Photo by Salt Water New England

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Lifecycle of Preppy, Ivy, Old Money, and Trad Companies

Chart Designed by Salt Water New England

Where to Look (And Not to Look) for Staples

Northeast preppy and Ivy style sites today are made up of people from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic who want to be Southern. (Comment) 
Ivy Style has become the new MAGA hat.  (Comment)
Across decades, staple clothes are almost always available, but the companies that produce them are always changing. This is in part because specific vendors, including those often described as preppy, Ivy, old money, or trad, irrevocably evolve from young and innovative (on the left of the chart) to inert company shells (on the right).   And it is not the best but the least compelling brands that tend to be the most prominently showcased online, in the worst of the “preppy” cosplay and “Ivy” style sites and communities.

Cosplayers on Instagram recreate famous "preppy" images, such as the covers from The New Yorker's Geraghty Era, and mix in their own culture's aspirations as well.  Photo taken by Salt Water New England at the Westport Historical Society's Exhibit. 

For example, a reader quipped that the message of one of the fan sites seemed to be, "you can now be ‘Ivy’, even if you didn’t go to a good college and are creepy if you wear a J. Press suit and hate the right people."  Another observed, given that fan sites are so easily identifiable by all of their stolen photographs:

“Clothing companies that are willing to align with these fan sites raise suspicion because no one in the history of the Internet has ever wanted to dress like a fanboy.” 

This is happening in a broader context.  A brief modern history forms when aggregating other reader comments:  
  • Around 2010, according to commenters, some blogs and baby boomer spokespeople hitched their Ivy Style, preppy, or Old Money wagons to right wing communities and narratives looking for easy traffic and easier praise.  The bet paid off, in a sense.  These Ivy Style spokespeople were love-bombed by the new fanboys as long as they supported the idea that “'Ivy'/preppy is all about fooling people."  To wit, “You can be bad if you look good.” 
  • During the early 2010s, both traditional clothing vendors and new social media driven entrepreneurs focused on producing low quality/high concept products to exploit this new mid-market.  
  • During the next couple of years after that, the left and center developed a visceral loathing for all things Brooks Brothers and J. Press. 
  • Today, ‘Ivy’/preppy clothes have become so tacky and déclassé that upper levels of right wing leaders joined the left in abandoning loafers and blazers. 
Which means that some of the baby boomer ‘Ivy Style’ spokespeople—those who condoned plagiarism, bigotry, harassment, entitlement fantasies, and other forms of anti-intellectualism as 'Ivy Style' leading up to 2015 —can take as much credit as anyone for launching the MAGA movement.  And for killing the 'Ivy' clothing market for a generation.  Again. 

However, rather than blackballing all clothing that appears on all fan sites, and while avoiding clothing companies that associate with the professional criminal blogs (advertising + stolen photographs) due to their likely rapid decline in quality, one might simply consider where a vendor is in their journey.  Here is one take:

Companies mentioned in the comment section so far (organized roughly from left to right on the chart):

Crucible to Precious
New Markets
  • Le Tricoteur <> 
Cash Grab to Company Shell
The broad characteristics of each stage are as follows (and all characteristics won't apply to all companies):

  • A company serves demanding clients in authentic environments significantly better then competitors.  
  • The company’s founder is hands on.
  • Products rapidly evolve, with dozens of failed prototypes.  The company typically does one thing very well. 
  • Marketing is not done.
  • Other people often love the products without necessarily recognizing the company that made it.
  • As any VC knows, companies here are highly unstable; they can change nearly instantly, from experiencing overnight rapid growth, to selling out, pivoting, or going away.
  • Not all start-ups begin in the crucible stage.  
  • Fiercely passionate customers, who are "in the know," are very loyal to the company.
  • The company has much higher prices than competitors, which fans are happy to pay.  Prices are fair and constant, and when a new variation on an older product is 20% more expensive, for example, the product will be worth 20% more.

Precious companies have much higher prices than competitors, which fans are happy to pay.  Marketing is poor, and not a priority.  Web sites may be disastrous.

  • Quality is paramount. 
  • Customers can still call or email and get the owner (and often work through any problems).
  • New, great products are added, seemingly effortlessly.  The company has an aesthetic certainty, neither derivative nor capricious.  
  • The company has widely recognized popular and unique items.
  • Great pride is taken in the company by employees, who go "beyond the call of duty" to make happy customers.
  • Items are expensive, but high quality.
  • New items, extensions of old, are added.
  • Companies gain increasing brand recognition well beyond passionate base.

Iconic companies worry about becoming trendy and stylish, something that cash grab companies are desperate to be. 

    • The company worries about becoming trendy and stylish.  They also fear complacency, bloat, and smugness, and don't want to be thought of as the category leader.  They sell great products, not a great brand.
    • A short term flattening of growth can cause panic.
    New Markets
    • The company is often under new management, typically with MBA and logistics-centric credentials. The company increases focuses on greatly improving contribution margins, often in association with new investment money.  
    • The new management begins to purge many of the old employees and suppliers/branded vendors that had contributed to the success of the company. 
    • Companies feel entitled to their traditional customers and markets. Companies in this stage are very interested in new categories of customers, and take the existing customer base for granted; many loyal customers find themselves buying less and less.
    • The new management experiments with "leveraging the look and the feel of the brand and brand experience" by tentatively lowering the quality and increasing the channels, supported by ramped up marketing, including social media.   Cheaper parts are swapped in wherever possible.
    • Marketing gets increasingly - often awkwardly - self-congratulatory.
    • The company makes big deals of changing the colors of successful products.  
    • Vendors open ancillary stores, for example, in this stage, which do not yet influence design decision making.  
    • No new great products are launched, despite expensive misfires.  Companies go after markets they don't understand.  From a marketing and design perspective, the company becomes derivative, dated, and piecemeal. 
    Cash Grab
    • There is a nearly impossible to resist opportunity for upper management to personally cash-in with a one-time windfall through a rapid market expansion with much lower quality goods at still high prices with very high margins, irrevocably sacrificing brand, long-term employees and partners, and traditional customers.  In other words, transforming nothing into a great company is somewhat profitable. Transforming a great company into nothing is highly profitable.
    • Companies believe success comes when they can best distract from, rather than highlight, what they are actually selling.  Many peddle aspirational vulgarity.
    • There is significant confusion from traditional customers.  Long time customers start to experience return-fatigue.
    • Some classics remain (but fewer and fewer).
    • There are wild fluctuations of prices (higher prices, then massive sales, with various coupons and sweepstakes).
    • New products are low quality and relatively expensive.  Companies design for 75% to 80% mark ups.
    • Ancillary stores grow in influence over the direction of the company. Outlet stores open. Companies here may invest in "big data" programs.  The culture embraces short cuts to short term success.
    • Companies increasingly outsource production to low-cost providers.
    • Companies are desperate to be stylish and trendy.
    • A cash grab company further increase their PR budget, first spent trying to differentiate the company from their past and pushing new, very-high-margin products, then relentlessly trying to invoke their heritage when the new products flop.  The term "iconic" is used.  A lot.  Companies become louder and more strident. 

    Company Shell
    • The company's new owners think they can market their way out of their dropping sales.
    • Companies' products are no longer significantly differentiated in the marketplace. Branding chugs along.  Companies here find themselves with new competitors and engage in a race-to-the-bottom in quality to shore up crumbling margins.
    • They shift, almost overnight from an external market perception, from relevant and interesting to irrelevant, tired, and over-exposed.  
    • Outlet stores and other bottom feeding strategies become highly influential in setting company strategies.  
    • Company shells use old black and white photographs that have no connection to the current organization.
    • They rely on good customer service to overcome quality problems, not to meet individual needs or repair but to efficiently replace or refund.  Guarantees become more restrictive.  Finally, customer service, typically the last point of pride and holdover from the once strong company, fades to squeeze out a few more dollars of profit.

    Some Comments by Company


    All photos by Salt Water New England
    The Lotuff tote is by far my favorite accessory. I often get compliments on its superior craftsmanship and outstanding beauty. (Comment) 
    Can't get enough of Lotuff's quality and craftsmanship. (Comment)
    My Lotuff English briefcase is the most beautiful bag I've ever owned. (Michael Rowe) 
    I have been using a zip-top Lotuff brief in Chestnut for almost a year, for daily work and commuting. I have found it to be immensely satisfying to use, and very functional. The leather is substantial. (BantamInChicago)


    A great value... Thread count and feel of the 100% cotton is the real deal. totally gotta iron, not a hint of no iron plastic. Something that only a true purist cares about is the collar roll on the OCBD.  Absolutely the best, IMO. Others have tried to take the shirt apart and copy the collar, but the roll that competitors come up with never approaches the perfect "bell shape" of the Mercer roll. (wf)
    I only have six or seven of them in my closet right now, but that's because they wear so well that I haven't needed to replace them. They make the nonpareil, archetypal, classic OCBD.  (Michael)
    Own some tattersalls. First rate shirts. Reminds me of vintage B2 with collar roll & full cut. Old school grownup shop. Definitely not for J Crew -AF hybrid metrosexuals. (Comment)
    I've been purchasing from Mercer for years and I don't believe the shirt has any competitors. The Mercer shirt is a completely different garment than (for example) anything on offer from Brooks. And I mean anything. The blogger Heavy Tweed Jacket did an in-depth analysis of Mercer vs. Brooks (for all you left brained folks) and the differences are substantial. Now, whether those differences are worth paying extra for is up to you. As for the full cut: I've noticed that they no longer include the slogan "Baggier Is Better" on the label of their shirts, but I hope that this is their only concession to current fashion. A bit of bagginess in an oxford is essential. (Sartre)


    Just received my jacket and it is fabulous. (JOB) 
    I just received my terrific Cordings House Check Tweed Field Coat, and was pleasantly surprised how heavy and warm it is. It’s definitely designed for chilly weather, and I now prefer it to the Barbour Beaufort (with lining) that I’ve been using for my excursions out into wild nature. Aesthetically, this tweed is subtler than the busier bold patterns I’ve seen, and goes better with everything. And to continue my life-long Dandy habit, I’ve also ordered the matching Cordings Croft Cap which I’m sure will impress to no end all the style-conscious animals and birds I’ll encounter in the fields. (RR)


    Dubarry of Ireland - Their boots and boat shoes are expensive but have been well worth the money. (Comment) 
    Second the recommendation of Dubarry as great quality.(LP) 
    Go Dubarry! I live in those boots all winter long! (Comment) 


    A Patagonia Snap-T
    I am not a big fan of any kind of "fleece" never worn by a sheep; call it what they will, it's still polyester, and has nothing like the warmth or wicking properties of natural wool. (Greenfield)
    Patagonia [has a] continued commitment to quality and to reducing consumption by promoting repairing, reusing and recycling to reduce our environmental footprint. (Bitsy)
    In the past I have purchased a number of items from Patagonia--including Snap-Ts, Stand Up shorts, insulated vests/jackets, etc. As many of these original items were constructed of "Synchilla", a product of Malden (MA) mills and Polartec, Patagonia has truly gotten away from their roots. Not only were the fabrics quite often created in U.S. mills, but the construction of garments was completed in the U.S. as well.  Patogonia's acknowledgement that such construction would currently be virtually impossible is certainly a sad state of affairs, but a little chicken and egg--which came first the lack of U.S.factories/workers or the shipping of jobs overseas for cheaper production and increased profit margins by companies like Patagonia. (childdoc)


    Barbours are Repaired, not Replaced
    Functional, long-lasting, outdoorsy, classic. (Michael, August 23, 2013)
    These were always just coats we found at the tack shop and wore at the barn!  (Sungish60669)
    Barbour is well-entrenched modern preppy, been sold at the Andover Shop since at least the early '80s. English origins don't negate its preppiness nor does the fact that people besides Sloane Ranger types wear it. Still great for damp weather. Wish it all was made in England and Scotland like before. (Comment)
    It's worn on every continent by people who value quality, craftmanship and tradition. (Bernie)
     The quality of Barbour has gone downhill in the last 5-8 years. Several years ago, I went shopping for a Barbour coat for my wife and I was shocked that outside the traditional oil slicked coats, most of their merchandise was mass produced in Asia. (Pete)
    Though expensive to purchase, are indeed an example of being frugal in the long run. I have several Barbour coats. The two oldest are a Beaufort which was purchased in 1981. My fly fishing Spey jacket (no long made) in 1983. Both are functional garments, both have been repaired and both represent outstanding value. Plastic, polyester or any type of synthetic outerwear cannot meet the criteria of long life, value and reparability. (Sean W.)


    I bought my first pair of Quoddy boat shoes at the beginning of this season, and love them. I suspect they will be in use for a very long time. (RR)
    My Quoddy shoes are the most comfortable pair of shoes I own. (Comment)
    Great shoes! Expensive, USA- and well-made goods with top quality materials are like nothing else. To buy anything else would be to downgrade. I love things that will last for 20 years because each time I wear or use them, they evoke great memories from the years past. They become like an old, familiar friend. (Comment)
    I have Quoddy's in several styles. Love them all. The Vibram sole on the boat mocs is quite durable, and really allows a nice grip on wet decks. (Charles Dryton)
    Quoddys are made to order. If shoes are important to you, they are worth the wait. They are not cheap, but the price is what you pay and lasting value is what you get. In many of their models, Quoddy uses top quality Horween leather from Chicago. The Horween website describes in detail their treatment of leather for fine shoes, jackets, etc. One of the great things about having a custom set of shoes ordered, is that they can usually accommodate varied widths and sizes. If you are one of the fortunate ones whose feet are exactly the same size and a medium width, this is not a big deal, but for the rest of us, it is... Buy from them while you can. This is American craftsmanship at its finest.  (Comment)
     I ordered a pair of Quoddy boat shoes and have worn them now for a few months. Hands down, these are the best boat shoes I have ever owned. (Gary) 

    J. Press

    If you want an ancient madder or challis tie or a three button sack, Press is the place. Plus their salesmen know what they're talking about. My problem with Press and your chart is that they have made themselves into two companies: J. Press and York Street. (Cranky Yankee)

    "It has been heartbreaking watching J. Press's decline from Ivy League to red state Ivy Style."

      A shopping experience at J. Press is still a pleasure, and the quality is generally very high. A few disturbing trends that have been noted elsewhere, but on the whole the main brand remains fairly secure. (John) 
      The cynicism, ineptitude and greed demonstrated by the York Street line screams cash grab. (WRJ)

      Brooks Brothers

      BB had good quality clothes at a fair price during the 1980s.The quality and style have declined over time. Now they are just a sad joke. (Comment)
      My wardrobe includes many good items from BB: sport jackets, pants, ties, sweaters, OCBD shirts, polo shirts, etc. Although, many of these items were bought years ago, I continue to buy their clothing. I just stick with the traditional apparel and look. (Gary)
      For their all-cotton sure-to-wrinkle OCBD's and repp ties, or their Alden-made shoes, sure. Otherwise, Brooks Brothers has been wandering in the wilderness for quite a few years. (Michael)
      The brand cannot be relied on to provide consistency, and all purchases have to be scrutinized, including BB. Which is annoying. I find BB confusing--literally, I am often confused when shopping online or in stores. There seem to be dozens of fits for pants, suits, jackets, and shirts. There must be thousands of combinations of dress shirts available, between the various collars, patterns, colors, fits, and chemical coatings available. Most of these combinations are undesirable. Quality varies widely--some stuff made in the USA, some in Italy, some in Asia. It's cacophonous.  I really only consistently shop at BB for OCBDs, ties, and socks. (WRJ)
      I would not buy anything from them for casual wear but I still buy my suits and must-iron shirts from them. (Bernie)
        I'm afraid that all I can manage these days from Brooks Brothers are the original fit button-downs, the socks and underwear, the ties, and the shoes. Their khakis feel like design rejects from The Gap, the suits and blazers are all tricked out, and are identical to any good suit sold all over America.  I have a pair of khakis from BB which I purchased in 1991, and I treat them like gold, because the cut, the fabric, the hook-eye tab closure, aren't made by BB anymore. Again, if we're going to talk about the loss of preppy aesthetic, we have to address the dumbing-down effect of marketing to a wider, middlebrow, middle-American audience.(Michael Rowe)
        I was with Brooks Brother's Parent company in the late 70's and 80's, pretty much the zenith of their business. At the time, our shoes were made in England, we owned our own shirt factories in New Jersey, had a patent on the button down collar. Everything we did was geared to quality as we had clothed Presidents over the years. The boardroom on the 8th floor still echoed the ideas of the founder. But, in an unhappy takeover, the parent was bought out by Allied Stores who knew nothing about upscale retailing. As they began to influence us, they went into cost cutting measure to increase more own shoes, buy from Bass. Close the factories and have made in the orient. And, so on and so on. Later BB was sold to Marks and Spencer who did not know how to run it and it continued to go downhill. Now the present owners seem intent upon making it another J. Crew or Lands End. The sad demise of a once quality marque.(SpencerGray)

        L.L. Bean

        I have been a frequent Bean customer since the late 1960s. There is no question that the quality has dropped dramatically over the past 5-10 years. I still try but end up returning most of what I order. (Comment)
        Bean's quality has declined at a breakneck pace. (Comment)
        LLB should find [a new CEO] who understands that they cannot continue to produce poorly made products that are way overpriced and still make the kind of money that they have made the last few years. That trick may be used up. People are starting to wise up. (Comment)

        "Aimless clothing companies are now copying the preppy cosplayers on Instagram, who themselves were re-enacting the 'Meet the Hilfigers" advertisements, which were riffs on the earlier Ralph Lauren campaigns, that were based on the work of Slim Aarons."

          There is nothing at Bean today that appeals to me and anytime I visit their website, I feel as though I'm looking at a Walmart flyer. I visit Ebay in search of traditional quality made Bean items made prior to 2007 more often than I visit the Bean website. Bean doesn't seem to be carrying many, if any, products that would appeal to a value-minded traditionalist. I will buy the Bean totes and Bean boots but that's it. I once loved their oxford shirts but won't buy them now because they are treated. The rest of their clothing seems extremely over-priced for cookie cutter, cheap, trendy style and poor quality. (Mollie's Mom
          I have never experienced anything but the highest quality customer service from L.L. Bean. (Patsy) 
          I don't expect the Bean family to correct this when it was the Walton family that ruined their own legacy as well. My recent Bean jacket purchases are unworn; they sit in limbo as I decide to return them or not. I've already returned their completely disappointing Oxford shirts, which would could live up to their "wear like iron" claim as they already feel like something akin to metal against the skin. (James)

          Ralph Lauren

          RL makes a a number of great items and many awful items, which puts it in the same category as pretty much every other multinational clothing company in the world. Fits are generally predictable--there are two for shirts, classic and custom, and you know what you're getting with each. Non-iron is the exception and not the rule. Colors are consistently good. Tailored clothing is very expensive, but very high-quality. Still selling soft-shouldered jackets. Ties are made in Italy and are a league beyond Brooks Brothers in drape and design. I have a dozen or so of the classic cashmere sweaters that I wear 9 months of the year, and the quality is great, for the same price on-sale as a Shaggy Dog. I can't recall having a serious quality issue with any purchase, even items made in Asia--which I attribute to Mr. Lauren's reputed obsessive quality control. However, I tend to only buy on sale because (1) almost everything is marked down twice a year, (2) the higher-end items, particularly those that are made in Italy, are very expensive, and (3) I have set a low ceiling for what I'm willing to pay for items coming from the country of "Imported". (WRJ)
            I haven't forgiven RL for the Olympic uniforms made in China. (Rachel)
            I think Ralph Lauren was preppy. But now they have too many off brands and even a factory store. If you walk in any TJ Maxx or Marshalls they always have Ralph Lauren shirts there to buy. I feel that its too out there now, and I feel it kind of lost its luxury appeal. Now they have these oversized logos and this year they highlighted their "downtown prep" theme and its just seems wild to me and too phony. I'm sure there are staple items, but I don't know how long its going to last. (Berniex)
            Looking at Ties in their NY Store

            Vineyard Vines

            I worked at VV during college and in my experience outside of the ties nothing in the store was of very good quality. Their shirts are either plastic feeling or far too thin,... The best summation I have heard of VV is that they are mockery of preppy. They are over-the-top garish at times. (Zach)

            “Vineyard Vines epitomizes the current trend of style without substance"

              VV is not preppy or traditional. It’s a cash grab. (Ice Matty T)
              Shep and Ian are laughing all the way to the bank. I like and have a couple of their ties, but most (if not all) of the rest of their stuff is overpriced and of much lower quality.... And yes, a lot of their stuff is so over the top that only young teens and undergrads at southern colleges and universities dare wear some of the more garish colors and patterns. (Paul Connors, August 23, 2013)
              I would consider them tourist/resort/cruise wear. (Susan R)
              It's what non-preppy thinks preppy should be. (Bernie)
              I always feel sad for grown adult when I see them wearing VV, as if they've been duped! As for the younger set, their grown adult parents have also been duped in to buying for their children. (Comment)
              Copycat clothing for Copycat preps (Seas-the-day)
              Some of Vineyard Vines' First Products

              Lilly Pulitzer

              An indicator...?

              From 2011

              Vera Bradley

              I cherish my older VB bags, totes, and accessories because I preferred the patterns. They seemed to be based on Provencal fabrics and I liked them better. (Carole
              Not impressed with Vera for the last 10 years, they have become too trendy in design and color selection which is geared toward the tween, teen and coed market. (HipWaldorf
              Unfortunately, they have strayed from their French Provencal inspired fabric from the past. The fabrics now seem to be channeling psychodelic prints from the 60's. Some color schemes are pretty horrendous. (Comment) 
              I own a nice selection of Vera Bradley totes and zip around wallets that have been well taken care of, all purchased new many years ago -- in shades of pink, apple green, pale yellow, red and navy. I'll occasionally find something in a nice old pattern on eBay. However, I've purchased no new Vera patterns for a long time.  Like other companies, I wish they'd get the message that we'd like to see a return of traditional colors and patterns from the past. Over time, the collections have become so hideous and ghastly that they look cheap. (Comment) 
              I recall purchasing a tote shortly after they moved production overseas; the difference in quality was most noticeable in the number of loose threads at the seams.(Mary
              Not only has Vera Bradley decreased in quality and design (though not in price), it's no longer made in the US. I refuse to pay top-tier prices for an inferior, foreign made product. (Comment)
              Vera Bradley Vintage Bags From Their Precious and Iconic Phases

              Conclusion: The Barbour-crumb Tinies

              Companies are changing, seemingly faster than ever.  So perhaps, as Barbour today produces a collection of iconic jackets today, they are doomed.

              In the spirit of The Gashlycrumb Tinies written by Edward Gorey and first published in 1963, one can imagine all of the ways these jackets might be unwearable, from lower quality to new designs to deadening over-exposure to wearer misuse.

              The Barbour-crumb Tinies

              (a.k.a. How today's mix of economics, technology, and customer behaviors almost inevitably destroys all great products)

              A is for America's market, not Britain's
              B is for Brand creep:  wallets and mittens
              C is for Chairman and payout, the max
              D is for "Designed now so no need to wax"
              E is for Emmys, worn there as an item
              F is for Fire, a fast way to dry 'em
              G is for "Growth!" on employee screen savers
              H is for Heirs who are pro sports team cravers
              I is for Ironic:  high heels and no liners
              J is for Joint venture with hip designers
              K is for Knock-offs at Penney's and Sears
              L is for LBO's full of arrears
              M is for MBA's margins and throughputs
              N is for New products made for the outlets
              O is for Outsource to China and Turkey
              P is for Precious, not worn when it's murky
              Q is for Quick buck, to bolster the stock
              R is for Retiring – run out the clock
              S is for Soccer moms sans perspiration
              T is for Tumblr, the new inspiration
              U is for Unwaxed, just like Army surplus
              V is for Vineyard Vines' poached staff and bonus
              W is for Washer, “just trying to clean it"
              X is for Xtra large sizes that don't fit
              Y is for Young folks who tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet,
              Z is for Zippers not for the weak