Interview with Richard Press1
April 8, 2013 by Ville Raivio
‘I am 75 and currently a man for all seasons engaged in a symphony of endeavors. In 1986, as President and CEO of J. Press Inc., upon the sale of the family business to Onward Kashiyama of Japan, I was remaindered as Vice President of the J. Press, U.S.A. division of the parent company. Left 1991 to become President and CEO of F.R. Tripler, 115 year-old retail store owned by the Hartmarx Retail Group. The Hartmarx Retail Group was liquidated in 1995 and I departed retail.
Mr Press in New York, 2012, picture: © Rose Callahan
I am currently Featured Columnist at ivy-style.com, menswear consultant, until past January, co-curator at Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology Ivy Style Exhibit. Lectured at Yale University, participate in signings of Yale University Press book, Ivy Style. Regularly interviewed and featured in Japanese magazine Free and Easy, other menswear blogs and journals, labeled by Tablet Magazine, “the premier historian of the Ivy Look.”
Mr Press with wife Vida at Isle St. Louis, 1998
Prep school graduate of The Loomis School (now called Loomis-Chaffee), Dartmouth College, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Master’s Degree from the New York Institute of Technology. My wife Vida graduated Smith College in my same year and managed a Park Avenue surgeon’s office for many years. Daughter Jennifer inherited Press family genes, was host on a popular radio show A Fashionable Life on WGCH, Greenwich, Connecticut.
Mr Press at a J. Press Convention in Tokyo, 1989
Son Benjamin J. Press co-heads DBA-Fortitude Associates, a talent agency in Beverly Hills, California. He wore his grandfather’s inherited 1968 tuxedo last year at an Oscar party when a Hollywood star, his client, complimented him that, “he was the best dressed guy there.” The London Daily Mail agreed and headlined him “best dressed” in their report of the event. Vida appeared with me last year at a Yale seminar where I was speaking on The Heyday of Ivy. She stole the show answering student questions regarding the impact of Ivy Style on her fellow Smithies.
I have no siblings and my parents and immediate family showered and spoiled me with undeserved attention. My father and his brother sustained the unremitting love for menswear tailoring and furnishings that motivated their father Jacobi founding the business bearing his name. I followed the family tradition unswervingly even doodling and dreaming about Ivy League culture in my earliest years in school. I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut not far from the Yale campus.
Mr Press amid the pastel glory that was the 80s, 1982
I loved and deeply respected my grandfather, a vigorous and charismatic man who became a celebrity among legions of Yale men and leader in the local community. Many of my earliest days were spent in the portals of the J. Press store in New Haven until I went away to boarding school. My grand father proudly introduced me to his customers, many of whom were stars in the Yale scene. I studied what was hip and “shoe” among the upper-class and recognized my future at J. Press to maintain the ethos of trade exellence originated years ago by my beloved grandfather and perpetuated by his sons.”
I assumed the junior reins upon my graduation from Dartmouth after serving six months as private the U.S. Army Reserves. I was fortunate, becoming head of the company in 1982 when they were still alive, each becoming Co-Chairman, Emeritus. President and CEO was a dream I coveted beyond the cradle. My knowledge was ingested as milk from a mother’s breast. During prep school and college vacations I worked in the tailor shop labeling cloth bolts, shipping room, even occasionally as a bench player on the sales floor.
Mr Press as the dramatic brunette in an off-Broadway production, 1976
I was taught to fit and pin suits and learned all areas of the business tutored by personnel and my father. I wrote advertising copy, printed price tags and dressed the clothing dummies in the window. There were no hidden orifices that were allowed by my father to escape my attention. I remain a voracious reader of F.Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, Tom Wolfe, Geoffrey Wolff with their keen portrayals of Ivy League characters so illustrative of the defining era.
My own style of dress evolved in the same way J. Press customers thrived enlarging the dimensions of their wardrobe. Prep school days I wore tweed sport jackets, cotton Oxford button-down shirts, three inch foulard, rep stripe, emblematic, challis wool, Irish poplin ties, grey flannel or corduroy trousers, argyle hosiery with garters, weejun loafers or dirty white buck shoes. Coats and ties had to be worn to all classes and mandatory chapel. Dressier requirements on trips to New York City usually meant a grey flannel suit. Dartmouth is a rural campus with less formality than Yale, Princeton or Harvard. My uniform was khaki or corduroy pants, usually messed up button-down shirt, shetland sweater. I was an ardent skier and often sported turtleneck shirts or sweaters to fight the New Hampshire cold, not unlike Finland.
Mr Press (armed with skis) at Dartmouth Winter Carnival, 1956
My “Mad Men” years in New York, beginning in the 1960s, featured grey chalk stripe suits with equivalent haberdashery of my youth. Summertime in New York meant seersucker, cotton linen, tropical wool chalk stripe suits. I favored the Gucci-styled loafer shoes sold by Barrie Ltd. next door to J. Press in New Haven. Ready-to-wear clothing of the time was tailored especially for J. Press by Franklin Clothes, Linett, Hertling in our natural shoulder, three button model with center-hook vent, plain front trousers with twenty inch knee and seventeen inch bottom. Trousers were worn cuffed. Today I slob around New York in khakis, OCBD, blue blazer, winter turtlenecks, sloppier than I would dare to be in the Heyday when I ran a company. I believe a gentleman never discloses either his mistress or his tailor and I adhere to that personal requirement regarding where I purchase the contents of my closet today.
I have not been associated with J. Press since 1991 therefore any changes that have occurred with the company’s product occurred without any help from me. Time marches on and I am not averse to change as long as it is intelligently and tastefully accomplished. The evolution (or revolution) of J. Press, Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, Ralph Lauren, other shops of the genre is best told in their profit or loss statements. I hope the short length of most of their suits and blazers together with the low rise, length and width of their trousers doesn’t suggest a short sale of their stock.
Mr Press (second from left, position not pertaining to political views) with singing group at Loomis School, 1953
A Gershwin song lyric might have well been composed representing my work philosophy.”‘I’ll build a stairway to Paradise with a new step every day.” I enjoyed introducing myself to as many customers as possible and encouraged my managers and staff always to be respectful, friendly and professional. The customer profile of J. Press included American leaders in all walks from Frank Sinatra to Robert Frost. Enough said.
I co-curated the recent Ivy Style Exhibit at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology garnering many tours conducted (available on You Tube), talks, seminars and signings for a book dedicated to me, Ivy Style, published by Yale University Press, featuring an interview conducted by Ivy blog founder Christian Chensvold with me. Henry Luce, the oligarch of Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated Magazines, characterized the twentieth century as the American Century. Culture of that knighted era was dominated by the Ivy League and as years pass the public awareness of its tragedies and triumphs stand in poignant contrast with the 21st Century of ragged decadence in the arts, literature and fashion. Cheap goods with limited shelf life. The Ivy League was America’s Land of Oz. Unlike in the Wizard of Oz, the curtain of reality was pulled, not by Toto the dog as in the movie, but by Viet Nam, assassination, civil and financial disorder. Menswear has been jerking around since and I am optimistic we shall see a new sun up in a new sky.
Mr Press’ father Paul Press with one Martin Luther King, Jr., 1961
My appetite for lobster and cherrystone clams remains undiminished together with my addiction to literature, history, politics, the New York Yankees, Broadway musicals, dogs and the lusty sophistication of New York City. My wife and I treasure the joy of our children and grandchildren. When my orthopedic surgeon told me to forget skiing, I survived the disappointment with nary a tear. After completing drama school evening classes, I performed as an actor in a dozen off-Broadway productions during slow seasons at J. Press. I completed the circle producing two plays on Broadway, one nominated for a Tony. The wonders of Apple assist my endeavors as Featured Columnist for the Ivy Style blog (ivy-style.com) and have submitted a manuscript to
my literary agent for a book currently titled pre-publication, “Cut From The Cloth: The Heyday of Ivy League Style and the Life and Times of One Man and the Family Who Made It Happen.” Maybe a Finnish edition [someday]!
I wish more men (and women) would learn history, become familiar with at least a smattering of the arts. Since we are talking Menswear, young men should find out what kind of clothing enhance the quality of their life. What represents sensible economic value, well-made, priced fairly, au courant enough to endure as a gift for the next generation. I mentioned earlier that my son flaunted his grandfather’s forty year old wardrobe in Hollywood! Find mentors from times past. The Duke of Windsor was a cad, a best dressed one. If you are unable to recognized the sheer genius of his clothes, then I am talking into a hat. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, author F. Scott Fitzgerald, composers Cole Porter and George Gershwin, movie stars Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, the list goes on and on and every one of them had glorious style. Learn from the past. This article is a mere outline. Perhaps many of you can digest my Ivy history reading The Golden Years columns of the sidebar at ivy- style.com.’
Jacobi Press, the founding father of J. Press, 1908
Pictures: © Richard Press
Category American style, Arbiter Elegantiae, Interviews, Tradesmen | Tags:
Thank you Mr. Press for the years of education and for encouraging all to learn their history. As you so aptly stated, “Menswear has been jerking around since and I am optimistic we shall see a new sun up in a new sky.”
I myself am still dreaming of the day a new J. Press in spirit comes along.