Yesterday we posted about a Harvard Gazette piece that included an interview with J. Press Cambridge store owner Denis Black.
Black was the subject of one of Ivy Style’s early Q&As, which we’ll take the opportunity to revisit.
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Depending on your point of view, J. Press isn’t what it used to be or is exactly what it’s always been.
Trying to stay true to its original vision — amid radical changes in American society and domestic manufacturing — is the main theme of this interview between Ivy-Style founder Christian Chensvold and Denis Black, manager of the J. Press store in Cambridge, MA.
Sixty-two-year-old Black (pictured below) joined J. Press in 1977 and is a second-generation menswear specialist. His father managed the Boston outpost of Brooks Brothers. “I know well the Boston-Cambridge area and this style of dressing,” he says. “You might say they’re in my blood.”
Black shares his thoughts on both Press and Brooks during the heyday of the Ivy League Look, the state of both companies today, the challenges of producing a consistent natural-shouldered garment, and the fate of the flap-pocket, oxford-cloth buttondown.
The interview will be presented in two parts. The conclusion will post late Wednesday night Pacific Time for the benefit of early-rising East Coasters on Thursday morning.
CC: How has your customer changed, if at all, over the years?
DB: He really hasn’t changed a lot. The Press business started on the Ivy League campuses, that was the foundation of the business. And as those men grew up and became professionals, they remained loyal to J. Press, but also brought back their children and grandchildren. So it went from being a fledgling campus business to an American tradition for Ivy Leaguers, and for professionals who liked that look, who would sit in a boardroom, look across the room, and say, “That’s how I want to look.”
CC: At what point, and how, did the J. Press go from being collegiate — it was a youth-oriented brand for many decades…
DB: … When you say “collegiate” you’re thinking in terms of today. This business was started in 1902, and from then until around 1967, everyone on a college campus wore a jacket and tie. It was a young gentleman’s look. The Press family began by going door-to-door at dormitories at Yale, and then traveling to all the prep schools by train. So when you say “collegiate” or “youthful” dressing, there was no such thing in those days.
CC: What I mean is that at some point — and you mention the year 1967, which in my research has come up before as the year when society really began to change —
DB: — It was a turning point.
CC: Yes. And yet now many would consider the brand ultra-traditional, whereas before the brand was hip among young people. Is it simply that society changed following 1967, and therefore our perception of the brand changed?
DB: Yes, society has continually changed since 1967, but J. Press has not. It has remained a traditional constant in the menswear business — the only constant. All the others, even Brooks Brothers, have had radical changes. And we’ve been able to remain constant because we’re small.
CC: So if the clientele and clothing haven’t changed but America has, how do you keep the company healthy and keep new generations discovering and appreciating the brand and its style?
DB: We’ve lived off the original base. At one time I think I had four generations from one family shopping here. There’s still the Ivy connection, and there’s very strong brand loyalty from people who wouldn’t think of wearing anything else but J. Press.
CC: What experiences do you have with younger customers today?
DB: They’re quite knowledgeable, and for those that aren’t, if they’re directed here by a friend, they soon become quite savvy. They’re impressed with the fact that they have help from us and that you get the right advice here, not the wrong advice, and you get it from experienced people.
CC: What is the right advice?
DB: The correct way of dressing. There are many foolish myths in this business that are created by people without a sense of professionalism, such as that you can only wear cuffs with a pleated-front trouser. It’s not true: It’s a myth created by some department-store lackey. Or that you should wear a cummerbund when you’re not wearing braces. And we give them the right advice, like you’re not supposed to wear gold jewelry after six, or that you don’t wear white tie with a dinner jacket, you wear it with tails.
CC: Do you think, however, that the entire concept of correct dressing is a bit outdated? I’ve previously interviewed Paul Winston, and he was very much against the concept of rules.
DB: Well, Paul Winston was something of an innovator. Another innovator would be Fred Astaire using a necktie as a belt. I was here at Harvard when Woody Allen was getting an award, I think from the Lampoon, and he forgot his dress shoes and showed up in a tuxedo with sneakers. And soon everyone in America was doing it. These guys are fashion symbols. Cary Grant was another innovator, and was very trendy but tasteful.
CC: How has the company resisted the temptation to be more contemporary?
DB: Well number one, 90 percent of our business is people who don’t want change. They want a look that’s timeless. They don’t want to look at a picture of themselves 20 years ago and laugh. A lot of people in society look at a photo of themselves 30 years ago at a wedding and the guy’s wearing a banana-yellow tuxedo and has an afro. But the J. Press guy looks the same as he did in that picture, and not only does he look acceptable, he’s admired.
CC: And what does that stay about this style and why you’ve stuck with it? It sounds like this style reached a state of perfection and then you stopped changing it.
DB: If we started to change and did the things that everyone else did, there would be no reason to come to J. Press. We’d be just another store. If we carried the same kind of things as Brooks Brothers or Macy’s, you might as well just go there. They have more stores, they’re open longer hours, and they’re all over the country. You wouldn’t need J. Press.
CC: Some say J. Press isn’t what it used to be. What’s your response to that?
DB: Nothing is what it used to be. But customers who’ve been coming here for 60 years say, “You haven’t changed.”
CC: What about the notion of quality, and made in America?
DB: Where a garment is made is no indication of quality. Manufacturing has changed. We do strive to sell things that are made in America, but in many cases it’s becoming impossible to buy certain things made in America that are high quality. A lot of our neckwear is made in England and Italy, and we couldn’t find a better quality. Armani makes a very nice suit in China. There are many nice things made in China, but we don’t make suits there. We make suits in the US and Canada. There may come a day when we make suits in China, but it’s not likely to happen in the near future.
Almost all the American manufacturers are gone. We used to have six different manufacturing vendors for suits and sport coats with a history of 40 or 50 years behind them. And the same shirt manufacturer, always the Troy Shirt Guild. But these people have all gone out of business, and it’s just a fact of life. So we have to look for new vendors all the time.
What else is different? In the old days we sold detachable shirt collars, bow ties by neck size, sized hosiery — none of that happens anymore. Hats are generally sized S-M-L. We don’t sell variable sleeve length shirts; we sell an all-cotton, full-body shirt, and that’s never changed. Our tie width hasn’t changed in 20 years.
CC: Describe the J. Press suit in your own words. We know it’s an undarted jacket with a 3/2 roll, two-button cuff, and has plain-front trousers with cuffs. But what’s the philosophy behind the Press cut?
DB: That’s just it: Simplicity. You just completely described the suit. It’s the J. Press #3: three-button, button-on-center —
CC: — What’s “button-on-center”?
DB: Three button, with the center buttoned.
CC: You don’t use the term 3/2 roll?
DB: No. We also describe the suit as natural shoulder with “sack front.” I have a picture in front of me of a October 25, 1954 Sports Illustrated featuring Vic Seixas, a champion amateur tennis player, and he’s wearing that exact cut. It’s a post-World War II design, not before. And we and Brooks Brothers simultaneously came up with this look. The cut was identical between Brooks and us.
Paul and Irving Press, the sons of Jacobi Press, were the guys that really invented it. Prior to that, J. Press was a totally bespoke company and only sold furnishings off the rack. But post-WW II they realized that so many guys were coming back from the army and going to college, so they had to speed up the process and sell off-the-rack clothing.
People were looking for simplicity. When guys came back from World War II they were shattered. Their only thought was to get into college and get a career started. Their lives had been complicated enough by the war. And that simple, stable look… I mean, for years we lived off IBM and the FBI, because that was the look. It’s the simplicity of it all.
CC: The sack suit is often considered boxy and anonymous. Whom do you think it flatters?
DB: For our customer, it’s a very good look. We’re dealing with a little bit older and heftier professionals. It’s not an athletic cut. But it’s always been an acceptable look for young college students, too. There’s a new generation of them that are very interested in this, and I’m sure that’s why you have this website, because you know they’re out there.
CC: It surprises me how many emails I get from college students.
DB: Nobody wants to look like their parents, and their parents dress like bums. When their parents dressed like Ward Cleaver, they wanted long hair and bell-bottomed trousers and to go around with their fly unzipped smoking dope [laughter]. That generation grew up and had children who are sitting there looking at mom and dad going, “I don’t want to look like that. I want to have some style.”