Surbhi Bharadwaj

Gant has been open for an hour or so, and the button-downs are still arranged in military-sharp stacks. The shirts are blue-green plaid and mint and lavender and pink, and they are safety-pinned to prevent the errant sleeve from falling out of place. In this high-end menswear shop, they look right at home against the dark hardwood floors, the gray-and-white faux-oriental rugs, the glass-fronted oak bookcase crammed with vintage tomes like “The Century of Columbus” and at least six of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. And then there’s the Yale memorabilia: an 1807 color sketch of Old Campus, a baby-blue porcelain bulldog, a fading felt track-and-field pennant. Apart from the woman behind the counter, I’m the only person here.

Although I’ve lived just down the block from Gant for over a year, this is my first time here. This is primarily because I don’t buy menswear, which comprises about 80 percent of the store’s merchandise. But I’d be lying if I didn’t also say I’m intimidated.

At the southwest corner of York Street and Broadway, Gant stands at the center of the stores officially known as The Shops at Yale. The Shops consist of over 60 businesses in downtown New Haven centered around Yale’s campus, most of which, like Gant, are housed in buildings owned and leased by Yale University Properties. Like many of the other Shops, Gant is a fancy clothing retailer. But unlike the stretchy “Luon” of Lululemon yoga pants — the Canadian athleisure company is one of Broadway’s most recent arrivals — Gant has a history that reaches back to these very New Haven streets.

The Gant on Broadway opened its doors in 2010; it is the company’s first retail store in the city. But it was in 1949 that a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant named Bernard Gantmacher first launched his shirt-making business in New Haven, which was at the time an East Coast textile hub. (Gantmacher’s sons Milton and Elliot would later Anglicize their surname to Gant.) When I meet Gonzalo Zuniga, who managed the New Haven store until earlier this year, he details Gant innovations in shirt design: Gant created both the box pleat (a strip of fabric on the back of a dress shirt that allows for more mobility in the shoulders) and the button collar (“to secure your tie and make sure your collar doesn’t flip up”). Gantmacher sold his shirts at the Yale Co-op, an all-purpose student store, helping to bring what the Gant website calls “the Ivy League Look” to campus. Indeed, Gant’s marketing team leans hard on its Yale heritage. The company’s motto is “Never Stop Learning”; in 2012, the New York Times reported that Gant had acquired an official agreement with the University allowing it to advertise using the Yale name.

This is all to say that the store’s 2010 opening in New Haven was quite the homecoming, except that Gant is now a multinational corporation headquartered in Stockholm and owned by a Swiss holding company. One of the first things Zuniga does when I arrive is present me with a nearly 300-page book called “Gant: The Story.” It’s by Mathias Björk, and details the early history of Gant; the original acquisition of licensing rights by three Swedes; the various changes in ownership; and, in painstaking detail, Gant’s corporate meeting schedule. I learn that the target Gant customer resides in “large conurbations or suburbs.” (I also learn the word “conurbation.”)

Though the company portrays its return to New Haven as almost inevitable, Gant’s installment at York and Broadway was just one product of a two-decades long effort by the University to revitalize New Haven’s downtown. Though the University had begun buying scattered properties in New Haven in the 1950s and 1960s, the Shops at Yale — and their upscale character — are the result of a centralized commercial real estate strategy begun in the 1990s.

In the late ‘90s, New Haven’s mayor at the time, John DeStefano, reached out to University President Rick Levin. He was concerned about a set of properties on Chapel Street. The properties were going bankrupt, and they were set to be auctioned off piecemeal by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Levin saw an opportunity, and hoping to stave off the FDIC, he asked Bruce Alexander ’65, a recently retired real estate developer, to negotiate a deal with the federal agency. Alexander did, and the University purchased the properties. In 1998, Levin appointed Alexander to serve full time as the vice president for “New Haven and state affairs and campus development,” which he did until his retirement in 2018. Alexander says that when he was hired, downtown New Haven was so empty after the stores closed at 6 p.m. that “you could shoot a cannon through it.” Some buildings were in states of disrepair. “It felt uncomfortable,” he said.

And so, under Alexander’s tenure, Yale began to buy up more and more property on Broadway and Chapel (and Whitney and York and Crown and Audubon). The University poured money into capital repairs of buildings and downtown sidewalks. Alexander and his team at the newly established University Properties scouted national chains in an attempt to draw more suburban shoppers downtown. And in an effort to keep downtown bustling in the evening, they required that stores stay open until 9 p.m., a move which was met with pushback from some local merchants due to the extra overhead costs of extended hours.

It was around this time that some locally owned businesses started to disappear from downtown New Haven. Yale did not renew the leases of some long-standing businesses, like Krauszer’s, a convenience store. Others were shunted to less prominent locations; multiple barbershops, for instance, were moved to second-floor locations. The process had started before Alexander took his job; in 1994, as reported by the Yale Politic, the University purchased 1 Broadway — which at the time housed a local bar, Demery’s — and replaced it with an Au Bon Pain. (Standing at 1 Broadway today is a Patagonia.) Under Alexander’s watch, the University purchased the buildings which now house J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, Book Trader, the Union League Café and Claire’s Corner Copia, amongst others. In 1997, Barnes & Noble moved into what had been the Yale Co-op, where Gant had first sold its famous oxford shirts nearly half a century before.

By the 1960s, when Gant started selling shirts to undergraduates at the Co-op, the old Yale, the Yale of homogeneously WASP-y boarding school boys and mandatory shirts and ties at dinner, was already on its way out. The University did away with its Jewish quota, which meant that more boys like Bernard Gantmacher himself could and did matriculate. Gant marketed its superior cotton and rolled collars in the Yale Daily News in ads that ran alongside anti-war editorials and articles debating coeducation. And in 1969, Yale opened its doors to women. (The Gant in New Haven, however, did not begin carrying women’s clothing until around 2014.)

Zuniga tells me that the Ivy League look still exists, and that it’s the appropriate style for life at a place like Yale. In 2010, in an attempt to lure more students into the store, Gant opened an upstairs study space in what had previously served as a second fitting room space. Upstairs, the study is decorated with Yale crew memorabilia alongside 1970s-esque advertisements hawking “The Gant Attitude.” Gant pays rent on the study space, too, though less than it would have if it were used to sell blazers and oxfords. Zuniga describes the study space as a touch that has “humanized” the store for students.

But Gant still has something of an image problem amongst undergraduates. The Yale Daily News wrote in 2017 that Gant “has been made fun of in the Yale community for its high prices.” In August of that year, a post in a Yale Facebook group mocking a Gant sidewalk sign reading “Stock up: Buy 3 shirts for only $250” garnered hundreds of likes. (An oft-repeated refrain amongst students: Why is there no H&M on Broadway? No Forever 21? Not for lack of trying, says Lauren Zucker, who oversees University Properties. Retailers like Forever 21, she says, have specific space requirements that sometimes mean Yale Properties isn’t able to entice them to set up shop on Broadway.)

In any case, in 2018 Gant slashed its New Haven prices by about 50 percent off market price, across the board, Zuniga says. Blazers now cost $150; sweaters $60; shirts $45 apiece. Zuniga says the price cuts made official, at least for students, what had already been the status quo at the New Haven store, because of a combination of regular sales and student discounts. He describes the cuts as making shopping at the store more “accessible”; the number of units sold went up, he says, though he admits that overall sales more or less stayed the same from the year before. Zuniga says that even though the store may not have as much traffic as some other Gant locations, it still manages to sustain itself due to the lower costs of operating in New Haven.

In an interview with the News, Alexander said that University Properties sometimes gives merchants two years of lower rents at the beginning of their lease. This scheme is typically reserved for local operations but is sometimes offered to larger chains as well. (Zucker said she was not sure whether Gant had received such a discount.) The University also supports its tenants by carefully managing competition; undoubtedly, consumers sometimes bear the brunt of this policy, though Zucker argues that the larger chains on Broadway help support mom-and-pop stores by drawing shoppers into the area. Gant, for what it’s worth, seems to value New Haven for its historical ties to the company, not its moneymaking ability. “New Haven may not be the sexiest location,” the company’s former CEO, Ari Hoffman, told the News in an interview shortly before the location’s opening, “but it is our home and that’s where we should put our money.” In a recent call from London, Christopher Bastin, the company’s artistic director, was more charitable. “We all love that store,” he said. “It’s got a big place in our hearts.”

And it’s not to say that Yale students don’t own Gant clothing, even if they like to mock it. After my first visit to the store, I began to notice the brand’s occasional appearance on campus: a suspiciously lavender button-down in the dining hall, a crew neck sweater on a fellow late-night reveler at Toad’s on York Street, a logo on the side of a friend’s eyeglasses. And Zuniga speaks in the language of “accessibility” and “humanization.” But still, there is something a little odd about trying to “humanize” a high-end clothing store for students at a school at which more students hail from the top 0.1 percent than the bottom 20 percent; a school at which students sometimes wear beer-stained brand button-downs at frat parties; a school which owns and leases numerous downtown buildings to luxury merchandisers in a city with a median household income of $41,000 a year.

Dave Roth, a New Haven attorney who studied Yale’s commercial real estate program as a student at Yale Law School, puts it more bluntly: The company seems to be banking on students developing a relationship with the brand, “so then when they’re investment bankers and 25-year-olds, and they have a lot more money, they’re still going to shop at Gant.”

Roth said he was sympathetic to what the University was trying to accomplish with its real estate program. Still, he said, there is something “weird” about a private actor — not an elected government — taking it upon itself to transform the city’s downtown. He described Alexander’s vision for New Haven as being something along the lines of a Princeton, New Jersey.

“And people who are outside of the Yale community don’t really get a say in that, and maybe they don’t really want their city to be like Princeton.”

Bastin, the artistic director, said that around the time Gant moved into New Haven, he’d hoped the company might launch a small-scale shirt production here, a venture which would have created jobs despite likely being unprofitable. “Big corporations have the responsibility to give back to the places that they’re from,” he said. “Not just window dressing.” But Bastin left the company for a period of time in 2015, and he says the plans fell to the wayside.

In 2012, Dirk-Jan Stoppelenburg, the then-CEO of Gant, told the India Times that “only two things ever came out of New Haven — Yale University and Gant, in that order.” Stoppelenburg was evidently unaware that at least by some accounts, New Haven gave the American public the hamburger. He also probably failed to anticipate that the New Haven Independent would run a story on his comments to the newspaper in Delhi, or that it would post videotaped interviews of indignant New Haveners standing on the corner of York and Broadway. The Democratic Town Committee Chair at the time, Jackie James, called for a boycott of the store.

One New Havener interviewed by the Independent at the time, a Yale Dining worker named Theo Coleman, said that Stoppelenburg “should come down, maybe, and walk around. And see what else comes out of New Haven.”

After the article in the Independent, Stoppelenburg issued a 228-word apology in which he referred to Gant as a “global lifestyle brand” that was “committed to once again becoming an important part of the fabric of New Haven.”

And Zuniga, who has kind eyes and a nautical striped blue-and-white sweater, hints that the study space, and cutting prices, are how Gant’s leaning into that commitment. It’s just hard to shake the feeling that what Stoppelenburg really meant, when he issued that apology in 2012, was that he was committed to once again making New Haven an important part of his fabric.