My farewell at J.Press half a decade after the sale of the family business in 1986 was orchestrated by Norbert Ford.
Norbert was a charismatic entrepreneur who began his career dressing windows at the original Abercrombie and Fitch safari, rifle and menswear emporium on 45th and Madison. He was a scrappy senior executive, and when Abercrombie faded, Ford became partner of menswear clothing manufacturer Gordon of Philadelphia, changing the name to Gordon-Ford. Norbert Ford was savvy about sophisticated country wear.
Gordon-Ford sold to Brooks Brothers and other top-of-the-line suburban and resort shops coast to coast. He made all the seersucker, linen, poplin and corduroy outfits for J. Press, originating the “suburban suit,” an amalgamation of the rustic country club/company signature regularly advertised in New Yorker Magazine. Norbert’s life was a striver’s rural fantasy, complete with a picturesque farm in Lebanon, New Jersey, from which he and his wife marketed smoked ham, home cheese, and sweet mustard for Christmas gift packages that were sold in town and country shops from Greenwich and Morristown to Lake Forest and Santa Barbara. After his original partner bought him out, he became an international fashion consultant and corporate director squiring a palace ruin on the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland.
A man for all seasons, he counseled me at the sale of the business to our Japanese licensee Onward Kashiyama. “I think you’re going to feel restricted in your new situation and I’m going to keep my eye on you,” I recall him saying.
As the family imprint and leverage waned, the composition of J. Press necessarily changed, which the new owners had every right to do. Norbert encouraged me to consider working for Hartmarx, where he was a board member. “How would you like to take the ball and run? Come on over to Tripler and let’s see if it’s a turnaround.” He must have delivered four or five Knute Rockne-like sales speeches over the course of a half-dozen lunches and dinners at The Yale Club. My prospective destination, FR Tripler, was a funereal, declining remnant of a bygone era. It boasted four floors and 10,000 square feet of fine men’s and women’s wear, and since World War I had been a cathedral of dignity on the corner of 46th and Madison, laid to waste by incompetence and neglect and virtually abandoned by its Midwestern conglomerate ownership. Managed from company headquarters in Chicago, Tripler, Ford believed, had lost its high-octane image. “What the place needs,” he told me, “is somebody to take charge who lives, breathes and stimulates the brand the way you and your family did at Press before you sold the business.” It led, in the end, to my flying to Chicago, where the chief executives of Hartmarx, Bert Hand and Harvey Weinberg, agreed on Ford’s plan.
An anticlimactic meeting took place the following week with my Kashiyama boss, a recitation of unmet company goals that we both knew were unattainable. I thanked him for his courtesy to both me and the Press family as I offered my resignation and quietly said goodbye to what remained of my grandfather’s dreams and his gift to our family. My bags were packed on Friday and on Monday I walked into FR Tripler, where an enormous banner was hanging from a ten-foot balustrade in the back of the store, “Tripler Welcomes Our New President, Richard Press.”
A sign on the door signified a 10 o’clock opening, as Burt Hand and the Chicago crew celebrated my hiring with a spread of bagels, donuts and coffee. The New York Times Business Section noted the move with the headline “From the J. Press Fold To The Top of Tripler.” Stephanie Strom’s article quoted me as saying, “You can decide whether this is fact or fantasy, but when I left J. Press, I looked up at the picture of my grandfather on the wall, he winked at me and said, ‘Richard, go for it.’”
As I fed him the news, my father, Paul Press, hugged me for the first time since my kindergarten days when leaving the house at six in the morning for Winchester’s factory in New Haven to make rifles, an obligation of his draft deferment for the duration of World War II. These many years later he once again offered me a paternal embrace, saying, “I sure as hell hope it works.”
Re-invigorating FR Tripler indeed worked well — for three exciting years — until that day the cloud burst when parent company Hartmarx Retail went belly-up broke, prompting forever my retail farewell to arms. — RICHARD PRESS