Update: part two is up. Scroll down.
I’m what’s known as an anomaly: a millennial without social media. It’s been two years since I deleted my accounts across the board and I certainly feel more free to live my own life and spend less time worrying about what my friends are doing every second.
It is true, though, I’m behind the times on some things. Notably, there has been an explosion of menswear enthusiasts using social media, specifically instagram, as a platform to promote men’s clothing, build their brand, and influence followers. Leading the charge for the Ivy League Look on Instagram is Benton Nilson (@benton.down). So I emailed Benton to get his take on how this digital revolution is affecting a genre of clothing which is proud of its ability to remain unchanged. The interview will be presented in two parts. — TREVOR JONES
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IS: How old are you and where are you from?
BN: I’m a 28-year-old ha-fu (as they say in Japan), who was born in Japan to a Japanese mom and American dad. I’ve lived in California for over 20 years.
IS: How did you get into the Ivy League Look?
BN: I credit my dad for planting the seed. He wasn’t hardcore Trad or Ivy, but the memory of him wearing a white buttondown tucked into his faded Levi’s 501s, with Ray-Ban aviators on, left a permanent impression on me. It was beyond the articles of clothing. In the sea of dads wearing baggy sweatshirts and designer clothes, my dad looked perfectly comfortable in the clothes that were informed by his American upbringing. The items themselves told a story, without logos, to project an image. It’s still an ideal that I’m pursuing. If I didn’t have an American side to my family, I might not have seen it. It’s not about perfectly coordinated outfits, it’s about buying good things, then wearing them without care.
IS: Do you work in the clothing industry?
BN: No, my career has been in content marketing at tech startups. The dress code is pretty casual, which means I stand out just for not wearing a hoodie. It’s about as far removed from the East Coast traditions of the Ivy look. People definitely notice that I always wear a buttondown shirt and sweaters, even when it’s not a special occasion.
IS: How do you find dressing this way as a millennial? Do you face any stereotypes or assumptions?
BN: There’s occasional teasing, but the reception is mostly positive, which keeps it fun for me. Maybe it really is hip to be square. Or maybe not. It always strikes me as odd that we’re supposed to be in this culture of trying to be unique, but there’s no better way to stand out now than simply wearing a tie. I get a lot of assumptions based on the way I dress. Some are less than flattering, but it mostly bothers me that some people won’t even make an effort beyond looking at what I wear. I will say, the stereotypes of professor in tweed jacket, churchgoer in navy blazer, or Mr. Rogers in a cardigan, are limiting. On the other hand, I have no delusions that wearing a shawl collar cardigan makes me as cool as Steve McQueen.
It’s hard to combat these images that we project and are being projected on us, but some perspective that goes beyond the latest fashion cycle certainly would help us understand each other. Clothing has always been a way to project an image of yourself as you’d like to see it. There are visual codes in clothes, with self-imposed uniforms for people who want to project a certain image. Buttoned-up style seems to be seen as a uniform of conformity. But a uniform of rebellion or creativity is a uniform that replaced the uniform of conformity that people once rebelled against. Now if you don’t conform to the uniform of rebellion, you are going against the cultural norm, rebelling against the rebellious uniform, and you’re looked at funny. Not everyone who changed the world did it in green fatigues, not every artistic masterpiece was created in a dirty hoodie.
IS: What does the look mean to you?
BN: It means embracing imperfection. Humans aren’t perfect, so why expect our shirts to be wrinkle-free? I guess you could call it wabi-sabi. Bad clothes wear out, good clothes wear in; they become better as they lose their brand new sheen and stiffness, they start taking on your shape. I’ve seen guys have grail-worthy clothes with all the bells and whistles, but they look like mannequins. The clothes are wearing the person and it should be the other way around.
IS: When did you get on Instagram, and how many followers do you now have?
BN: I had a Tumblr before I had Instagram, which I used to show my vintage findings. But I started Instagram in January 2018 and I have about 3,000 followers now.
IS: What goes into creating a post?
BN: An idea will usually start with a single garment I want to wear and I’ll build an outfit around that. I love finding old diners and restaurants that are still in business and imagining myself back in the time when they first opened. I like the general idea of combining the clothes and places of a similar era.
We all have remnants of vintage Americana in the towns and cities we live in, like diners that haven’t changed in years, old movie theater signs, neon signs of old restaurants that still light up the night. These are things that we take for granted. But I want to preserve them and show them to the world through pictures. I hope that maybe by putting the clothes in their original context, people will stop thinking of them as “grandpa clothes.” I guess I just want to show that the passion for clothes doesn’t just exist in some rarefied place. It can be worn everyday, comfortably. I have to thank IG: @Eatsnapgirl for taking most of my shots. She’s been amazingly supportive. I’m also shameless in asking other friends for help.
IS: Many young people now are discovering Ivy through social media. Why do you choose to dedicate your Instagram to your outfits as opposed to a more “personal” Instagram?
BN: I didn’t start my instagram to show every detail of my life — nobody needs to see that. I wanted to show Ivy style being worn in the wild, taking it out of the slick catalog pictures. The clothes don’t have to live in a vacuum of like-minded people on the Internet or vintage shows. It’s great to meet people who love this stuff as much as I do, but I don’t want to get caught up in preaching to the choir. If I can contribute even a little bit to changing someone’s mind about a buttondown shirt being only for “dressing up,” I would be flattered. You can incorporate bits of the Ivy wardrobe or you can commit entirely to the look, but it doesn’t mean it has to look like a costume.
IS: Do you know of anyone that you’ve influenced directly because of social media?
BN: Some people have asked me for clothing advice, and the first thing I say is to think about what it is that you really want. Are you ready to make an initial investment in quality, knowing that the returns will come over years, not just the next trend? Of course I love these clothes, but most people work hard for their money and they should buy clothes that make them more confident. I think eventually people get tired of wearing hoodies all the time and feeling like that’s how they want to define themselves. My bit of advice that you can actually do something with is this: be comfortable in what you’re wearing. Wearing a simple blue buttondown with the attitude that you belong beats the insecurity of needing logos to show you’ve got taste.
IS: Are you influenced by other people who dress this way on instagram?
BN: Yes. Guys like @Getticketsforthedance and @Oxfordclothbuttondown have been inspirations for me for a long time. They look comfortable with what they’re wearing, and I think their style makes sense for daily life. It’s not a stiff costume.
IS: Is there a virtual community of like-minded people on social media?
BN: There is indeed a community, and I want to thank them for the warmth they’ve given me. I’ve been lucky to mostly avoid the silly arguing and trolling. There’s actually a surprising balance between younger and older people. It’s refreshing for me to see younger people interested in more traditional styles, while older people are embracing social media and just enjoying the shared interest in style, without judgment.
IS: Is any of your content sponsored? Do companies pay you to promote their products or their brand on your social media?
BN: I’ve worked with Goodwill on a sponsored post, which was great because they have a great mission they work towards. I’ve also had Brooks Brother Red Fleece and Kamakura Shirts send me clothes to feature in posts. However, almost all of my posts are unsponsored, so the costs for clothes and travel comes out of my own pocket.
IS: The Ivy League Look is steeped in tradition and a certain ethos. What do you say to those people who are against what people like you are doing through social media?
BN: I look at it this way: I love sumo wrestling. I’ve loved it since I was a little kid in Japan. What they did wrong was to keep doing what they’ve always done and not make new fans feel included. The same applies to the Ivy League Look. If we, as fans of the Ivy look, and specifically the more conservative Trad look, want to maintain an ecosystem where there are enough fans to motivate companies to create great products, we have to be relevant where the next generation of fans will be. Of course, companies like Ralph Lauren and J. Crew will be accessible sources of a distilled version of the Ivy look, but I think the core tradition will be lost. We need the online community to support places like Cable Car Clothiers, The Hound, O’Connell’s, The Andover Shop, and J. Press. As a community, we need a core of passionate fans that geek out over hook-vented tweed sack jackets, with the same nerdiness as Star Wars fans at Comic-Con. It’s such an opportunity to create a positive and supportive online community, as opposed to a negative and trolling one. Let’s not waste it.
IS: The style prides itself on remaining unchanged. How is social media affecting that?
BN: I think the most obvious part that’s being affected is the fit. Everything has moved towards a slimmer, shorter silhouette, but that might just be the general trend in fashion. What’s fun for me is to see how people incorporate different elements to make it a more personal look for them. Sure, there are some true purists who go head-to-toe Ivy, but then there’s also been this blurring of Trad/Ivy/Vintage Workwear, which has always been one of the hallmarks of American style anyway. Within the more diehard Ivy/Trad community, what I also see social media doing is enforcing quality to a certain extent. I think we can say that even the most loyal fans now have a love/hate relationship with Brooks Brothers. This comes from the fact that Brooks Brothers’ marketing copy isn’t the only thing we have to rely on now for gauging quality, fit and value. Information travels fast and knowledge spreads quickly. If a brand starts declining or just trading on name alone, they’ll get called out on it and fans will find a better source of product. Levi’s sued several Japanese companies for reproducing their vintage jeans, but this wouldn’t have happened if the Japanese companies weren’t making a great product that made even the most discerning fans take notice. There are some companies, I think, that are making too many products and overcharging for them, while there are smaller companies that specialize in certain things and are going to start taking some business away.
IS: You mentioned earlier, as well as in your Medium.com interview, about the way your dad looked comfortable in his Ivy getup; he had his own brand of casual elegance. To you, is the look “just clothes,” or is there a lifestyle that goes along with it?
BN: Lifestyle feels like it doesn’t do it justice for me. Not everyone is going to have a sailboat or a house in Connecticut. My dad didn’t grow up like that, and I certainly didn’t, but there was a personal orientation of buying what is made well, then wearing it as the gear in your personal adventures. Scuffs and wrinkles show you’ve lived life. Some people pride themselves in hitting all the right notes and having flawless clothes, but I think that misses the mark. The clothes should enhance your quest for living your best life, not replace it. And don’t worry, the irony of me saying this is not lost on me!
IS: You also mentioned in that interview that you think it is not snobbery to demand a level of quality in clothing. With the fast-fashion culture we live in, do you think this is likely anytime soon?
BN: I think we can meet in the middle. Investing in quality items will not let you down, but I realize there are economic realities for some people. As the cycle of acquisition and disposal seem to be accelerating, I’m not sure people even wear things long enough to notice the mediocrity they’re accepting.
IS: Millennials are well-known for the ultimate “comfort over appearance” wardrobe. How hard will it be convincing those who feel most comfortable in a t-shirt and sweatpants that there are benefits to dressing this way?
BN: First off, I think it’s important to clarify what is meant by comfort. I personally find it hard to believe that some crappy t-shirt really does feel better than oxford cloth. If someone means they don’t feel comfortable being seen as too conservative or “trying too hard,” that just seems like personal insecurity and maybe being afraid to try something new. But getting a compliment from a pretty girl changes someone’s mind pretty quick.
IS: Tell me about your recent trips to NYC, London and Tokyo. Were these orchestrated specifically to be shared on social media?
BN: NYC was such a thrilling experience, to finally see for myself the city that was just a movie fantasy until then. It’s the old cliché, but it really does have a vibrant energy to it. What also impressed me was that they seem to actually respect old things and incorporate them naturally into their daily lives. There were guys wearing tweed jackets and ties that looked like they’ve had it 40 years — it was like a second skin. They were proud of that and that was really cool. London was just great for the history. There’s a depth in history and culture there that we don’t really have in the U.S. Londoners seem to be proud of being Londoners and they don’t go around tearing down old buildings to put up new ones. I loved walking around town and seeing buildings that were centuries old.
The Tokyo trip really just showed me the power of social media. It wasn’t orchestrated to be shared, but the unique experiences I had wouldn’t have been impossible without the connections that social media created. When I was in Tokyo, there was one night where I didn’t have any plans and Shingo (IG: @shingomadmen) invited me to see to a rap concert with him. Shingo was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, graciously introducing me to his friends and colleagues who were also at the show. There were some incredible people from brands like BAPE and they must’ve been wondering who this American stranger was that Shingo met online. I was already dumbstruck at what a surreal moment this was when he asked if I’d like to meet Ishizu Rui (IG: @ruiishizu), grandson of VAN Jacket founder Ishizu Kensuke. Without hesitation, I said yes and we agreed to meet the next day. With some effort, I managed to navigate the Tokyo rail system to get to Shingo’s office. That’s where I met Ishizu-san and Komatsubara-san (IG: @besidethebag) and the four of us just talked clothes.Ishizu-san and Shingo were thinking of launching a brand (which is now KENS IVY), but they also wanted to talk about where Ivy was in America now. Shingo said we should all visit Cassidy Harajuku, one of the original bastions for American clothes and goods in Japan for decades. I had seen the store in magazines and read about it in David Marx’s book “Ametora,” so I was thrilled to be introduced to it by guys that had such a deep relationship with it. I already couldn’t believe how generous Ishizu-san was being with his time, but then he invited me to the Ishizu office the next day to meet his father and”Take Ivy” author, Ishizu Shosuke. Meeting him was to meet a legend, and the office was packed with relics of the VAN Jacket glory years. To be able to exchange opinions with the Ishizus on where the Ivy look has gone and where it will go was a really humbling experience. As we got deeper into conversation, Shosuke-san got up and brought me a binder. It contained the fabric swatches that they would show customers to get orders on sweaters, button-down shirts, blazers, and anything else offered in that season. They showed me old catalogs of when VAN started selling outdoor gear, like mountain parkas and North Face jackets. I already felt like a kid in a candy shop being able to go through these old catalogues, but to hear the stories behind them from the first family of Japanese men’s fashion was unbelievable. As I was leaving, Shosuke-san invited me back to visit anytime and handed me one of the famous VAN Jacket paper bags that were once such a status symbol. The Ishizus were both so courteous and generous to me, my only regret is not taking a copy of Take Ivy for Ishizu-san to sign.
The next afternoon, I took the train to Hiroo to have lunch with Kotaro (IG: @Kotarohisaka), who works for Kamakura Shirts. After talking about our mutual interest in Ivy style for a bit, he asked if I’d like to go to the office and meet the chairman, Sadasue Yoshio. Of course I said yes and, after a quick walk down to their office, I was sitting across a reception room from Sadasue-san. I was already a big fan of their products, so it was amazing to hear the background story of how Sadasue-san went from working in the VAN Jacket warehouse (“I wasn’t stylish enough to work in the office,” he told me), to starting his own shirt company. It was half an hour of geeking out about collar rolls and what the perfect button-down shirt would look like. A true gentleman and it was an honor to meet him. The weird thing in all of this was that none of it was planned before I got to Tokyo. It was all possible thanks to the kindness of the people that invited me to these places and to meet some amazing people.
IS: You seem to be a true nuts-and-bolts guy when it comes to the details of the clothes. What did you learn while you were in these global bastions of trad?
BN: New York opened my eyes to the fact that there are still places where people dress up. A nice restaurant will have customers that dress appropriately, and I think New Yorkers still maintain the idea that you respect an event or place with how you dress. The Japanese have well documented attention to detail, and I think they express their love or passion for something with how seriously they take it. The details might seem like a subtle nuance, but without them, it just doesn’t look right. Talking to people who understood that and embraced it was just so much fun; it was a feeling of belonging that I honestly hadn’t quite felt before. Being half-Japanese half-American has made it hard to find a place I feel I belong, but being able to share a common passion has been a great feeling.
IS: Do you have a favorite article of clothing? Outfit? Brand?
BN: I have an old Cable Car Clothiers Harris Tweed sack jacket by Southwick that I still get excited about wearing after years of having it. I love the soft shoulders that Southwick makes and this jacket has the 3/2 roll with flapped patch pockets. It’s so unassuming and looks like nothing special, but someone who gets it understands how special it is and I love that. I wish I had a brown version of it. If I had to pick one outfit, it would probably be a blue button-down shirt, a motif tie, tweed sack jacket or a navy blazer if it’s warm, perfectly worn-in khakis, and penny loafers. That outfit for me hits all the notes of comfort, but it can take you pretty much anywhere. Except for the most formal of occasions, I can’t imagine too many places now where you’d be underdressed. I like that it’s still reserved, but I’m making a definite statement about what I value. Unlike jackets or suits, shirts are hard to buy vintage, so having modern makers who know the importance of a good collar roll is really helpful. I’m always on the lookout for good buttondown shirts with a soft collar, and I like the Kamakura Shirts Sport line. Mercer & Sons also makes great shirts, they might the closest to Brooks Brothers shirts from their glory years. For khakis, I like Bill’s Khakis, but I’m really disappointed with their drop in quality after their acquisition.
IS: What does your future look like?
BN: I get that the Ivy world can feel a little bit intimidating or stodgy to some people. I want to bring down the barriers and welcome anyone who is curious about it. There were resources (like Ivy-Style.com) that helped me along my path, and I’d like to create more content that lets people know that this isn’t such a foreign world. A little nerdy maybe, but not so intimidating. Also, I really like motif ties, with little embroidered animals or people, but I don’t find the motifs always relatable. While I really do love the ties, I just don’t do much duck hunting outside of the arcade. One project I’d like to tackle eventually is making motif ties with maybe Japanese themes, like tiny sumo wrestlers, little bags of instant ramen, or Gameboys. And meeting David Letterman, that’s what my future holds. If I say it, maybe it’ll come true.
IS: What is the future of Ivy on social media? Is this just a trend that will blow over, or will it grow and more people become invested in the style?
BN: I think a lot of people are starting to see that looking nice is not some pretentious pursuit, and Ivy can be a great gateway to anyone trying out a style beyond t-shirts and hoodies. I think the impact of “Mad Men” meant more people are interested in a more tailored look and, though that may have subsided slightly, it took away the stigma of wearing suits and ties as being corporate. If we can be less rigid and be satisfied that Ivy is a framework for people to express themselves within, I don’t see why it can’t grow. It reminds me a little bit of jazz: being too dogmatic in defining what is jazz keeps it from evolving and keeps it exclusive to the most devoted jazz fans. The Internet is a seemingly endless source of inspiration in old pictures, but social media is great for seeing how you can incorporate that in our now more casual world. As much as I love ties, I don’t expect everyone to wear one every day. So how else do we carry on the tradition?