This column from Richard Press originally ran in 2013. His new book “Threading The Needle” is out now and available here.
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Until the 1960s, retailers respected the privacy of their celebrity clientele. The producers of “The Dick Cavett Show,” however, encouraged me to bend the rules.
Beginning in 1968, the credit “MR. CAVETT’S wardrobe furnished by J. PRESS” appeared at the end of his late-night talk show.
The producers had approached me with the idea of dressing Cavett. We agreed with them that Cavett, a Yale graduate, and J. Press was a good match for brand identification. Cavett entered Yale in the fall of 1953 out of Lincoln High School in Nebraska, an unlikely preparation for sharing cups and Welsh rarebits at the tables down at Mory’s.
His breakthrough as a standup comic occurred with socko appearances on “The Johnny Carson Show.” ABC-TV bought his act and placed him in the time slot opposite Carson. He was not interested in presenting himself as an Ivy League version of Carson, but his manner of dress still said New Haven rather than Johnny’s Pebble Beach. He wore natural-shoulder suits, sport jackets and blazers in the standard J. Press two-button model, front darted, mixing center-hook-vents and occasionally side-vented jackets, which he usually wore open. Trousers were plain front, never pleated, and complemented his rather slight stature. Dress shirts were straight point collar, never pinned, and he kept the collar stays in. Ties were 3 3/4 rep stripe and ancient madder.
Throughout the ’70s his sideburns grew longer and his suit collars wider in equal proportion. Our veteran fitter on 44th Street expertly crafted the jackets with slight waist suppression and trousers with a 20-inch knee and 17-inch bottom.
GQ recently labelled J. Press’ new York Street collection an attempt to rescue the brand from its “fusty” and deteriorating customer base. My decades on the floor at J. Press bring to mind the question whether retail conglomerates can successfully respond to the demands of a formerly dedicated clientele and still attract new customers.
Cavett’s wardrobe was a mirror image of the product culled directly from the 32-page semiannual J. Press brochure. The fabrics, colors, textures and patterns respected his outlier Nebraska roots while staying true to the clothing that surrounded him during his undergraduate years in New Haven. Cavett was never mock-Ivy, draped with buttons and spurs in flannel and tweed. The seven to nine-ounce clear finished worsteds maintained their shape and crisp appearance even on a set bathed for 90 minutes in the sweltering heat of spotlights.
Cavett rarely engaged us in over-the-top banter. Unlike Frank Sinatra ,who was always accompanied by a keening entourage, Cavett maintained a discreet privacy and bolted the store the minute he left the fitting room.
The guests of his show were uncannily chosen to match his acerbic wit. “The Dick Cavett Show” captured a niche audience ravenous for the sophisticated repartee of a Yale intellectual. Who would have thought it possible on national television years before cable and the Internet arrived?
Here’s Cavett with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, making for quite the contrast with today’s late-night fare. — RICHARD PRESS