J. Press: Ivy tradition, worldwide sensation
Robert Quigley examines J. Press, its fans across the lands, and the "New Traditionalists."
This time, J. Press had gone too far. When the traditional men's clothing store rolled out its Fall/Winter '06 catalog, that lapel pin was too egregious for keen-eyed sartorialists to ignore. Some ran to their computers without delay to express their displeasure. The offending pin was in the shape of a word. "TRAD," it said, in a two-by-two block"”short for "American traditional," a phrase frequently used to describe the style of J. Press and a handful of other clothiers heavily influenced by the Ivy League look from the '20s through the '50s. Think college scarves; repp and paisley ties; blue or white Oxford shirts; straw boater hats with navy and burgundy hatbands for the rakish and daring. Also key: that they be worn without kitsch or irony, that they be judged by tailoring, quality of material, and classic"”even essentialist"”notions of style. Self-referential lapel pins need not apply.
The crown jewel of the Trad look is the sack suit, which is characterized by its unique buttoning (three-button rolled into two), its lack of darts in the front (darts being tapered seams which hold in the suit-wearer's waist), and its natural shoulders. The sack suit was first worn in Britain in the 1840s, but J. Press, which was founded in New Haven in 1902 to clothe Yale students, is widely credited with helping popularize it in the United States. It is considered a quintessentially American look: Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton have both donned J. Press sacks. Sack suits had their heyday in the '50s, when the Ivy League look was popular far beyond the physical bounds of the universities, but today J. Press is one of the last places where you can buy a true sack suit off-the-rack (according to the purists, Brooks Brothers cheats on the buttoning), which is one of the reasons that Trads esteem J. Press so highly.
Still, there was no way they were giving J. Press a free pass on that pin. "Too flashy and I don't really dig the design," wrote one poster on Andy's Trad Forum"”one of the most popular traditional men's clothing forums, with a membership numbering in the thousands. Someone else sardonically noted that, if the pin were read top-to-bottom rather than left-to-right, it said "TARD." "It's obviously a joke, or for Press's sake, I hope it is," said another poster. "As soon as the hipsters and New York Times fashion editors move on from Press...things will either go back to normal or Press will go the way of many other American clothiers."
Granted, many J. Press wearers wouldn't think to post on web forums or even identify themselves as "Trads," which is a term of relatively new coinage to describe a long-existent style; part of the rationale behind it is to self-distinguish from the preppy look, which many Trads see as too glitzy and mass-market. For the old Connecticut lawyer or the Yale alum who went here in the '50s (when J. Press was all the rage), these style wars might seem beside the point. According to Jim Fitzgerald, the manager of the New Haven J. Press, the bulk of the customers he sees in his store are either connected with Yale in some way or locals whose professions require conservative attire, such as law or banking. While membership statistics were not available on Andy's Trad Forum or Styleforum.net, another popular men's clothing forum with a healthy Trad contingent, an informal sweep of public member profiles on each suggested that many were neither Ivy Leaguers nor residents of the urban areas where J. Press has stores. Still, given the niche presence of J. Press in the U.S."”it has a total of only four brick-and-mortar stores, in New Haven, New York, Cambridge, and Washington, D.C., as well as an online store"”the patronage of a relatively small but fervent group like the Trads can potentially matter a great deal.
All of the hubbub over a lapel pin (which is, after all, a lapel pin) illuminates the peculiar circumstances which face J. Press because its brand and tradition are so intimately entwined. It has built a loyal base of customers by sticking with a tried-and-true formula for decades, and it doesn't want to alienate them. "J. Press clothes are all about traditional style," said Fitzgerald. "Our customers trust us because they know that they're always going to get that same style and quality." But at the same time, J. Press is in a business in which the prevailing fashions of the season can have a huge impact on sales, so there is always great pressure to inch towards popular tastes. When J. Press relocated its flagship store in New York to Madison Avenue in 2007, it was criticized by some of its adherents for adding brighter ceiling lighting and affecting a more modern look, despite the fact that the clothing itself essentially remained unchanged.
As J. Press has found in recent years, even when it sticks to its guns and keeps putting forward the same Old Ivy offerings that it always has, it can still be swept up in large-scale trends. A skull-and-crossbones tie which the store has sold variations of for decades suddenly spiked in popularity in '06 in the wake of a wider penchant for skulls; it was featured on the trend-spotting website coolhunting.com and in Maxim magazine. In January of this year, a J. Press patchwork silk scarf that appeared on the teen drama Gossip Girl became a top-selling item virtually overnight. Given the popularity of conservative "˜40s and '50s-inspired stylings at this year's London and Milan Fashion Weeks, there is ample reason to believe that the trendification of staunch old J. Press has not yet come to an end. "Right now, there are several factors converging at once: economic uncertainty, war, political upheaval," said Yale sociology professor Julia Adams, who cautioned that she was speaking as an interested observer and not as an academic. "As a result, there's this romanticization of the '50s"”as a bulwark against upheaval, but also as a time of promise."
Even if a miniature J. Press mania were to sweep the US, it would likely pale in comparison to the brand's presence in Japan. In 1986, J. Press was purchased by Onward Kashiyama, a Japanese apparel company; today, there are more than 150 J. Press outlets in Japan, many of which are housed within larger department stores, and Onward Kashiyama has recently announced plans to build a new flagship store in Tokyo. Unlike its American cousin, which only sells men's clothing, the Japanese J. Press also offers women's and children's clothes.
David G. Pihl, a Utah genealogist and J. Press devotee who lived in Japan in the '80s, was delighted by the popularity of the traditional style when he was there. "As a student of fashion history, I was thrilled to see many clothing articles that have not graced an American Ivy league campus since the '50s," he said. "The men in Japan knew how to look like a J.C. Leyendecker fashion plate when walking through the business district of town." While Pihl hasn't been to Japan since 1989, he still corresponds regularly with friends there and has since hosted several conventions attended by Japanese businessmen, among whom J. Press is still popular. "You can always tell if they own a closet full of J. Press clothing, even when they are wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and tie," Pihl said. While the contemporary American collegiate look has recently gained ground in Japan, "you can still find many examples of real Trad in Japan," he said.
For a brand that so readily attracts appellations like "Old Yale" or "Ivy League," it's striking how little J. Press is actually worn by current Yale students. Casual observation in any dining hall suggests that Broadway heavyweights Urban Outfitters and J. Crew dominate Eli wardrobes. Given that American Apparel and two Trailblazer spinoff stores, Denali and Traffic, are scheduled to hit Broadway within the next year, the student body is likely to move a bit further away from cricket sweaters and Handsome Dan tie bars.
Even among the right-wing parties of the Yale Political Union, where reverence for tradition is de rigueur, J. Press has a much smaller presence than outsiders often assume. "Though I love visiting J. Press, I have only ever bought their ties: two bow-ties and one necktie," said Peter Johnston, SY '09, a member of the Tory Party. "A number of my friends in the Tories have similar stories"”they love visiting the store for its atmosphere and occasionally buy an accessory. Their scarves are another favorite after ties. But really, no [student] is willing to shell out the money to buy a J. Press suit or sportcoat." Fitzgerald concurs. Citing Yale's 1968 abolition of a dress code which required students to wear jackets and ties in dining halls, he said that now, "most students just don't need to wear suits or jackets unless they have a job interview."
Regardless of the high-intensity sartorial politics that swirl around J. Press, its offerings stand out in today's crowded clothing market based on characteristics less arcane than horn buttons or flat-front cuffed trousers. In an era in which overseas production and synthetic fibers are the norm, J. Press's commitment to produce most of its American wares in the U.S. and Canada, and to do so using primarily natural materials, is a welcome anachronism. And according to Fitzgerald, J. Press's price points are actually similar to its local rival J. Crew's on some items such as neckties and dress shirts"”though J. Press's quality is better"”but Yale students are often either unaware of the store or intimidated by its supposedly stodgy atmosphere. "But when most of them come in and talk to us," he said, "they wonder why they've never come here before."