Kensuke Ishizu was not American, and he certainly never attended an Ivy League university. Yet, in bringing Ivy style to Japan after World War II, he played a key role in safeguarding the classic manner of American dress for its eventual return to its birthplace. He was a very stylish and elegant man who understood that clothes have context and meaning. So, even though one may not be an Ivy fan, there is something important we should learn from his example.
When we look at clothes, we often forget that they are not merely material things. That is the grand folly of Pitti Uomo. It reduces clothing to the level of mere merchandise–stuff to be advertised, acquired, and accessorized. Culinarily, it’s the equivalent of a mall food court. You can eat whatever you like, but none of it will have any truth in it. Clothes are not merely things to be bought and consumed. They come from a place and tell a story. They are culture. They are language.
Ishizu didn’t merely co-opt from the Ivy lexicon in a piecemeal fashion. He immersed himself in the genre, studying with great scrutiny the cultural context in which the clothes were worn. To truly dress (and sell) Ivy, he understood it was necessary to grapple with the people wearing it. In 1965, he partnered with Japanese men’s fashion magazine Men’s Club to produce the now famous, cult-followed book Take Ivy, a photographic account of what students were actually wearing on Ivy League campuses during that period. It’s become an indispensable resource on this side of the Pacific for those looking to remember how true Ivy style was done. Without Ishizu, how much of that heritage would have been lost? He learned to elegantly speak a language that nearly everyone else forgot how to speak. Then he retaught it to us.
Today’s internationalized menswear market makes everything available to everybody. This is a fantastic convenience, but we should be a bit more circumspect about how we approach its offerings. That Ishizu could epitomize an entire style of dress completely foreign to him, should mean to us that clothes can have content much deeper than the fabric and thread of which they’re made. Failing to mine for that content is to fail the first test of style: authenticity. It’s akin to speaking words in a foreign language simply because they sound nice, without any inkling of what’s being said.
As Ishizu demonstrated, authenticity is not about demographics, but spirit and attitude. Yet, the fast pace of modern fashion makes it very hard to be authentic. New things arrive on the horizon too quickly for us to properly acquaint ourselves with whatever they replace. Consequently, we too often find ourselves wearing costumes, clothes not fully our own. For those who genuinely love style, this can be no excuse. Just as fashion is more available now than ever, so too is knowledge. Ishizu brought himself face-to-face with a style of dress an entire world away, and yet he did not have the internet at his disposal.
So, whether wearing a Neapolitan shirt, an English suit, or an American buttondown collar, we should try to understand where they come from. If we can, we should travel there and get to know the people. If that is not possible, we should spend less time flipping through blogs looking for outfits that please our whimsy, and do some good reading. These things have stories in them. They are possessed of emotion and attitude. They can be alive if we let them. I’ve heard many men dismiss the importance of understanding clothes in this way because they are driven by so-called self-expression. Yet, if one is truly interested in expressing himself, why would he choose to stifle such evocative tools?
Ishizu spent a lifetime getting to know Ivy style. We should follow his lead. Rather than picking up pretty sounding words, we ought to be learning language.