This is part two of Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold’s interview with Denis Black, manager of the Cambridge J. Press store. Here Black reveals the fate of the flap-pocket OCBD, discusses Brooks Brothers during its heyday, and addresses the current cut of J. Press’ suit shoulders.
CC: During the heyday of the Ivy League Look, what were the differences between Press and Brooks? Were you more forward than them, or more conservative?
DB: I’d say we were right on the same baseline. We both had belts on the back of our chinos and flannels —
CC: — When are those coming back?
DB: I’m working on it. I have some samples here that I sent to New York and we’re having some manufacturers look at them.
We were on the same baseline in those days, but Brooks has changed so much that we’re like they used to be. I remember when the real big change came over there in the early ’90s and their salesmen were sending their customers over here because the customers were complaining. So they said, “If you can’t stand change, go over to J. Press.”
CC: What do you think of the merchandise in their stores right now?
DB: I think it varies. And it varies even more with the help and assistance. For the most part, I don’t see a lot of people there who can give you good advice about dressing. And the merchandise is mass produced and the methods of display are kind of department store-like.
The toothpaste is out of the tube. They lost the traditional Brooks Brothers customer, and I think they’re now trying to reinvent themselves, but they can’t get that toothpaste back in the tube. But ours is still in the tube. We still make the traditional tweed jackets, three-button with button-on-center. We do have some two-button suits, but we always did.
CC: What do you remember of Brooks Brothers during its golden age?
DB: When my father was there, his first task in the morning was to inspect how every single employee was dressed. This was around 1957, and if you came to work without a hat, you were sent home. That was a stark difference between retailing today and yesteryear. Everyone in every department had been with the company for a long, long time. They were professionals in their trade, and they knew how to take care of you.
CC: Someone posted an old Press catalog on the web that mentioned a “crash linen” jacket, a term that also came up in a novel I recently read. What’s crash linen?
DB: That was a suit and blazer we sold that was a blend of linen and Dacron, tightly woven to prevent wrinkles. You can’t get it anymore: The fabric just isn’t available. We carried them in four or five colors.
CC: That’s a pretty rakish name. Where did it come from?
DB: Irving Press invented all these things. He was a genius at inventing them. He invented the “Shaggy Dog” sweater, a combed Shetland sweater. He had a guy comb them to fluff them up, then registered the Shaggy Dog trademark.
CC: Was the idea that it would look more nonchalant if it was brushed, because it would look old and broken-in?
DB: Yes. They were originally made by Drumohr, a famous old hand-knit company in Scotland, but eventually they went out of business.
CC: How popular are the Shaggy Dogs today?
DB: They’re a staple. People get very upset if we don’t have a big selection of Shaggy Dogs when fall sets in. You can’t get them anywhere else. We have customers in foreign service who call from all over the world and say, “I’ve got to have Shaggy Dog sweaters for my family for Christmas.”
CC: Who makes them now?
DB: Generally we place the order with a vendor in Scotland who shops it around to the best mill because of delivery dates. So they could come from a different mill every year, but they’re to our spec.
CC: How are the looks for each season decided?
DB: You look at what you’ve sold, and what you have on hand, and you decide what people would be wanting most. You try to add a little change in colors and patterns from season to season, but basically people expect to come here and find a navy blue Shaggy Dog, so there will always be navy blue ordered every season. But we might have a sixth color, like purple or orange, that we change every season.
CC: Who makes these decisions?
DB: The managers sit down and thrash it out.
CC: It’s not from Japanese corporate?
DB: No, but of course they’re part of it.
CC: So you guide them more than they guide you?
DB: I wouldn’t say that. It’s a joint effort.
CC: Since J. Press is an American institution, what’s it like being owned by a Japanese company?
DB: By nature, the Japanese are very traditional folks. So the difference is quite minimal. They like J. Press for its tradition, so they haven’t done a lot to change us.
CC: Do you think the brand is better appreciated in Japan?
DB: I wouldn’t say that. But it’s definitely a much bigger company that encompasses men’s, women’s and children’s clothing. The styling is still a traditional preppy kind of look, but a little bit bolder. Also, over there they’re manufacturers and run their shops by leasing in department stores.
CC: What’s the current status of the flap-pocket, oxford-cloth buttondown?
DB: We will continue to make it, but it will probably be spring of next year until we have it back again. And in the meantime we still have some stock in them, but not in every size and color.
CC: Has the suit shoulder changed over the years?
DB: I think everyone’s has over the years. It’s gone from absolutely no padding, to some padding, to a broader shoulder, a narrower shoulder. Our shoulder is as natural, or more so, than any other shoulder in the industry. In years past we didn’t have to change vendors all the time. You have to find a vendor, work with them, make models, and change from season to season. Every year is different.
CC: But “every year is different” sounds entirely anathema to what J. Press stands for.
DB: I’m talking about slight differences that no one would notice. We’re very fussy about how these things are made. So if you go with a new maker, it takes you several seasons to get it down to what we want. I would say that over the years the interpretation of “natural shoulder” has evolved. It’s gone from nothing at all to more padding, then to less padding, in 10-12 year intervals.
CC: Where are we in the cycle now?
DB: We’re going to much less padding and a shorter shoulder point from sleeve head to neck point. If you come in now and look at size 41 jackets, you might find one that fits entirely differently from ones that have been made most recently. There could be less shoulder or there could be more.
CC: And when you say you’re moving toward less padding and a shorter shoulder point, “moving toward” means next season, next year?
DB: It’s been happening for the last two seasons. It’s kind of an evolutionary thing. When you work with manufacturers, they don’t always get it right. You approve the samples, but the production that comes in for a season may be less of what you expected it to be, but you don’t send it all back, because if you did, you wouldn’t have any jackets for anybody.
CC: It sounds like you’re saying that the reason some shoulders have been larger than others is that they are, for expediency’s sake, mistakes.
DB: That would be correct. J. Press has always been known for the closest thing to any natural shouldered garment in the industry. I have one here, our Presstige model for the season, a tropical worsted in a light gray glen plaid, and no one could make a more natural shoulder than that jacket.
CC: Is the reason why there have been some inconsistencies because there are fewer vendors today? You’ve mentioned that at one point J. Press had six manufacturers all of which had over 40 years of experience.
DB: Yes, you have to work with the few that are left. We stayed for many years with the same people. They had our patterns and knew exactly what we wanted. It’s not that things go wrong now. You work with them and give them a pattern. They make samples. And mistakes happen at the factory because the same cutter doesn’t cut your goods every day. Cutters are by nature contrary people. They look at a measure of 17 and say, “That’s not right, I’m going to make it 16.”
CC: That’s a frightening thought.
DB: But that’s the industry. The owner of the factory will have a hard enough time finding a cutter, so he’s not going to lock horns with the cutter. The stuff gets produced and shipped out, and if you’re starting your fall season in September, and this stuff comes in the middle of the month, there’s no time to send it back. So I may have a model or two from time to time where the shoulder isn’t exactly the same every single year. But we’ve refined it now and have the model that we like from our vendors.
CC: Who were your vendors that are no longer in business?
DB: Gordon of Philadelphia, for example, or Hertling of Brooklyn. And for 60 years our shirts were made by the Troy Shirt Guild.
CC: What sent them out of business?
DB: The guy that owned the factory wanted to retire, and couldn’t sell it to anybody. In this business, it’s very difficult to sell that sort of thing. You may be able to sell the label. So he told the employees he was going to close it, but if they wanted to, they could put their money together and buy it collectively. So he sold it, and they soon found out they couldn’t run it. The materials were terrible. Someone else bought the name and revived it. It’s quite a nice shirt, but it’s not the company it was.
CC: Is there any news you’d like to share with us?
DB: One of our best selling jackets for spring and summer is a casual one called the Slack Jacket. It’s an unconstructed washable cotton jacket, something we sold in the ’40s and ’50s and have kind of brought back. It’s doing very well and you can probably expect to see more of them, maybe even for fall and winter jackets. Another hot-selling item was the patchwork, polka-dot scarf seen on the TV show “Gossip Girl.” Big hit. People from all over the world ordered that.
CC: All due to the TV show?
DB: And the web. There are no secrets anymore.