In light of the recent J. Press news, let’s “squeeze” in this New York Times piece from 2000.
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The Traditionalist’s Hit Parade
By Ginia Bellafante
Not too long ago, in an attempt to compete with the world’s Gaps and Banana Republics, Brooks Brothers transformed itself from the kind of store that might dress a young man for his John Knowles life into one that might dress him for his Olive Garden life. Like Talbots, which has also shifted its focus, Brooks Brothers now attracts legions of customers who have never used ”summer” as a verb; it has even gone so far in its efforts at democratization as to issue a CD featuring the music of Santana.
As old guard purveyors of East Coast establishment style enlarge their tents, and as the fashion world pumps out a slightly mocking simulacrum of it, one might wonder — if one wonders about things like madras patchwork pants — where that culture’s authentic retail experience can still be had.
A tour through the more antiquated precincts of the Cheeveresque life would begin at J. Press on East 44th Street, which even during the holiday season rarely feels bustling. Depending on one’s perceptions of privileged people, J. Press either gives rise to visions of Beefeater-saturated extramarital affairs behind the tennis courts at the Greenwich Field Club or remains the proper and unpretentious place to buy a whale-print belt.
Press offers all the accouterments of an idealized life in which good bloodlines dominate: Black Watch plaid pants, grosgrain watch straps, ties with ducks on them — all presented without irony or shame. Although the store is now owned by Onward Kashiyama, the Japanese fashion conglomerate that has also invested in Alexander McQueen, its claims to the universe it is hawking are not false. It was first opened in 1902 by a Russian immigrant, Jacobi Press, in New Haven and suited members of the Yale faculty. ”We were credited with creating the Ivy League look,” said Arthur Noble, who manages the store’s Washington branch. That look was essentially a four-piece suit, comprising a sports coat, vest, trousers and plus fours to wear with the coat on weekends. ”We haven’t changed a lot in 98 years,” Mr. Noble said. ”But we don’t sell the knickers anymore.”
A man who outfits himself at J. Press might well have a pair of Belgian shoes in his closet, or if not, he’d be looking for a woman who did. Unlike, say, duck ties, Belgian shoes are an essential part of the prep wardrobe, carrying an image more genuinely exclusive than goofy. Part of the reason is that the fashion world embraced them in the 1970’s, and part of it is that they can be found in only one spot, Belgian Shoes, on East 55th Street. The store was opened in 1956 by Henri Bendel, originally one block away. It still maintains the genteel hours of 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and started opening on Saturdays only last year.
The store has had the same manager for 44 years, Margaret Cardone, a native of Queens, who will tell you first and foremost that the Belgian shoe, a piped, bowed, slip-on affair, ”is not a loafer.” Like other elements of the prep iconography, Belgian shoes, brought to this country from Belgium in 1955, were intended for times spent swirling swizzle sticks in Palm Beach and on Harbour Island. Like many of their wearers, Belgian shoes aren’t meant to do much at all. ”You have to remember, the people who wore these didn’t go to work,” Ms. Cardone said, standing in front of a shelf full of shoes in pastels and bright yellow with contrasting piping. ”This is not a shoe to be worn all day.”
Lest the Times become cross with us, head over here for the rest of the piece.
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