Recently I wrote about the evolving J. Press York Street store in the West Village, but there’s one more way to get a J. Press experience in New York despite the closing of the Madison Avenue store. Jay Walter, a menswear industry veteran of the highest order who celebrates his 87th birthday today, reconnected with J. Press last year and offers made-to-measure services from a comfortable office in Midtown Manhattan.
Walter had spent 7 years heading up J. Press’ MTM program when the Madison Avenue store closed. Despite his advanced years, he had no interest in retiring and set up shop himself. Last year he reunited with J. Press, and now operates out of a premium highrise office building at Third Avenue and 40th Street, where managed to secure the finest office on the floor. The place is so comfortable and stimulating, with two-side view of the bustling metropolis below, it’s easy to see why the octogenarian relishes coming to the office. Walter works four days a week, commuting into town from the Queens community of Forest Hills (home to the former national tennis center depicted in the Hitchcock film “Strangers On A Train”) with his sister-in-law, a lawyer, who drives him into work. “By the time Monday morning rolls around, I can’t wait to get here,” he says. “It’s like being the member of a club.”
With classical music playing softly in the background, Walter shares the space with his beloved right-hand man known as Mr. G. (above right), an equally seasoned tailor, aged 80, who handles all the fitting, finishing and alterations. “Without Mr. G, I couldn’t be here,” says Walter.
Jackets feature two labels inside, one for Walter and one for Press. Sportcoats and blazers start at $1,650 while suits start at $2,000. The clothing is made by a small undisclosed custom tailoring shop in Brooklyn (in other words, not Martin Greenfield’s), and Walter is pleased with its ability to produce an undarted, natural-shouldered, hook-vented, swelled edged, and lapped-seamed three-button jacket.
Like many clothing veterans, Walter loves the social side of the business, meeting people and making them look and feel great. But he also has an inborn love of clothes (on the day of our meeting, Walter was wearing a three-piece sack suit, buttondown shirt, grenadine tie, and suede monk-straps). Raised in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from New York, as a teenager Walter would take an 11-cent train ride into town on Saturdays and study the storefronts along Broadway. “At the end of the day I could tell you what I’d seen in every window.” Before joining J. Press, Walter worked for Brooks Brothers for 25 years doing made-to-measure, and, before that, ran his own men’s clothing boutique in Forest Hills. Though born Walter Jay Silvers, he wanted a more Anglo-sounding name for his shop. His lawyer informed hm that “Walter Jay” was already incorporated, so he switched the order and became Jay Walter, which remains his “stage name” to this day.
Many men referred to Walter don’t know the history of J. Press or the Ivy League Look, but find it appealing when it’s shown and explained to them. “Some customers who come to me don’t know what I want to sell them: the sack jacket. But when I tell them about it, they say they’ll try it. They don’t know what Ivy League is, but they will accept it when they try one on. We put a little expression in our jacket, so it’s not a boxy, baggy coat. I’ve also upgraded the sophistication of the sack coat with fine materials, though I still love the outdoor tweeds as well, and many come in for that.”
Walter also points out that he has reduced the swelled edges on jackets from the standard 5/16 to 4/16, a tiny refinement that nevertheless makes a difference in his mind. “Others may not see it,” he says, “but I do.”
As for his passion for clothing, “I’d like to say it was a gift, the same with people who want to dance or sing. I enjoy wearing clothes and learned about them when I was young. The only honor I got was in my high school yearbook of 1946, when I was selected best dressed.”
That honor is doubly blessed, as Walter almost didn’t graduate from high school, and says he is lucky to be where he is today. His mother was widowed young, and as a teenager Walter offered to quit school to help provide for his mother and sister. “But she wouldn’t let me quit school and I’m so thankful for that,” he says. “That high school diploma is worth a college diploma today. I can still add faster than my kids, and without a computer!” His mother lived to be 99, and Walter says his doctor has told him that if he’s made it this far, he has a good shot at 100.
Finally, like all clothes-wearing men, Walter has always been very particular in his tastes. Since the age of 13, a great many number of birthdays ago, “no one’s been able to buy me anything.”
In that case, we natural-shouldered minions simply wish Mr. Walter a very happy birthday. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
To schedule an appointment with Jay Walter, call 646.571.2500.