polo ralph lauren big pony Studying the Preppy Look and its Reference Points
JUST like European currency, European men’s wear has been in the dumps lately. Suddenly all that rigorous, over designed and unwearable stuff cranked out by Raf Simons and his ilk seems as inadvertently retro as a Eurail Pass.
American style, on the other hand, is staging a comeback, belaying itself hand over hand out of the crevasse it fell into a decade ago, just as spunky Tommy Hilfiger and the sturdy little American dollar seem to have done.
Signs of this are visible not only in the brisk business Ralph Lauren’s new restaurant in Paris is doing selling le hamburger to the French (whose not so secret secret for staying slender, if you will forgive the digression, is cigarettes: in Paris even dogs and infants smoke) or even in the flurry of prepublication attention generated by “True Prep: It’s a Whole New World,” the follow up to the best seller “The Official Preppy Handbook,” published in 1980.
Since last year, when, as David Colman noted in these pages, a new age dawned of label archaeology, designers have been relentlessly scouring the back pages of American sportswear for all things homegrown the more obscure, hand crafted, fuddy duddy and arcane the better.
Ray Bans were suddenly on a list of Old School must haves and so were wool vests from the Filson, and Red Wing boots and Alden loafers and Gitman oxford cloth shirts and Sperry Top Siders and Quoddy moccasins. Designers as varied as Thom Browne, Scott Sternberg of Band of Outsiders, Billy Reid and Frank Muytjens of J. Crew all made hay with the conservative classics. The style became so ubiquitous that, the designer Michael Bastian said, “The whole preppy machine requires a recalibration.”
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It has become “a reference to a reference,” Mr. Bastian added. And, as it happens, few in the fashion business would have much trouble naming the precise source of the numerous fashion “references” he had in mind.
Part style manual for Japanese fans of American “trad” style and, somewhat inadvertently, an ethnographic study, “Take Ivy” went on to become, in the decades since publication, the nearly unattainable center of a passionate cult.
People spent years hunting down rare copies. They traded them online for prices that reached into the thousands. They photocopied and distributed them in design studios like fashion samizdat.
“When I first started at J. Press and went to Japan, they had an original copy there and I flipped out,” said Mark McNairy, the designer of New Amsterdam, who formerly worked neo retro wonders at the venerable label J. Press. “I got them to photocopy the whole book for me and I used that for a couple years,” he added. “Then a men’s magazine in Japan did a limited reissue and sent me one as a Christmas gift.” Mr. McNairy hoarded that copy until the day his wife wanted a costly new handbag. “Then I sold it on eBay at the height of when everybody was going crazy for it.”
Time, it develops,
has done little to dim the allure of “Take Ivy,” with its guileless snapshots of handsome, fit and presumably bright young lugs disporting themselves in dining halls, on the College Green at Dartmouth, along Nassau Street in Princeton and in Harvard Yard. “More influential as a myth or Holy Grail that no one could get their hands on,” than as an actual object of use, according to Mr. Bastian, “Take Ivy” nevertheless once occupied a treasured position on his assistant’s desk when that particular designer was toiling for Ralph Lauren. “He used to have a pack of Xeroxes and was one of those people who passed ‘Take Ivy’ around in back alleys for a long time.”
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Not long after the blogger John Tinseth scanned the book and posted the pages on his site, The Trad, a slew of new collections suddenly appeared with “Take Ivy” as their “inspiration.” In Daiki Suzuki’s spring 2011 collection for Woolrich Woolen Mills, the designer was, he said, “oddly influenced by the work of forward thinking Japanese photographer, T. Hayashida,” and the book.
Starting next week anyone with $24.95 will be able to experience the “odd” influence of “Take Ivy” when, for the first time in 45 years, the book is reprinted (powerHouse Books) with an English language text. Not surprisingly that text, indecipherable to any but Japanese readers all these years, is equally awed and bemused by the folkways of idealized Ivy Leaguers with “their sound minds and bodies,” their letter sweaters and their leafy, cloistered campuses still dominated in those chummy sex segregated days by men. Hasegawa explained: “Men in Japan were just drab clones of each other in the postwar period. was the big thing, the big ideal.”
The team took “tens of thousands” of pictures, Mr. Hasegawa said, of handsome young Ivy League men in slim fitting flat front khakis, madras Bermuda shorts, anoraks, blue button down Oxford cloth shirts and . well, essentially all the stuff you’d see in a current J. Crew catalogue.
“I was always obsessed with that book,” said Mr. Muytjens, creative director of J. Crew, which will sell “Take Ivy” in both limited and mass market editions at its men’s wear stores. Birnbach said, is a ruling class “look book,” a template for any budding Jay Gatsby.
Of course the preppy look now signifies little in terms of class. Everybody’s a preppy when all it takes now to achieve the appearance of having descended from generations of Groton men is a flipped collar, a pair of Top Siders and checkered shorts. “It’s just fashion now,” Ms. Birnbach said. ” ‘Take Ivy’ and I are guilty for having ruined it all.”
Correction: August 1, 2010
An article last Sunday about prep clothing for men misidentified the designer for the Woolrich Woolen Mills spring 2011 collection. He is Daiki Suzuki,
not Tokihito Yoshida.