This is a true story: Back when he was running for president in 1980, George H. W. Bush (that’s George senior) was giving a speech at his alma mater, Yale University, and being heckled by some students. Someone yelled out that Bush was just another out of touch “Brooks Brothers Republican.” The president, apparently offended by that particular remark, promptly opened his suit coat to reveal its J. Press label.
I’ve always liked that story because it shows the deep dedication that some cultures naturally create. J. Press has that kind of culture. It is the quintessential New England prep-Yale Man-old money-Ivy League brand that the J. Crews and Ralph Laurens of the world want you to think they are. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those brands, I’m a fan of both. But J. Press is special because that’s where it all started. It’s the real deal.
Though not as well known commercially as Brooks Brothers – there are four brick and mortar J. Press stores to Brooks’ nearly 200 – J. Press is as classically preppy as you can get. In fact it quite literally invented the look. From the 1930s through the’50s, Press helped to cement the image of American preppy in the minds of college students everywhere. Known as the “Yale” or “Ivy League” look, it came to define the stylish New England intellectual or at least moneyed, layer of society that was the ruling class of the time. A hybrid of English prep school uniform and traditional American wear, the preppy look is timeless.
Founded in 1902 by Jacobi Press, in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, his namesake company has always adhered to a traditional some would say conservative, design philosophy. Much of their clothing is still American made and most of the shirts, ties, jackets and trousers are quite indistinguishable from from your father’s wardrobe. Mr. Press would probably feel right at home were he to walk into one of his stores today. In fact, the New Haven flagship has never moved from its original location.
Sartorial innovations like the sack suit and natural shoulder were invented here. The trademark three-button suit coat with the rolled lapel that visually converts it to a two-button is also a Press innovation. The sack suit itself, given global branding by Jack Kennedy as the definitive American suit, is also credited to J. Press.
Another Press signature is the lack of pleated trousers. All J. Press suits have flat front pants and always have; it’s the kind of consistency and tradition that make the company such an icon among its customers, generation after generation. Where Brooks Brothers’ shirts are famously voluminous, Press shirts are more trim and discreet. Their shirts also have, should you choose the option, a distinctive flapped pocket. that’s a little too quirky for me so I stick with the open pocket.
But don’t mistake that tradition and adherence to New England stylistic values for old-fashion stodginess. Though clearly smaller when compared to Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart or even Joseph A. Bank (once colloquially known as the poor man’s Brook Brothers), J. Press is a global player and major style influencer on the Trad front. To see just how popular and relevant J. Press is to the fashion world – at least for the true preppy market – you need to go a little ways past New Haven, all the way to Japan.
J. Press is huge in Japan. In 1974, the Press family sold the rights to license J. Press in Japan; becoming in fact the first American brand to be licensed in that country. To many a Japanese professional, the sartorial standard by which business and traditional dress is measured is J. Press. In fact, the company is today a wholly owned subsidiary of its Japanese parent, Onward Kashiyama Co., Ltd. Onward Kashiyama realized almost immediately that to preserve J. Press’ Ivy League cachet, it needed to stay out of the way. And that it has done. Walk into any Press store today and it feels like the company never expanded past the boundaries of Yale, Harvard or the other Ivy’s. Sure, the recently opened Madison Avenue store has a fresher, deco feel to it, but you still know it’s J. Press.
That is the magic of this unique and cherished brand; it knows what it is, who its customers are and what they value. You cannot simply buy that kind of loyaly or respect through advertising or tarted-up branding. It’s earned. J. Press has maintained its preppy core values and remains the truest expression of traditional New England Style. What else would you expect?