NEW YORK — It’s not often these days that you see a room full of men wearing Harris tweed blazers, button-down oxfords, repp ties and gray flannel slacks. But that was the audience that turned out to hear a panel of men’s wear veterans discuss “American Style: Ivy, Trad and Prep Into the 21st Century.”
In addition to the traditionalists, the event at Town Stages in TriBeCa hosted by shirtmaker Thomas Mason and Simon Crompton of the Ivy League-skewed web site Permanent Style, also drew a group of young guys in modern interpretations of classic styles. Think Rowing Blazers and Vineyard Vines with Todd Snyder cords and Chelsea boots.
Custom tailor and author Alan Flusser set the stage by discussing the history of Ivy style. It was first evident in the Twenties with the WASP students at Ivy League colleges such as Yale — and to a lesser degree Princeton and Harvard — seeking more-casual alternatives to the tailored dress code that was prevalent at the time, he said. “Brooks Brothers created the template,” he added, and these young men stocked up on the brand’s oxford button-downs, Shetland sweaters, polo coats and argyle socks. “There was a new sensibility about dressing. It was more casual and easygoing.”
Over the decades, these looks came to define Ivy style, and became staples of every man’s wardrobe. Designers, brands and retailers embraced the look and built large businesses on the backs of these classic pieces.
And they continue to be relevant today with men embracing these staples and using them to create a modern look.
“The significance is not so much in the clothes, but how they’re put together,” Flusser said.
Designer Todd Snyder likened it to a great chef who can take commonplace ingredients and blend them together in ways that are different and unique. He pointed to Ralph Lauren as the master chef who has created a multi-million-dollar brand by offering a distinct twist on Ivy style over the past 50-plus years.
While streetwear has been the dominating fashion trend of the past several years, it is now getting “stale” while preppy and outdoor-inspired styles are gaining steam, Snyder said. “It’s the natural progression.”
Nick Sullivan, creative director of Esquire, agreed. He said his 15-year-old son recently asked him for a suit, which surprised him. But it also indicates that once ath-leisure and streetwear took hold among older guys, “it is a total turnoff to teenagers.” Instead, they’re embracing updated preppy brands such as Rowing Blazers that “put a sense of humor” into classic Ivy League looks.
Sid Mashburn, a retailer and designer from Atlanta, said Ralph Lauren has been a master of remaking traditional preppy basics by blending them with Western wear and sports-related references. “He updated Ivy League clothes by making them fitted and more sexy,” he said.
“Ralph built his business on non-fashion,” Flusser added.
Mashburn said that while Ivy League references may ebb and flow, they never disappear completely because they are “foundational pieces” and classics.
Richard Press, whose family founded J. Press in 1902 on Yale’s campus, said there’s also the issue of the long-term investment value of the clothes to consider.
“Preppy is intensely practical,” Sullivan said. “It’s not an affectation but it’s clothes that last.”
The conversation then turned to Japan where men in that country “covet Americana,” Snyder said. But they “reinterpret” it so creatively that they provide him with endless inspiration for his own collections. “That’s my secret sauce,” he said.
Snyder predicted that going forward, Ivy League style will become more prevalent in the U.S. as well. Not only is the suit coming back, but the trouser is now the pant of choice, albeit with more of a drop crotch and a slightly cropped leg that guys will wear with white socks, he said.
Like Sullivan, he believes the young guys of today don’t want to dress like their dads who are “a little boring,” but are taking their cues from their grandfathers’ closets. But they’re making these looks their own.
Sullivan said they’re taking razor blades to the collars of their new button-down oxfords so they look worn, a technique Rowing Blazers employs before it actually sells its shirts.
So whether they’re distressed or crisp and new, pieces inspired by the Ivy League will always have a place in a man’s wardrobe. Sullivan summed it up this way: “We’re on the cusp of something changing. People need authenticity again, not originality for the sake of newness.”