Caught by the River

The Ivy Look

3rd October 2010

The Ivy Look by Graham Marsh and JP Gaul (Francis Lincoln)
King of Carnaby Street by Jeremy Reed (Haus)

books reviewed by Paolo Hewitt.

Clothes maketh the mad man. And it also makes the TV series. Mad Men has it all. Great scripts, subtle story lines, unexpected twists, and engaging characters who fuel
themselves consistently on gargantuan amounts of whiskey and cigarettes. In Mad Men, you are never more than second away from an alcoholic or a tobacco addict.
Yet the show delivers something else and that something else is an orgy of the Ivy League style. Sharp suits, brogues, loafers, button down shirts, Harrington style jackets, belts and loops all in the right place, this is the look that has never died. It was created in top American universities such as Princeton and by the late 50s had swept America. It is a precise style which places the emphasis on detail and correctness and it lives on today, gathering momentum. Which is why the American company Brooks Brothers (inventor of the button down) just opened shop on Regent Street .
In Britain, it was introduced to London by a guy name of Lou Austen. He ran a shop – Austen’s, wouldn’t you know – opposite the Trocadero back in the black and white 50s. Lou filled his windows with expensive Ivy League American clothing and raked it in, so much so he got to live full time in a posh hotel on Piccadilly. Charlie Watts and Georgie Fame and Nik Cohn were amongst his customers. Pretty good pedigree, I would say.
Lou faded away but the torch was swiftly picked by a young man, name of John Simon. Simon was an East End kid who during the Second World War bumped into an American solder dressed in gabardine trousers, smart uniform jacket and shiny polished brogues. Simon gasped. British soldiers looked cheap, nasty. This man looked anything but and he became the vision Simon set his life to. In 1965, Simon opened up the Ivy Shop in Richmond, seeking to dress British executives in the style of their American counterparts. On Monday morning he awoke to find a queue of young British working class kids demanding his goods. Fuck knows how they could afford it, but they did. Simon has been serving them and many more ever since.
Graham Marsh and JP Gaul are two of his customers. They are Ivy League enthusiasts and their book The Ivy Look (Frances Lincoln) is a wonderful tribute to their magnificent obsession. The book brims with passion for its subject. It is a work filled with great detail, great history, and all is explained, from the loafer to the wing tip, from the button down to the tab collar. They have great one liners as well. ‘It was so cool, it was sub zero.’ Furthermore, they complement their words with stylish and wonderful ads from the time. These alone are worth the price of admission, all of them dreamt up by the true Mad Men of Madison Avenue. When you have sucked in the beauty of these ads you then gaze at the various album covers featured and yearn even more. Beware, this book will make you feel scruffy. Even if you are not.
In between these visual delight are the photos of the rich and the famous, – The Kennedy brothers, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Miles Davis. This is not just a book about the Ivy League style but a book that describes a world long gone, a world of true and beautiful cool. Open it at any page and you’ll be hooked, guaranteed.
Yet what I really love about this book is the fact that although the material absolutely lends itself to a larger coffee table format, the easy route has been refused and the book remains small, neat, precise, just like their subject and ready to fit into your top patch jacket pocket. This Xmas, for the Mod in your life, The Ivy Book.

At various points in the UK, the Ivy League look crossed over with the men’s fashion revolution occurring in post war Britain. Up until the late ‘50s, the son dressed like his father, took on his suits and ties until the Beats and the Teddy Boys hinted at something else. Step forward, John Stephen who is at last given the biography he deserves, one to celebrate his massive achievements. Stephen was fifteen when he arrived in London. Born in the tough area of Govan, Glasgow (same patch as Sir Alex Ferguson, no less) he was in London to fulfil an ambition. It was this. ‘If by the end of my journey, a young man can walk down the street in a pink shirt and not be called a poofter I will have succeeded,’ he declared. And he succeeded. Beyond his wildest.
Stephen found work at Moss Bros in Covent Garden, then moved onto Vince’s on Foubert Place. Best place for him. Vince’s catered for the ‘theatrical world ‘ the only shop in London according to George Melly where when you asked for a tie they measured your inside leg. Green lime pants for men were displayed in the window. How the straight world must have hated Vince’s and how Stephen must have basked in the shop’s ambience. He too was gay so at this time, he was illegal. In 1957, he heard the call and he branched out, opened up his own shop on Beak Street. That burnt down so he moved round the corner to a small dingy street called Carnaby Street and started the revolution. He struggled at first, who doesn’t? But he knew his market, had his eye firmly placed on the young teenager starting to populate London streets in impressive numbers. He knew if he put out enough signals, eventually they would find him.
That is why his shops were run exclusively by young people, hip and aware, able to understand, not like the middle aged salesman in the big department stores. Pop music blared out onto the street, and – sometimes – pretty girls posed in the window. Those were the shops, here were the clothes and again Stephen was blazing a trail – hipster trousers, floral shirts placed next to bright coloured numbers with great collars. The man even threw some kilts into the mix at one point. As his fame grew so the shops opened up one by one. It was a punishing work schedule and it took its toll. Reed’s biography takes us into the eye of Stephen’s storm. There we find a nervous shy man, topping himself up with alcohol, launching into angry fits caused by jealousy, a workaholic who would not accept second best, meticulous in appearance, determined, obsessive, a man driving himself into the ground.
He died in 1970 but he lived the ‘60s life. Luxury flat, Rolls Royces, top class restaurants but always his brain feverishly seeking the next look, the next hit. After all, his clothes had a shelf life of one week. If you didn’t grab it then, forget about it. John Stephen was a major part of the 60s and this biog is long overdue. Warning. It has its faults. Reed is a good writer, no doubt about that, and I warm to his style, but the Stephen story is short, a blaze of passion and too often Reed repeats himself to reach up the word quota. He also neglects to reference various quotes. So I can now tell you that the three Carlo Manzi quotes come from my book, The Soul Stylists. Reed might have done better to follow the Ivy Book example, place his words within a smaller format and surround them with Stephen adverts etc. That said, his book is fascinating and valuable, and like The Ivy Book, currently in a League of its own.

The Ivy League Look website.