My time at J.Press in New York began in 1960 at the sliver of a store that occupied the second floor on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 44th Street. It was indeed a tight squeeze at J.Squeeze.
The unforgiving 1,200-foot space stuffed 2,500 garments on double hangers in mobile Garcy racks. Customers were encouraged to finger the thousands of OCBDs and ties on open counters while foraging the hidden treasure of haberdashery and furnishings in the stuffed drawers underneath.
With a location around the corner from legendary heyday hangout Clock At The Biltmore, during school vacations and cash-sale times the line to the elevator stretched out to the sidewalk. One day we were about to burst when Harry Macklowe, then a starter prior to becoming an incendiary real estate mogul, showed up. “I’m gonna make a deal,” he told Irving Press, “to move you downstairs to the other side of Madison into the space currently occupied by the Atlantic Coast Railroad.”
Harry got us out of our lease and into the new store in 1962. The first-floor selling space was 3,200 square feet with window displays on the street sporting a six-foot depth which Irving planned to use to copy the iconic windows of the New Haven York Street store that drew its inspiration from the displays of the Burlington Arcade in London.
Irving Press admired the chic T. Anthony luggage store near his home on Park Avenue, and engaged Fred Noyes, the architect who had originally designed the Anthony store. Noyes succeeded in following Irving’s instruction that the store take on the manner of a private club, with back aisles encouraging a personal relationship between customers, and sales personnel promoting a sense of privacy with the merchandise. The openness also encouraged shoplifters, which we discovered several months after opening and we became the only retailer in the country with Pinkerton detectives who looked like members of The Yale Club.
My heyday on 44th Street has been duly transcribed in previous Golden Years columns here at Ivy Style. The beginning of the end of my heyday follies occurred in 1986. Upon sale of the family business to Onward Kashiyama, my title of President & CEO of J.Press was fittingly changed to Vice President. In the 1987-1988 period of Kashiyama’s ownership, Tokyo approved one J.Press new store opening (Washington, DC), and a location change in Manhattan. As the lease at 16 East 44th Street expired, I had discovered that a fix-up was available to us directly across the street, a space formerly occupied by a women’s athletic club. It also happened to be located next door to the Brooks Brothers side entrance.
The areas of the basement that had once been the sauna, the steam room and showers became the new J.Press shipping room and stock room, with my desk placed opposite the men’s and ladies’ restrooms. (Yes, a men’s room at the ladies athletic club). After we found a highly regarded San Francisco architect who had designed stores for Brooks Brothers and recently redesigned the landmark operation next door to J.Press, I suggested we use the lounge of Davenport College at Yale as our new Manhattan store model.
It’s spare outside provided excellent window views for Grand Central Terminal foot traffic, and received favorable reviews from Elizabeth M. Rodgers, a retail consultant for the Grand Central Partnership. Charged with taming some of the more unbridled storefronts in the neighborhood, Ms. Rodgers noted in a summary of her efforts that the new J. Press, with “discreet blue awnings and a simple logo neatly centered,” offered a perfect example of doing everything right. She concluded her report, “The store moved from its previous location across the street and made the building look better.”
As former Vice President of both J.Press and the Dartmouth Club of New York (discreetly situated inside the Yale Club), may I offer a Wah-Hoo-Wah and Boola-Boola cheer for the slated Fall 2017 opening of the new J. Press New York flagship store at the ground floor of the Yale Club. It’s back to the future on 44th Street. — RICHARD PRESS