When last in New York, I took some time to stroll along Fifth Avenue and wound up stopping at the GANT flagship store. While this may not sound like an overly significant event, for me it was an eye-opening experience.
While an unfair characterization, my gut reaction to the GANT brand has long been something to the effect of, “GANT….don’t they make bland weekend wear I usually find on the discount rack?” At some level, I knew this was unmerited because one of my all time favorite story board catalogs is actually from GANT. It reads like a memoir from Marrakesh – complete with inserted typewritten journal pages. The clothes looked great and the overall feel was very updated and creative.
Still, this was at odds with what I actually knew of GANT – at least (as I came to discover) its American incarnation. Much like IZOD downgrading the storied history of Lacoste, the GANT of my youth was embodied in generic looking windbreakers and uninspiring rugby-like shirts. As a brand, it was completely forgettable.
Then, several years ago, Tom, a friend of mine moved to D.C. from Europe and asked where he could find GANT clothes in the states. I thought about it and told him that I honestly had no idea. Why, I asked, would such a smart dresser seek out the very definition of bland sportswear? Tom pointed out that half of what he had on was, in fact, GANT. I was stunned. I learned that in Europe, GANT was another brand altogether – more Ralph Lauren than Ralph Kramden.
Founded in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, by Bernard Gant, his small shirt making business went on to become a cornerstone in the WASP fashion ethos. Gant manufactured shirts for the likes of Brooks Brothers and fellow New Haven institution, J. Press. In 1949, the family launched their own brand and GANT was born. Focused on the emerging desire for dressy casual clothes, they introduced such innovations as the button down sports shirt to the market. The combination of exacting quality and innovative takes on traditional American styles eventually drove GANT to national prominence.
After the Gant family sold the company in 1967, a series of corporate owners diluted the brand’s WASPy message and it eventually receded to the state of averageness I knew.
In the 1980s a Swedish company acquired the rights to license the brand everywhere except the United States. They infused GANT’s historically traditional East Coast American appeal with a clean and tailored European twist. GANT’s European arm eventually eclipsed the American one; the Swedes had essentially out-Americaned the Americans.
This situation explains why, when my European friend Tom and I were talking about GANT, we were in fact talking about two different worlds.
After finally acquiring the U.S. brand, the now international GANT entered its original home market in 2001. No longer dowdy and generic, America was reintroduced to one of its classic brands. The combination of European design sensibilities and American heritage was a domestic hit and GANT has prospered and grown since.
While the American presence is mostly limited to clothing and some timepieces, GANT’s European portfolio also includes house wares and linens. Bernard Gant’s shirt making business has now grown into a global lifestyle brand. Why it has taken me song to catch on to GANT’s global presence is a mystery, but I suppose some prejudices are hard to shake.
Once in the Fifth Avenue store though, I found myself transported to an urban preppy-ish library cum boarding school space. There was a distinct personality to the store and to the clothes: fresh but traditional, young but classically grown up. American, yet somehow European too. I even felt a little Hackett being channeled in some of the sport coats. It was a wonderful and wholly unexpected experience. That’s what I get for not paying enough attention to such a worthy company.
So, if you find yourself looking for a new and different take on New England Americana, check out GANT. At testament to their new domestic prowess, Scott Schumann (The Sartorialist) recently shot a series based on GANT outfits. The models, amateurs all, got to put together their own GANT looks. Not surprisingly, everyone looked great. Now, that’s pretty cool.