Tradition and Change: The J. Press Interview, Part Two

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.

10 Comments on "Tradition and Change: The J. Press Interview, Part Two"

  1. Great Interview!

    Hertling is out of business, too? I was just in a Ships yesterday that had new Hertling pants in.

    BTW, J.Press in Japan has gone to 100% Made in China goods.

  2. An outstanding and well written interview. Thank you for getting the story, and thanks to Mr. Denis Black for sharing his thoughts.

  3. Old School | July 16, 2009 at 3:20 am |

    An unfairly harsh criticism of Brooks Brothers. My only suggestion to BB would be to take a look at the patterns of the neckties offered by Press (which look like what BB patterns used to be) and copy them.

    I have no problem whatsoever with BB offering “non-iron” shirts, as long as they still continue to offer their standard impossible-to-iron OCBDs.

    (I found the salesmen at BB far better dressed than those at Press, who looked out-of-place in Ivy clothing).

  4. Are those the slack jackets the “unconstructed” jackets featured on the website, presently sold out in blue & white?

  5. I can’t get crap outta Press employees — even when I ply ’em with booze. They give a little but not much. Another great interview although I understand Hertling is still in biz. I just bought a pr of their shorts last year.

  6. Christian,

    This article was realllly interest. I think I could talk to him all day! Thanks for this – very interesting.

  7. Old School | July 29, 2009 at 10:12 pm |

    Were you as dismayed as I was to learn that Press once sold Brioni suits?

    From: The Ivy League Look

    From “You’re Right – The Inflation is Worse Than They’re Telling You” – New York Magazine, 5/14/73:

    Clothing costs for fashion-conscious people – especially men – are up sharply, partly because of the determination of a lot of men to march to different drummers, partly because they seem to be buying more kinds of clothes, and partly because the Japanese have gotten turned on to Western-style woolens and have been buying out Australia…Even so, a relatively standard Hickey-Freeman suit that went for $200 in 1969 is now $250 – up 25 percent. And J. Press, a stronghold of traditional fashion, showed an exclusive line made by Brioni until 1971, when the retail price had reached $265 (compared with under $200 for a standard Press suit). Richard Press dropped the Brioni suit because of the rising price; by this time, he says, he would have had to sell the Brioni at $375, an increase of 42 per cent.

    [Ed. note: $265 in 1971 is equivalent to $1400 today. The current Pressidentials are priced from $950 to $1100.]
    Unearthed by The Look at 6:00 AM
    Labels: 1971, J. Press

  8. Allen Lazar | August 15, 2009 at 9:10 am |

    When I was in my mid-teens & living with my parents in Buffalo (late 50’s) I used
    to order Oxford BD’s with flap pocket from J Press by mail.Last time I was in a
    J.Press store-the new(not better) one in New York, I bought some Oxford BD’s
    with flap pockets. I was disappointed because 2 were a very light weight and the
    tailoring was just O.K. I looked up the RN# & found they were made by Sero
    Shirtmakers. Thought they were long out of business.Used to go to J. Press
    every year from the late 70’s to the early 90’s.In the good old days when ALL
    their shirts had a flap pocket.My first J Press shirt was $6.50. Thanks for a GREAT
    article.

  9. Having moved west 7 years ago, I miss the Cambridge store–I had forgotten Dennis’s name; between him and the Hungarian floor clerk who was always there, I usually got good advice, clothes that still look good (when they fit), and sometimes a good laugh.

    To me mail order doesn’t work for suits, though I still get the shirts with pocket flaps. Agree that they are not as good, consistent, or durable as they were 15 years ago, when I started buying.

    Thanks for doing this. I’ll hope I have time to go to Cambridge sometime soon…

  10. Icky Thump | June 1, 2013 at 12:39 pm |

    Note that some suits are now made in China. The labels have been surreptitiously changed and moved.

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