June 17, 2009
The All-American Back From Japan
By DAVID COLMAN
AS you have surely noticed, all- American preppy style has come back for another goround. There is madras everything, button-downs everywhere. Nantucket reds — washed-out pink pants — are the new khakis; Sperry Top-Siders are more common on roof decks than top decks; and the Polo pony and the Lacoste crocodile are now but two of the critters in a zoo of polo shirt insignia.
Lately the trend has taken on a new dimension, via the Internet, with a resurgence of interest in once obscure American brands. Alongside the familiar L. L. Bean duck boots, Brooks Brothers shirts and Ray-Ban Wayfarers, there are Filson duffel bags, Gokey boots, Alden dress shoes, Gitman oxford shirts, Quoddy Trail moccasins, Wm. J. Mills canvas totes — to name but a few. Moribund brands like Southwick and Woolrich are being revived with new designs. And the old-school look has been furthered by popular American fashion labels — small houses like Thom Browne, Band of Outsiders and Benjamin Bixby along with megabrands like J. Crew and Ralph Lauren.
As fashion moments go, this is as all-American as it gets, right?
Actually, no. What makes today’s prepidemic so fascinating is how it is, surprisingly enough, so Japanese. The look has its roots in the United States, to be sure. But the spirit, rigor and execution of today’s prep moment is as Japanese as Sony. One need only flip through the intriguing Japanese book “Take Ivy,” a collection of photographs taken in 1965 by Teruyoshi Hayashida on Eastern college campuses, to get the drift.
“Take Ivy” has always been extremely rare in the United States, a treasure of fashion insiders that can fetch more than $1,000 on eBay and in vintage-book stores. But scanned images from the book have been turning up online in recent months. Ricocheting around the network of sartorially obsessed Web sites and blogs (like acontinuouslean.com and thetrad .blogspot.com), it has aroused renewed interest for its apparent prescience of preppy style. (In the United States, the word preppy came into popular use only in 1970, thanks to the best-selling book and top-grossing movie “Love Story”; and the full flowering of preppy style would not arrive until 1980 with the best-selling “Official Preppy Handbook.”)
But “Take Ivy” was not prescient; it was totally timely, having been commissioned by Kensuke Ishizu, who was the founder of Van Jacket, an Ivy Leagueobsessed clothing line that was a sensation among Japanese teenagers and young men in the early 1960s. Mr. Ishizu was a kind of Ralph Lauren avant la lettre.
“You could have called it a Van look,” recalled Daiki Suzuki, the designer and founder of Engineered Garments (channeling vintage workwear) and the designer of the revamped Woolrich Woolen Mills line (channeling 1950s New England). He remembers “Take Ivy” from his childhood in Japan and how the Ivy look, as it is generally called there, became basic in the ’70s and ’80s, as the craze for American things like Levi’s and Red Wing boots accelerated. In 1989, Mr. Suzuki moved to the United States to work for a large Japanese store scouting for new American designers and obscure brands to import, like White’s Boots from Washington, Russell Moccasin from Wisconsin and Duluth Pack backpacks from Minnesota.
“It’s funny — this authentic Americana, people in the States didn’t care about it at all,” Mr. Suzuki said. “But I would take it back, and everybody would say, ‘Wow, this is really great, what is this?’ Now it’s different. People here like it now.”
HE would know. In 1999, once the Internet began eroding the specialness of his small “Made in the USA” finds, he founded Engineered Garments with the idea of updating vintage American pieces for modern tastes, and for five years he sold the line only in Japan. In the last couple of years Americans have come around, and now the line is a hot seller at Barneys New York.
As curious as this American-export style of business sounds, it is not unusual. Post Overalls, a Japanese- owned line based (and made) in America since 1993, started selling here only this spring. J. Press, the venerable Ivy League clothier founded in New Haven in 1902 and bought by the Japanese fashion giant Kashiyama in 1986, has four modest stores in this country — in Cambridge, Mass.; New Haven; New York; and Washington — but sells roughly six times as much as American made J. Press merchandise in Japan at department stores like Isetan.
The Japanese penchant for Americana is not merely a story of economics; it is a matter of style. It has not been unusual for Japanese men to wear the Ivy look in head-to-toe extremes once unthinkable here — say, a blazer, tie, plaid shorts and knee socks. But given the zeal for American designers like Thom Browne and Scott Sternberg of Band of Outsiders, who tinker with old-fashioned Americana (and whose lines are made in the United States and are very popular in Japan), extremism is finally becoming fashionable here. A column in this month’s GQ by a to-the-boatshoe- born Cape Codder even inveighs against the trend, labeling it a case of arrivistes going overboard. But whose Ivy look has the more valid claim?
Mr. Suzuki remembers the first time he met Mr. Browne, when they were both starting their lines. “He was wearing a gray suit, button-down shirt, tie, cashmere cardigan and wingtips,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never seen an American dress in such Japanese style.’” Mr. Browne is flattered. “It’s amazing,” he said. “The Japanese get the whole perfect American thing better than Americans. They understand that it’s an identifiable style around the world, this American look. We think we appreciate it, but we really don’t, not like they do.”
But that’s changing. Not long ago, men scoffed at dress shorts, let alone wore them to work. Now, they are a summer norm, along with seersucker suits, ribbon belts and horn-rimmed glasses. While some men still prefer it low-key — plain boat shoes, a faded Lacoste shirt with jeans or a khaki suit with a madras tie — even full-on Japanese prep — blue blazer, button-down, bermudas, loafers — can look good if you have the attitude to carry it off.
As fascinating and confusing as this cross-pollination is, the story of ostensible outsiders borrowing from and bettering the holy tartan has an august history. Brooks Brothers, the country’s oldest operating men’s clothier, and the venerable Ray-Ban brand are owned by the Italian Del Vecchio family. Erich Segal, the author of “Love Story,” and Lisa Birnbach, who put together “The Official Preppy Handbook,” are Jewish, as is Scott Sternberg of Band of Outsiders (who this week won the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for men’s wear, in a tie) and, of course, the look’s most famous exponent, Ralph Lauren. And, by the way, those two most prep fabrics, gingham and seersucker, came to the United States, via Britain, from India.
André Benjamin, a k a André 3000, the designer of the bright Ivy-inspired Benjamin Bixby line (perhaps the only celebrity line with a truly fresh viewpoint), grew up in Atlanta amid the preppy boom of the ’80s and early ’90s. He remembers how schoolmates spent their money on clothes and cars, wearing two or three polo shirts at a time and fetishizing prepmobiles like the Volkswagen Cabriolet.
“I can’t speak for how it’s been taken up in Asian community,” he said, “but in the black community, you’re always striving to rise above. Most black kids don’t even go to college, and you just hope you can will yourself to get there.
“Like a lot of things, the myth is greater than the actual thing. The WASPy lifestyle, with the parents and traditions, it looks great, but appreciating it from the outside brings a whole different perspective. Ralph didn’t come from it, either. It’s all about having your own twist.”
To Mr. Benjamin, the most appealing part of the old prep look was not its WASPiness but its suggestion of an easy, well-dressed freedom from anxiety, the same entitled naïveté of Oliver Barrett IV, the WASPy Romeo of “Love Story.”
“This golden age of Ivy League style we’re talking about — the blue blazers, the chinos, the sweatshirts, the tweed jackets — what I like is that it’s a look without looking like you thought about it. It looks like you care, but you don’t care.”
Of course, as one of the world’s best and most colorfully dressed men, Mr. Benjamin cares deeply, and it shows in his clothes, as it does in all the new prep gear. And so what if it does? It may not be true of love, but as any boarding-school student can tell you, preppy means never having to say you’re sorry.