Note: Post updated; scroll down to section marked Part Two.
When I first arrived in New York, I was told about an old guard legend named Tom Davis, who had been running the custom shirt program at Brooks Brothers for going on half a century. That’s interesting enough, but Davis’ story has a fascinating twist: he is African American, and began his career at the bastion of the WASP establishment during the Civil Rights movement, surely a fascinating point of view. Over the years we chatted on several occasions and planned to set up an interview. Then, just short of his 50th anniversary at Brooks Brothers, Davis, along with other veteran employees, was offered an attractive buyout. At 73 years old and not ready to retire, he soon joined J. Press, where he sells custom shirts by appointment. (To schedule a meeting with Mr. Davis, telephone 646-973-1329, or email email@example.com.)
Davis and I spoke for some five hours over several occasions throughout this winter, and I’m pleased after all these years to present a Q&A with this kind gentleman of the old guard. In addition to discussing his lifetime of ensuring customers always have a “pleasant encounter,” Davis outlines his personal background; discusses the heyday-era influence of African American jazz musicians; the style and shopping quirks of the Old Money WASPs; changes at Brooks Brothers through the decades; observations of stylish men, or what he calls “optics;” the tremendous technological and social change that has occurred over his lifetime; and finally the present state of American politics. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
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CC: Where did you grow up?
TD: Mississippi and Alabama, and then I came to New York in 1956 when I was 11. We lived on the Lower East Side. Next door had many Hasidic families, and I could look out my window and see a synagogue. My building had a lot of artists and musicians. The families that had children my age, we interacted. 90% of my family were Seventh Day Adventists, so we had the same practices as our Jewish neighbors from sundown on Friday.
CC: A that time, how did your family end up there and not in Harlem?
TD: I had an aunt who was a nurse for 40 years and who worked in Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge. There were quite a few blacks in the area at that time from the South and Midwest. It was a melting pot: Puerto Ricans, Russians, Hungarians. So I heard all those languages. There was a market nearby with the fishmonger, the cheesemonger. My aunt was a great bargainer and would go to the Jewish shops early in the morning, when you could bargain with them.
CC: And where did you go to school?
TD: I was sent to private parochial school in Harlem on 150th Street. It had a sister school in Alabama called Oakwood Academy, so then I went down there.
CC: Was it mixed-race or all-black?
TD: All black.
CC: What kind of kids went to a private school at that time?
TD: It was mostly working class.
CC: To an out-of-state private school?
TD: I was blessed. And to help pay for it I worked on the school’s farm. I’d get up about 4:30 and milk the cows. You learned a lot about animals. Each had its own personality. Then I came back to New York and graduated from the High School of Commerce, near Lincoln Center, where Julliard is now. After that I started working in the diamond district, where I met people who had survived the Holocaust. I was planning for college, and that’s when I was drafted, in 1964. I was a Conscientious Objector, so I served in the medics at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. My unit was sent to Vietnam, but they felt there was a critical need for us back home, so myself and four white colleagues stayed here. The First Cavs, 82nd Airborne and Special Forces all came through, and I met some great people. I was happy because we got them back on their feet. The Creator had a master plan to do good here.
CC: How did you discover the Ivy League Look?
TD: There was a whole Ivy League thing going on since around ’61, and the style took off in the high schools. So myself and a lot of friends got into it. I was always interested in clothes as a kid. My mother and aunt taught the value of buying good stuff, and my grandfathers and uncles, though working class, were rather genteel and dressed very nicely. On Sundays people dressed up. My aunt worked for some wealthy people on Fifth and Park Avenues, and I used to get hand-me-down clothes, including tweed jackets. So it took off in my mind. I’d see some of the older guys in Harlem and how they were dressed. There were the hustler and gangster types with their look, but then there were the others who were in college or professionals, and they wore the Ivy League thing. Jazz was big, and that’s when I became exposed to John Coltrane, Monk, Art Blakey — the whole hard bop thing.
CC: I’ve been covering this topic since 2008, and it all began with an article for Ralph Lauren Magazine about Miles Davis getting outfitted at The Andover Shop. It struck me as an unknown piece of American social history, when African American musicians got hip to this collegiate look. And this seems to be largely how you indeed discovered it.
TD: I call it optics. You had great examples around you. And Hollywood at the time was very Ivy League: it was part of the DNA out there, except for the guys into the slick stuff. And on TV you had shows like “Peter Gunn.” And there was an annual jazz party at Jackie Robinson’s house up in Connecticut, and you’d see these guys in tartan shirts with knit tie and tweed blazer, corduroy trousers and monk-strap shoes. So you’d see how they put things together. They weren’t copying others, but they had carefully observed.
CC: And you feel there’s less to observe today. Fewer “optics” or role models when it comes to style.
TD: You could walk down Madison Avenue up until the mid ’70s and all the ad guys would have on pink shirts, a bottle-green necktie, flannel suit and tassel loafers. At lunch I’d just watch these guys go by, with their raincoats and polo coats. It was great for people-watching.
CC: And now people watch you!
TD: There was an old-timer lawyer in here the other day with the beat-up tweed cap he wears, and a very old Burberry which he ties instead of buckling. Or he’ll wear khakis and a camel blazer with a pink buttondown and tartan tie. And he doesn’t realize that he stands out. It’s changed, as you know. There are a few young people catching on, but for the most part you just see fashion victims.
CC: You’ve seen the gradual casualization of society. Was there a moment when you suddenly asked “What has happened?”
TD: It was in the ’90s with “Friends” when you started to see the influence of Silicon Valley, with t-shirts under v-necks — I hated that! Brooks changed when Marks & Spencer came in. They took the traditional furniture away. The steel furniture turned a lot of people off.
CC: Well tell us how you came to work for Brooks Brothers.
TD: A group of retailers had made presentations at my high school for summer jobs, including Brooks Brothers. They kept me on file, and when I got out of the Army they saw that I’d applied years before. I had a second interview, and that’s when they hired me in 1967 at the age of 22. Everyone started in a stock position on the third floor, whether you had a college degree or not. If you were interested in making it a career, they would rotate you every six months through shoes, shirts, ties, sportswear. The next position was clerical, working under a buyer, and I was in the University Shop. I mentioned I wanted to get into sales, and they put me on a six-month probation and kept track of my punctuality and how I interacted with everyone. Then they asked me where I wanted to work, offering the first floor, which was the pinnacle, and I said I wasn’t ready for that and wanted to get my sea legs working with young people there in the University Shop. And I was there for three years learning from some great people.
CC: The company changed many times while you were there. When M&S bought the company, it must have felt like a light was turned off.
TD: They didn’t know who they were. We saw it start before with Garfinke’s, a great company, which sold to Allied Stores, which was alright but not great. We thought it was going to be great with Marks & Spencer because they had a long history in England. I met two lords who were the owners, and they assured us that they would keep us an icon in America. The mistake was they brought in some arrogant Americans who thought they would change Brooks Brothers and get rid of this old stodgy thing and make it happening. But they knew nothing about traditional, classic and heritage. We weren’t against change, because Brooks had been changing and influenced by the industry for years. But it reached the point where we didn’t have any identity. We were trying to bring in new blood but doing it by throwing the core customer out the door. And we lost a lot who had been there for years, who went to J. Press, Polo and Paul Stuart. As salesmen in the trenches we had to listen to all the complaints. They would look at how we were dressed, and then they’d look around. And some at the top were criticizing us, like our clothes were undermining the idea of what they wanted. First-tier people didn’t last long, and the new group gradually made us neither fish nor fowl.
CC: That seems like where it is now, with its most distinguishing identity being its non-identity. And what about the Del Vecchio years? I understand initially there was optimism.
TD: Yes, we had heard for years it was going to be sold, and we were hoping it would happen as we thought we were going to fall off into an abyss. When he came in he assured us he would bring it back by going into the archives. Which they did. There were a lot of positive changes. But we saw that later they brought in some people from Italy and they wanted a kind of Italian sensibility on it. Again we got pushback from the public, like we were going down the same rabbit hole we went down before. Nothing stays the same, but you don’t throw your heritage and identity out.
CC: Tell us about the changes you saw with the classic oxford-cloth buttondown.
TD: Originally there were eight or nine colors, and same for the candy stripes. Beautiful colors. But they felt it wasn’t in demand, so they started to cut down the colors to four colors and two stripes. As for the collar, they wanted it to look neater, so they added lining. It didn’t have the roll and all the wonderful things people loved about it. We got a lot of complaints, but it helped to build my made-to-measure business of guys who didn’t want a lining in the collar or cuffs. And they didn’t like a placket button on the sleeve; they wanted it clean. Some wanted no pocket.
CC: Who were some of the famous men who came in?
TD: Well the one everyone knows about was Gianni Agnelli, but he mostly got his shirts off the peg. The only time we made them was if we didn’t have his size. His housekeeper would call us up and say what he needed, and he only wore white, blue and ecru. Usually they would buy in great numbers. I wondered why he needed so many shirts, and then it was explained to me that he kept them in different houses. He also had a routine and never changed, and didn’t like to travel with suitcases. He wanted all the clothing he needed to be at each residence: Rome, Milan, Paris, London and around 64th and Park here, where they would distribute the shirts to his other places. I met him twice in the ’80s. Very elegant gentleman, and very nice. He had a gray Alfa Romeo that his driver-bodyguard brought him in. Management came down and we showed him around and he spoke Italian with the tailors. He loved clothing and he loved people.
CC: What did you notice about his style?
TD: He kept things pretty simple. When I saw him he had on a blazer and grey trousers with the watch on over the cuff. It was very elegant. Custom-made slip-on shoes. He bought a jacket off the peg that he liked, and some ties.
CC: Anyone else noteworthy?
TD: I did have Steve McQueen in once when he was shooting “The Thomas Crown Affair” up in Boston. He came in for some casual stuff and was driving one of his sports cars, which he parked right outside. Very cool. He came on the floor of the University Shop. He walked over and said, “Hey guys, what’s happening?” I said, “Mr. McQueen….” and he said, “Don’t call me mister, call me Steve.” He talked about the movie and picked up some t-shirts with a henley collar. He had on a buttondown, khakis, and a low-cut suede lace-up. I heard he did most of the clothing in his movies himself, like in “Bullitt.” It was his own style, and if you didn’t like it, too bad. He was comfortable in his own skin and wasn’t a follower.
CC: When you left Brooks, it was just short of your 50th anniversary.
TD: It was May of 2017, in my 49th year. They gave some of us a package and it was very good. Del Vecchio was very gracious, and we thanked him for that. I wrote him a nice letter as my exit, and included a PS that I was available for any part-time or consulting. There were about 30 of us and we were called in to talk to personnel. They were making changes to reduce their payroll, and that continued after we left. Some stayed behind and later wished they had taken the package, but it was too late.
CC: Did it come as a shock?
TD: They told us about three months before it happened. And after my 65th birthday I had been planning to ease my way out. But I mulled over the offer and some wise people advised me to take it. It was cutting my tenure short, but it may have been a blessing in disguise. And it was. So I have no regrets about it, and left the door open afterwards. It was amicable.
CC: So what was it like for an African American working on Madison Avenue in the ’60s at an epicenter of the WASP establishment?
TD: Well I wasn’t the first: there were two before me. There was a gentleman named John Jackson who was there for about 35 years before he ended up working for J. Press for close to 10 years around the ’90s. Jack Kennedy was president of Press at the time, a fantastic gentleman. When he left Brooks, I called up Jack and asked him if anything was available. He had John in for an interview, and started working. He knew the product. He was the first on the floor at Brooks, and then after him was Alfred Troy. He also worked there about 40 years.
CC: So in the “Mad Men” era of ad men and commuters through Grand Central, it was OK?
TD: There were some incidents, but not many. Not anything that really sticks in my mind.
CC: But you’re a positive person, and attitude determines experience. It seems like you were not going to be knocked down or scared off.
TD: Correct. And as you got into selling and reading people — because you’re part psychologist, and you can pick up vibrations and body language — and that’s what I did. So the older ones advised me, and not only the black. How to measure people. How to turn the negative into a positive. Because people’s impression of you — who knows what they thought? But you would give them a pleasant visit and most people will remember that encounter with you.
CC: What were those old Brooks customers like, say with their notorious Yankee frugality?
TD: I ran into a lot of that, especially in the University Shop with the old money types teaching their young. You’re not buying out of want, but need, which most people don’t realize. Do you really need this?
You had to know your fabrics, and the type of ties they would wear for dress and casual. When they trusted you, they would just send their son and trust you to help him pick out what he needed for school. They’d call me and say he’s going to to get four shirts, a couple sweaters, and some ties. Or they’d ask what kind of ties would work with a jacket. I’d say they don’t need five or six ties, just one or two, and they work with this jacket, this shirt, these trousers. You can take a small amount and make it big.
CC: When a guy came in with some flair — tassel loafers with yellow socks, or a pink Shetland — what kind of “optics” like that would you notice among them?
TD: I remember first seeing the Nantucket Reds with Top-Siders, and there was a thing for shearling jackets when “Love Story” came out, and everyone wanted a polka-dot tie.
CC: Very interesting, as that’s 1970 and the beginning of the dark ages.
TD: I call it the different drummer. They came in with the military surplus gear.
CC: You’ve seen so many changes over your lifespan, from the Civil Rights movement to identity politics, in an ever-evolving process. What’s your take on the tremendous change over the past 50 years?
TD: I’ve seen a lot of regression in certain areas. It’s something each individual must do — society only somewhat. There’s a dumbing-down of America. People don’t read, they don’t observe what’s going on around them, and they allow themselves to be manipulated. People don’t think independently. They are followers and don’t think outside the box.
CC: So they may have good intentions, but a sheep mentality?
TD: That’s perfect. And even if they know something is wrong, they’ll go along. When people talk about the ’60s versus now, folks of all ilk were going in a positive direction. It wasn’t perfect, but every 10 or 15 years we need a fresh awakening because we tend to go back to sleep. And when we do that intellectually or spiritually, we fall into this pond of bad stuff.
I met Bill Buckley a couple of times, and took care of his brother more than him. Even though he was conservative, he listened to other ideas with self-criticism. And one of his toughest interviews was with Huey Newton of the Black Panthers. And when he had a debate with James Baldwin he lost, but they still stayed in contact because it was about ideas. Now with the polarization you don’t have that level thinking. And that’s the problem. And when people bad-mouth the young, I say, “What are you doing to mentor them?”
CC: I think Xers and Boomers do want to mentor the young, but do they want to be mentored?
TD: True, and there’s already danger manifesting itself with [phone addiction]. They are very bright, but they don’t absorb information because the phone has become an extension of their body.
CC: They have anxiety when separated from their phones. It’s total dependency.
TD: What if the power goes out and you have no access to anything but the computer in your head? There’s an atrophying of the mind as well as the body. And then they can’t make personal decisions because they haven’t been given the responsibility from helicopter parenting.
CC: Of all the social and technological changes you’ve seen, what would you most like to see improved?
TD: The whole value system of tradition and Protestant values. Truth. Transparency. Self-criticism. Now you have the propaganda of things as normal that are not normal.
CC: For example?
TD: When a person has a male-female identity problem, where does that come from? When someone is having a problem in that area, you just put a label on it and say they’ll be alright. You have to look at them as an individual, and not a group. Encouraging a person to change genders — that may not actually be their problem. But I have an attitude of live and let live.
CC: There’s not much of that around these days.
TD: No, there isn’t. And as far as labels and defining go, we can say the same with racism. Is a child born that way, or does he become that way? How do you correct it? How does society address it?
CC: You can see how complicated this is, because one thing that comes up with “live and let live” is that it’s not yet a crime to be a bad person. Do we say “live and let live” or do we try to engineer social change? And who gets to decide, and how do you go about doing it?
TD: This is where the spiritual thing comes in. How do you change the heart of a people? It has to be the individual. You can’t do it with the stroke of a pen. And people can have an epiphany and change. Look what happened to one of the biggest segregationists in the South, George Wallace. And when one of his own people tried to assassinate him, his whole demeanor changed. He looked himself in the mirror, and the end result after all of those years, he changed his views. And blacks saw the change in him, and he surrounded himself with them, including his security, because he didn’t trust anyone else after that.
CC: So personal evolution brings about cultural evolution.
TD: Yes. You’re not going to get rid of it by telling people. You have to have personal spiritual evolution. And you used to have dialogue. People were able to come onto TV shows no matter what their beliefs were and people would listen. To be honest, I don’t like either party. Even Barry Goldwater changed, admitting he was caught up in this whole phobia. And there were people in both parties who were thinkers who would sit down and talk and reason with each other. Of late you’ve got your Ted Cruz and on the Democrat side your opposite idiots, and they’re bickering back and forth playing games and the people are caught in between.
Trump is not the brightest crayon in the box, but I was never a fan of Bill Clinton or his wife. Bubba had a lot of nasty stuff, and most people didn’t study that. I had debates about that. He moved into Harlem? So what, he’s not a friend of yours. I’m not a friend of either party; they’re both just as guilty.
CC: That’s a rare point of view in this age. It’s lonely in the middle.
TD: It’s like good-cop, bad-cop. I think the two-party system is obsolete. We are stuck in a quagmire that collectively we’re going to have to dig ourselves out of and not have it repeated again. But by 2050, when I’m gone, the landscape is going to be changed. You can’t bring one group in that’s going to dominate black and white America. That’s going to be a problem. You’re going to see some strange bedfellows. Be careful what you wish for. That a group coming in will help solve things. How do you know that? How are you going to get ideas that benefit everybody? You may think in your mind some myth that everyone will come together as your friend, but you don’t know that.
IS: Getting back to spiritual matters, what are your religious beliefs?
TD: I grew up a Protestant. As I got older I started to see contradictions, and I got away from organized religion. You don’t need an intermediary when you have a direct line to the Creator. It takes study, but you don’t need another person telling you — what authority do they have for your beliefs and criticisms? I looked at Buddhism, Islam, and saw that they’re all talking about the same god, so I just refer to myself as mystic.
IS: What is your spiritual practice now?
TD: I try to make time for as much meditation as possible. When I was young a minister told me each night to just sit, focus on what you did today, the shortcomings, did you do something wrong to someone….
TD: Yes, and try to clear all that and you’ll sleep better at night. I call it clearing the deck with God. And same in the morning. Then I find that anything that happens during the day, you can handle it. And if it’s your last day on earth, you’re prepared for it.