In the summer of 1946, Joseph Haspel Sr., a New Orleans clothing manufacturer with a flair for the dramatic, was attending a convention in Boca Raton, Florida. In the presence of a few fellow conventioneers, he stood on the beach dressed in a seersucker suit made by his firm. He strolled into the surf, until the water reached his neck, and then walked out. Back in his room, he hung the suit above the bathtub to dry. That evening he sat among conventioneers at a banquet dinner in the very same suit, which was no worse for wear. A bathing suit, you could say.
Along with his brothers Harry and William, Haspel Sr. introduced the seersucker suit to the U.S. circa 1909. Since then it has become a staple of the American wardrobe, perfect for garden parties down South and summertime country club get-togethers everywhere else. It has found a place in the ebb and flow of fashion, worn in sincerity and irony on the streets of New York, Ivy League campuses, and the floor of the U.S. Senate. Dries Van Noten, Ralph Lauren, Lanvin, Marc Jacobs, and Marni, among others, have worked their variations on the light, textured fabric, and famous men who have worn the seersucker suit include Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Damon Runyon, Gregory Peck (who was suited by Joseph Haspel Jr. himself for his role in the 1963 film To Kill a Mockingbird), Cary Grant, and, more recently, Kanye West and Jay Z.
In 1977, Joe Haspel Jr. sold the company that bore his name, and family members watched the brand from a distance, sometimes with dismay. “After he sold the company, the company lost its flare,” says Haspel’s current president, Laurie Haspel Aronson, the great-granddaughter of Haspel Sr. “The product was out in the marketplace, but it didn’t really have that TLC that the brand would get when it was in the family’s hands.”
The family regained the brand in the mid-1990s but was not yet prepared to go all-in, opting to license the Haspel name to others. Little by little Aronson gained business experience, at Lipsey’s, her father’s Baton Rouge–based sporting goods company and firearms dealer, and elsewhere. In 2012, with the licensing deal having expired, she took charge. She hired designers Sam Shipley and Jeff Halmos, of the New York men’s design firm Shipley & Halmos, to update the venerable brand for 21st-century customers. And she saw to it that, in its fourth-generation incarnation, all Haspel clothing would be made in the U.S.A.
Aronson’s grandfather Haspel Jr. (known as “Mr. Junior” in his day) remains central to the brand, in her view. She remembers him as a gregarious, cheerful, mischievous man who elevated leisure to an art. He liked to watch Mardi Gras floats from his perch on a St. Charles Avenue balcony. He would arrive at Galatoire’s, in the French Quarter, for lunch and stay through dinner. “He was laid-back, humble, a lot of fun, loved to throw parties, never pretentious, always wanting to make sure people were comfortable and having a good time,” she recalls. “That reflects in the clothes.”
But seersucker was not always associated with the leisure class. Before introducing the famous striped suit, Haspel made seersucker coveralls for Louisiana factory workers. Family lore has it that Haspel Sr. wondered why gentlemen should suffer through the heat in heavy suits, and the idea for the seersucker suit was born. Once it had caught on in the South, Brooks Brothers got in on the game—and soon dandy Princeton lads of the giddy 1920s were bucking the notion that seersucker was a fabric for the working class while flouting a sartorial tradition that had men wearing suits of dark wool or flannel all year round.
Seersucker was still a men’s wear novelty as late as 1945, when columnist Damon Runyon wrote: “I have been wearing coats of the material known as seersucker around New York lately, thereby causing much confusion among my friends. They know that seersucker is very cheap and they cannot reconcile its lowly status in the textile world with the character of Runyon, the King of the Dudes. They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue.”
The name seersucker has its roots in the Hindi sir sakkar, the Urdu shir shakar, and the Persian shir o shakar, words denoting milk and sugar. Applied to the silk fabric of the East, they conveyed an idea of smoothness (milk) beneath a granular surface (sugar). “Seersucker” first appeared in printed English in 1722, when the fabric was adopted by British citizens residing in the tropics and used as material for drapes in the American colonies. The familiar lightweight cotton material is a variation on the original silk version.
Sitting in the Haspel room of her family’s company in Baton Rouge, Aronson took me through the latest Haspel collection, designed by Shipley and Halmos. The brand recently made a splash with its double-breasted red blazer; other pieces in the new line include striped shirts and a hunter green and blue seersucker suit meant to take the puckered lightweight fabric into fall.
For Shipley and Halmos, Haspel is not just for the man who sips Sazeracs on the front porch. They envision a plugged-in citizen of the world who will wear it to meetings in Berlin or Beijing. In addition to seersucker clothing, they have designed wool blazers, camel hair coats, chinos, and T-shirts for the brand. Seersucker accents, whether in a lining, a pocket, or a cuff, remind the wearer of the garment’s provenance.
“In Louisiana they are definitely living a very specific kind of lifestyle,” Halmos says. “So there’s this casualness to the line. The brand just has such an important place in the pantheon of American men’s wear. Not a lot of other brands can say they invented something as iconic as the seersucker suit.”
For Aronson, a great thing about the family brand is its versatility. “You put it on,” she says, “and you don’t become a Haspel man. You’re just you.”