Last month Gant returned to its New Haven birthplace with the new Campus Store at 268 York Street, right next to J. Press and a stone’s throw from Yale University. Gant’s return to New Haven drew much press attention for good reason: The brand, which is now owned by a European company and boasts stores in 73 countries, began in 1949 as a shirt manufacturer in the Connecticut town.
New contributor Eric Adler recently spoke with Gant USA CEO Ari Hoffman about the company’s return to its roots.
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IS: What’s the historical significance of the York Street building?
AH: The building was founded in the early 1900s as one of the original fine men’s department stores. At that time New Haven was a bustling industrial town.
Our choice was based on the location and look of the building. That location is a pillar of retail for New Haven and the Yale campus. In terms of New York City, it’s like the 5th Avenue-57th Street corner. We also based the location on the fact that you can’t help but fall in love with the building.
IS: When collecting memorabilia for the Campus Store, what were you looking for?
AH: The main Gant memorabilia in the store are the shirts from the ‘60s that have the Yale Co-op label. Finding some shirts with the original Yale Co-op/Gant Shirtmakers label was the most important part. We also found photographs that go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s of our facilities in New Haven. As I went deeper into this project, I began to discover how much it meant for New Haven to have all these Gant factories — how deeply involved Gant was in New Haven in terms of industry. So it’s fantastic to have photographs of the factories and the New Haven landscape.
We also have original Gant advertising that goes back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. We’ve surrounded this Gant memorabilia with memorabilia associated with the Yale/Ivy League/preppy lifestyle — everything from rowing equipment to cups and saucers from Mory’s, to vintage catalogs and a very old football helmet.
IS: Although Gant has a long history with New Haven, it never had a retail store in the city. Why now?
AH: That’s an interesting point. Well, I can tell you how the whole idea started. When we celebrated our 60th anniversary, this included rediscovering our Gant history. So I took a group of around 70 executives for a tour of New Haven, in which we found all the old Gant factories. It triggered us to say, “Wow, we have so much history in this town.” And of course the era of the factories is over, let’s face it. So, why not come back with a store and re-stake the ground here? And that’s what we did. We came back, not in the shape of a factory, but in the shape of a retail store.
IS: So it’s still a homecoming.
AH: Yes, and it’s been so nice since we’ve opened. In fact, we decided to let customers in the store sign in. We have people coming into the store who used to work in the factories. For instance, some of our Gant Rugger shirts have a tail on them that was stamped with an original New Haven label. An older gentleman came into the store and told us that he was the one who stamped the earlier versions of these shirts. So all kinds of stories have come along with the opening of the store.
I’ve recently reconnected with the daughter of Elliot Gant. Bernard Gant founded the company, but his two sons, Marty and Elliot, were the ones who really built it as a brand. I told Elliot’s daughter about the opening of the store in New Haven, and I asked her what message she would like to convey there. She is from New Haven herself, and when she was young she worked in the factories. I said to her, “Isn’t it nice to have this homage to your father and your uncle?” And she said, “You know, Ari, I would like to think of it as a tribute to all the men and women who worked in these factories. The patternmakers, the buttonhole-makers, and so forth — this is a tribute to them.” It sounds very idealistic, but the store is a tribute to the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked in the factories.
IS: A lot of brands these days are trying to offer a more youthful version of Ivy style clothing. What makes Gant unique?
AH: Well, everyone claims to be unique. We are trying to be Gant. We have a long history, so we are not trying to be anyone but ourselves. And that’s our uniqueness, perhaps. How many brands of modern men’s sportswear are there today that go back as far as we do? Just a few, like J. Press and so forth.
We have a very rich history, yet it is not just rich in terms of the story itself, but in terms of patternmaking, fabricmaking, etc. To bring this history to the modern world with a modern vision — that’s what makes us what we are today. There’s a reason why we are in Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue and other chic stores in America. They recognize that we are a brand with great heritage and are very relevant.
IS: Can you tell us about the forthcoming Yale Co-op shirts? Will they be proper dress shirts, or will they be more casual?
AH: The Yale Co-op shirts will be based on the historical shirts. Though we are going to update them to some degree, they will be based on the colors, patterns, and specifications of the original shirts. They will of course have a Yale Co-op label. In fact, they’ll be co-branded: Yale Co-op and Gant. They will be more casual shirts. They can, however, certainly be worn with a blazer and a tie. We don’t do hard-press dress shirts; that’s not Gant.
IS: Will the shirts have specific neck sizes?
AH: No. They’ll be sized small, medium and large.
IS: Do you have any plans for the second floor of the Campus Store?
AH: We’re in the process of playing around with different ideas. But let’s leave that to next time, when I can be more precise. I don’t want to say anything that may not play out. So how about we just leave it at that?