J. Press is not afraid to admit that it caters to a specific crowd.
“We’re continuing the Ivy League tradition — that’s the whole point of our existence,” said Denis Black, the general manager of the New Haven and Cambridge, Mass. branches of the store. “Our typical clientele are very well-educated, upper-income people.”
In a time where fads change more quickly than the drop of a bowler hat, the men’s store — founded in New Haven in 1902 — is widely known for selling preppy fashions with high price tags.
And 105 years later, it prides itself on remaining true to its roots.
While many students view the store as a curiosity, and some try to stay as far away as possible from its York Street storefront, store managers said J. Press has attempted to expand the chain to more metropolitan areas — most recently New York City — in hopes of widening the brand’s client base to include a younger and more fashionable set of well-educated individuals. Like The Game and Mory’s, J. Press is a long-standing Yale institution that is not likely to disappear anytime soon.
“Every self-respecting Yalie should go into the store and buy their college’s scarf,” John Egley ’99 said. “I loved the store. I bought my first bowtie there.”
Jacob Press, who has dressed presidents, statesmen and scholars alike, opened shop in 1902 at the corner of York Street and Broadway Avenue, and the store remains in the same location today.
The flagship store exudes a collegiate, East Coast vibe — wooden floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with collared dress shirts and plaid sweaters. Alongside rows of navy blue blazers, the store sells some items that seem to come from a different era, ranging from coat badges that read “Yacht Club” to silk handkerchiefs. The brand’s signature three-button sack suit remains a staple of New England wardrobes that is difficult to find elsewhere, Jonathan Sadler, the general manager of the New York store, said.
Sadler said J. Press is the ideal choice for those who like “traditional styling” that represents stability.
“We’re a fairly preppy store — no, wait, we’re a very preppy store,” he said in a telephone interview.
Branford College Master Steven Smith said while he is not the J. Press type, he appreciates the store’s historical relationship with Yale.
“The clothes are not really my style,” he said. “I do not shop there, but I find it immensely comforting that there are still people who do.”
But not everyone thinks the store’s rich tradition is valuable. While the store attracts some Yale students, for others it is just one of many clothing stores in New Haven and does not conjure any sort of nostalgic sentiments.
“As I recall, the J. Press image was very preppy,” David Achterkirchen ’65 said. “I graduated from public high school in North Hollywood, Calif., so the J. Press experience wasn’t for me.
According to the store’s Web site, “Classic American Style isn’t created in an instant. It takes time.” In addition to clothing, the store also sells a variety of accessories with an Ivy League theme. J. Press carries college scarves from each of the eight Ivy League schools and for each of Yale’s 12 residential colleges as well as lapel pins depicting Handsome Dan and Skull and Bones insignia.
But since the early 20th century, the store has been trying to branch out beyond the world of bulldogs and Gothic towers.
J. Press opened a store in Cambridge in 1932 and later expanded to Washington, D.C. In May 2007, a new location opened in New York City on Madison Avenue, one of the trendiest shopping areas in Manhattan. Sadler said he hopes the new branch will enable J. Press to sell its traditional preppy clothing to a broader client base.
“Though we have a fairly large following and loyal customers … we are seeing a younger group of people to come in to shop,” Sadler said.
Although Black said the Washington, D.C. and New York stores sport a fresher look, J. Press still looms large as a symbol of Yale tradition. Even once they have moved off the Yale campus, many alumni continue to seek out J. Press merchandise.
“The beginning of the relationship for us is our relationship with students,” said Black. “They later move along and develop their own careers in which they become well-known, but they still want the same timeless, but fashionable look.”
Egley said if he were to ever return to New Haven, he would certainly stop by the store. For Egley, it was “that place” where one was always sure to find a nice suit or tie for a special occasion.
“I think it’s a quintessential Ivy League store,” Ian Snow ’11 said. “It would be really great to actually have a suit from there.”
But for many Yalies, the store’s steep prices can be too much for their college-student budget to accommodate. They have walked by and glanced at the store display, but have never stepped inside.
While J. Press, which celebrates its 105th birthday this year, is not as old as the Harvard-Yale football game, it remains an unforgettable fixture of Yale. With thousands of alumni expected to return to the Elm City this weekend for the game, some may very well stop by the store for the same blue and yellow Calhoun College muffler they purchased decades ago.