Tradition and Change: The J. Press Interview

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.”

Click here for part two.

15 Comments on "Tradition and Change: The J. Press Interview"

  1. This is great. I look forward to Thursday.

  2. Great stuff from the source. I don’t know how you get these interviews but my hat’s off to you.

  3. Tins, what can I say? I’m the Barbara Walters of Tradsville.

  4. Great Post!

  5. Great interview! You do seem to score the titans.

    Here in the Southwest (Phoenix) we don’t have any Press shops, so I’d built the experience up in my mind as some sort of pilgrimage to Mecca. Of course, when I finally saw the DC store for the first time last month, I suppose I’d set myself up for disappointment.

    I’m not sure what I expected, but the store didn’t seem to have a sense of itself, it was just – a store. Maybe that’s the point, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the other outposts had more of a sense of mahogany and merchandising… doubtless there are some Northeastern readers who can tell me if the other stores have more of a sense of “experience”.

    It must be sacrilege to compare J. Press to J. Crew unfavorably, but I had imagined that J. Crew’s woody liquor store shop in Manhattan was an homage to an old school Brooksian/Pressian shopping experience. No?

  6. Insightful interview. Thank you!

  7. Richard M | July 14, 2009 at 4:15 pm |

    The Yale and Harvard stores are still “clubby”; the DC store was always like now; the original NYC store was most “clubby” indeed.

  8. I have visited the Cambridge store. It is in the heart of the Harvard area and down the street from the Lampoon office. You can feel the history and tell that fine men have passed through its doors, such as Bill Clinton who wrote a letter thanking the Cambridge J Press store for some items. I may have ran into the man featured in the article…

  9. Old School | July 14, 2009 at 7:32 pm |

    Visited the NY store, around the corner from Brooks, for the first and only time in the summer of 2003. Was greatly disappointed by the non-atmosphere and the non-service and left after a few minutes. It’s not that the salesmen were snubbing me–that would have been obvious, just that they weren’t at all interested in being of any assistance whatsoever. Brooks (which I also visited for the first time that day, although I’ve been wearing their shirts since 1968) was a sheer delight–a virtual temple to trad-dom. I have ordered a few Press ties by mail because I liked their range of patterns much better than those offered by Brooks. Greatly disappointed: flimsy/skimpy, to say the least. BB ties (even Lands’ End ties) are far more substantial.

  10. I agree with Old School…I visited the Brooks store on Broadway in Manhattan and was treated like a king…and found some great items at 50% off…I have to say that Brooks’ quality is superior….

  11. I visited the DC store two years ago for very the first time and received superb service, purchasing a tweed 3/2. On my second visit a year later the salesman remembered me, had quietly looked up my previous year’s purchase, and proceeded to assist. Amazing. A single prior visit, only one appreciable item, one year having past, however you’d have thought I was a senator. The store may not be clubby, however the sales staff are second to none.

    In contrast, by happenstance I was dressed head to toe in Brooks. I walked over the block or two to their flagship store and never received an offer for help or even the acknowledgment of my being in their business. I returned back to Press and purchased a second jacket for that DC trip. Evidently, one must be a senator.

    This year between Christmas and New Year’s I’ll return again, and this time with my son in tow.

  12. andrea marcus | October 20, 2009 at 7:28 pm |

    these guys have totally left out the sills brothers who were responsible for their success…chip which became chipp, jpress, hunter haig and even brooks, where are the old tailors who can out all this dribble and put it to rest. i see so many web sites claiming they were the go to guys, wrong, it was the three sills boys in cambridge who really got this going.

  13. Andrea Marcus, I agree with her remarks, we are still here @ 425 Madison Ave.. NY NY 10017…..still making custom clothes.

  14. Icky Thump | June 3, 2013 at 6:11 pm |

    The poplin suits are now made in China. Only way you can tell is if you find the postage stamp- sized tag on the liner and use a magnifying glass. I bought one, had it altered and am now stuck with it. J Press prayed on its good reputation with me, a long time consumer, and yes, made a $564 sale but lost a customer.

  15. Christian | June 3, 2013 at 6:21 pm |

    I’ll investigate.

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