down shirts, khakis and loafers. One production number featured nine blue blazers on the stage.”
Preppy or Ivy, the dressing combo worked for the Press family. Our goal was to provide the finest tailoring, diligently police our resources, and promote generational continuity of our inventory with competitive prices to satisfy the requirements of a demanding and devoted customer base diligently attended by a well versed staff.
Onward Kashiyama bought J. Press in 1986. My first trip to Tokyo featured a stage appearance at a fashion show highlighting the company convention. My comments were often lost in translation, and what came out might have served “Saturday Night Live” well. Logos on Nantucket bags featured “J. Squeeze,” the insider’s nickname for Press. A Yale bulldog showed up on sweatshirts with “Boola Boola” scripted under his belly. I was responsible for some the fluff, but my Japanese cohorts had also carefully studied the American Century. They recognized that the Ivy League Look appeared at the pinnacle of influence of the world’s greatest superpower.
Ivy Style at the MFIT depicts a saga when preppies were monied WASP teenagers who didn’t need high SATs to get into Yale. Their status was reflected by the understatement of their sophisticated wardrobe. It’s all going to be at the museum, along with the work of designers currently translating the hallowed remnants of the past into a new frontier, though hardly like JFK’s.
See you at halftime on the once-upon-a-time quad that looks more like York Street in the ’50s than York Street ever did. — RICHARD PRESS
Former J. Press president Richard Press is pictured above at the 1987 Tokyo Expo.