Top of the class: Ivy League style

Simon Crompton on the enduring appeal of the preppy look

Prep hour… Scott Fraser Collection knit shirt, from £225
Prep hour… Scott Fraser Collection knit shirt, from £225 | Image: Dominic Hinde

The classics of so-called Ivy League style – such as button-down Oxford shirts, collegiate sweaters and Madras checks – have been creeping back into menswear. Popular among America’s elite universities in the 1950s, the laid-back approach to dressing has always been a mainstay among heritage brands. But recently, younger designers have revived the style, mixing it with streetwear or modern sporty elements and striking a chord with a new generation.

A still from “Take Ivy” by Teruyoshi Hayashida
A still from “Take Ivy” by Teruyoshi Hayashida | Image: Powerhouse Books

Jack Carlson, founder of the New York-based brand Rowing Blazers, became fascinated by the uniforms of Ivy universities while competing as a cox (he later became a member of the US national team). He wrote Rowing Blazers about the famed jackets in 2014, and in 2017 he launched his brand in the same name, producing ready-to-wear inspired by the uniforms of the Ivy colleges.

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“The look was about students being irreverent and perhaps a little lazy,” he says of the original style. “They mixed their traditional blazers and chinos with the sweatshirts or tennis shoes they needed to play on the court later. It was convenient, young and laid-back.”

Rowing Blazers rugby shirt, $95
Rowing Blazers rugby shirt, $95

Carlson taps into the same attitude when he shows rugby shirts over wide-leg chinos or tweed trousers with a bright‑yellow T-shirt. “Everything is a little bit tongue-in-cheek,” he says. “We take the quality of the product very seriously – sourcing from a lot of original manufacturers – but the look is playful, not stuffy.”

Rowing Blazers jacket, $1,095, rugby shirt, $195, and trousers, $195
Rowing Blazers jacket, $1,095, rugby shirt, $195, and trousers, $195 | Image: Thomas Welch, Matthew Schonfeld and Molly Kirk

On the other side of the Atlantic, London-based Scott Fraser Collection is also reinterpreting traditional British and American menswear from the 1950s and ’60s. “I’ve always been heavily influenced by Ivy,” says founder Scott Fraser Simpson. “When I was 19, I became obsessed with the book Take Ivy by Teruyoshi Hayashida, who travelled to American campuses in the 1960s and took these wonderful, off-duty pictures of the students.” Simpson also spent much of his youth in the original John Simons store, a mecca – for many – for collegiate style in London’s Covent Garden.

Scott Fraser Collection vintage B sweater
Scott Fraser Collection vintage B sweater | Image: Jonathan Daniel Pryce

In Scott Fraser Collection’s current range, the influence of Ivy is most obvious in the wide-leg, high-rise trousers and three-piece tweed suits. And the fact every loafer is worn with white sports socks. “I always thought it was a perfect example of how students mixed up clothing with abandon,” says Simpson. “It’s an incongruous thing to do and yet feels perfectly traditional.”

From left: Hermès cagoule, £2,150. Marni stripe shirt, £320, and polo shirt, £280
From left: Hermès cagoule, £2,150. Marni stripe shirt, £320, and polo shirt, £280

The modern revival of Ivy style – in London, at least – is in large part thanks to Drake’s, which has been peppering its collections with corduroy and rugby shirts for the past few seasons. “I love the way Ivy allows men to wear more colour and pattern,” says creative director Michael Hill. “There are all these traditional pieces that a man would usually shy away from – Madras checks, seersucker – but because they have heritage, it gives them confidence to wear it.” 

Beams x Mr Porter button-down shirt, £140
Beams x Mr Porter button-down shirt, £140

The Drake’s approach has been to create its own versions of the classics: rugby shirts come in brown-and-pink stripes, and its Oxford-cloth button-down is made in its Somerset-based factory. “Ivy style has become so widespread,” says Hill about the US collegiate uniform becoming so international. “Many people today know Ivy because of the way people have remodelled and recreated it.”

Sperry boat moccasins, £245, from mrporter.com
Sperry boat moccasins, £245, from mrporter.com

Beams, the Japanese lifestyle store founded in 1976 and which originally presented its products as if from a UCLA dorm room, has also been instrumental in Ivy’s course. The brand’s current selection includes short-sleeved button-down shirts and its take on the “fun shirt” – a design originated by Brooks Brothers in the 1970s, which was made from a patchwork of brightly coloured fabrics. This season, Drake’s also offers a jacket in panels of suede, while Noah – the New York-based brand – has a corduroy-suit version.

Ralph Lauren Madras tie, £85
Ralph Lauren Madras tie, £85

Fashion brands are not immune to the trend, either: Prada’s spring/summer runway was rife with button-down Oxfords, some even made from pastel patchwork shirting; rugby shirts were found in the collections of Marni and Dolce & Gabbana; while cagoules featured highly in the Hermès show. Ralph Lauren’s spring/summer 2020 is particularly robust with Ivy staples, including bleeding Madras ties, Fair Isle sweaters, seersucker suits and the classic Ivy shoe: red-soled white bucks.

J Crew corduroy trousers, £200, mrporter.com
J Crew corduroy trousers, £200, mrporter.com

“Menswear has been so dominated by streetwear that we’re now seeing a natural shift towards a more tailored and classic proposition,” says Mr Porter buying manager Sam Kershaw. The retailer has recently picked up footwear by GH Bass and Sperry – two brands integral to the original Ivy League movement – as well as ready-to-wear from J Press, which first opened on Yale’s campus in 1902, and Noah. “It’s time to dress more maturely, and classic Ivy style pieces such as blazers, shirting and tassel loafers achieve this.”

Drake’s fun shirt, £195
Drake’s fun shirt, £195

Todd Snyder, a designer who has collaborated with US outfitter Champion, echoes this sentiment: “Ivy feels current because it has quality and provenance baked into it. It’s the perfect combination of craft and authenticity, with still modern-feeling sportswear.”

GH Bass Weejun loafers, £140
GH Bass Weejun loafers, £140

With such a range of staples, and such a breadth of brands, it is likely that men will be Ivy clad for several years to come. 

This story was originally posted on 5 April 2020.

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