J. McLaughlin: In Praise of Preppy

NEW YORK — The brothers McLaughlin, Jay and Kevin, have broad Irish faces, thick, sandy-colored hair and dress in the country club style that’s popular in upscale enclaves such as Greenwich, Conn. They’re actually from Queens, but no...

NEW YORK — The brothers McLaughlin, Jay and Kevin, have broad Irish faces, thick, sandy-colored hair and dress in the country club style that’s popular in upscale enclaves such as Greenwich, Conn. They’re actually from Queens, but no matter. Their style was predetermined by DNA. Their mother, an antiques dealer, was preppy to the hilt and her sons took up the cause.

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

So much so, that in 1977, they opened J. McLaughlin at 1343 Third Avenue. Today, the 19-unit chain has cornered the market on Ivy League chic, with stores in every major bastion of old money that comes to mind.

The company, which celebrated its 25th year in business in September, has grown with little fanfare. Sales are expected to hit $20 million this year, with a 20 percent increase planned for 2004, said Stephen Siegler, president and chief executive officer. The stores, which average 1,000 square feet, do about $800 a foot in sales.

Let others raise and lower hemlines and chase trends like lemmings — J. McLaughlin is all about familiarity.

“Some people love this stuff and some people think it’s absurd,” said Kevin McLaughlin, who designs the clothing while Jay oversees merchandising and store design. “These styles are not challenging. We don’t attempt to make any major fashion statements. We simply reinterpret.”

Of course, J. McLaughlin stocks all the staples, including Oxford shirts, khaki pants, polo shirts, toggle coats and cashmere sweaters. But to say the stores are simply purveyors of traditional American sportswear would be telling just part of the story.

Kevin tweaks familiar styles just enough to make them interesting. For example, he puts pink lamb suede on the front of a cashmere sweater and a pleated ribbon design on a cardigan. He cuts a voile skirt with an asymmetrical hem and embroiders shorts with lobsters or sailboats.

“Without exception, things come back, but they never reappear in exactly the same form,” he said. “They require a new silhouette or new color palette.”

McLaughlin consults archival photos and vintage clothing for ideas. An intricately handbeaded sweater was inspired by an antique sweater he saw in a book. He got the idea for a tunic made of pieced-together silk scarves from one he bought at a couture sale at Doyle’s New York.

The company has a thriving accessories business, which includes patterned jacquard belts and canvas and leather handbags embroidered with everything from snails, monkeys and palm trees to martini glasses. Prices in the store range from $30 for ribbon belts to $1,000 for shearling coats. Knits are $95 to $295; pants and skirts, $125 to $245, and dresses, $85 to $325.

The company has consciously avoided malls, planting itself on main streets in places such as Greenwich and Westport, Conn., East Hampton and Locust Valley, N.Y., Princeton, N.J., and Nantucket, Mass.

“The style of clothing has such an implied message that it runs counter to a mall location,” McLaughlin said. “A downtown village location is much more compatible with our style.”

There’s no store prototype, either. Many units are housed in old colonial homes and filled with an eclectic mix of handpainted furniture and antiques.

A 20th unit is scheduled to open in Essex, Conn., in June. The company has identified more than 300 locations where residents have a high household income and the WASPy aesthetic that would support a J. McLaughlin store. “There’s no question that Grosse Point, Mich., and Chevy Chase, Md., could use a store,” Siegler said.

But with just three new stores slated for next year, the company seems to be in no hurry to reach the 300 mark. “We make money at every store and open new stores when we have the money,” McLaughlin said.

The business is completely vertical with factories in the the Far East, Europe and Brooklyn, for quick response and wovens. Shirts are made in Europe and cashmere is blended in China.

While some are to the manor born, the preppy lifestyle was aspirational for the McLaughlins, at least in the beginning. Now they have all the trappings, including houses with good addresses and a 1920s cabin cruiser yacht and 1918 sailboat.

Kevin even owns Island restaurant on Madison Avenue and 93rd Street, one block south of a company store. At Island, he tries to do for food what J. McLaughlin does for clothes. It’s classic American fare. “We do a fabulous lobster roll and a terrific strawberry shortcake,” he said, but admitted, “We’re much more knowledgeable about clothing than we are about food.”