Fashion is cyclical, this we know. Yet despite the wealthy elite being on the country’s shitlist, prep seems to be coming back. Somehow. Even the writers at GQ are expecting another wave of popularity.
They are right, but it’s not what you think.
For the most part, prep refers to a style and culture that solidified between the 1930’s (with the debut of the Weejun penny loafer) and the 1960’s (with the presidency of John F. Kennedy). During this time the style was shaped with inspiration from traditional British fashion as used by students in Ivy League schools across the United States. It favors high-quality classics with relatively strict rules: large button down collars that roll, hidden third buttons on navy blazers, sockless loafers in the summer, classic fit over slim.
It was also almost exclusively a style of the wealthy. One aspect of prep fashion is a buy-it-for-life mentality. While this is arguably wise, both financially and environmentally, it comes with a higher barrier to entry than cheap goods.
Traditionally, these waves have been accompanied by a celebration of prep’s culture. Summering in Nantucket. Gin. Pastels. The ocean. Second generation money. Gin. Frugality. Tennis. Repressed emotions. Gin.
This is a style that has always been inseparable with New England WASPs. There is even a handbook that elaborates on its rules and culture which spells out the worth of various private schools. And while the white Anglo Saxon Protestants have never completely let it go, this comeback is not their doing.
The prep mainstays are not making the news with their 2/3 roll blazers or cordovan loafers. If a prep revival were happening, we’d expect them to be booming. Instead, they are making the news for shutting down. We’re hearing about the struggles well-known boutique operations like J.Press, Andover Shop, and Keezers, or the disappointing sales of J.Crew and Banana Republic.
With headlines suggesting a style that is circling the drain, the good news is coming from boundary-breaking collaborations with new designers and brands, most of which trend towards streetwear. Think Supreme and Lacoste.
This tells us the latest popularity in prep fashion isn’t with the finance bros in Edgartown. Rather, it’s with streetwear fans who altogether represent a younger, more diverse customer base than prep companies have historically attracted. It’s a customer base that ignores the cultural rules that have accompanied the style in the past and looks more like America looks today. In an era where the good ol’ boys are no longer put on a pedestal but rather are wrestling with the realities of decades of privilege (sometimes in Congressional hearings), this is not altogether surprising.
This is not the first time we have seen something like this; Tommy Hilfiger embraced music subcultures over Americana in the 1990s and Japanese consumers have been using prep as inspiration for collections for years. In fact, while J.Press is closing stores in the U.S., their Japanese sales are strong.
Yet back in the U.S., we see a brand like J.Crew which is repositioning with an Old Navy approach, lower prices and a focus on basics. After a series of disappointing years and the departure of their CEO, this seems like a decision made by a risk-averse committee. It may pan out that this creates a financially stable future for the company, but it’s largely a boring one that means the brand may be forgotten. There’s nothing exciting about a solid tee from a company without an interesting story to tell.
Despite J.Crew sitting this one out, many companies seem to be stepping up to the challenge. Think Polo x Palace. Tommy and Kith. New companies like Rowing Blazers are shedding the baggage of maintaining the prep classics in favor of loud, bold pieces that will attract a new generation of hypebeasts. Even Brooks Brothers, the OG of prep, has been pushing more creative pieces with their Red Fleece line.
Sperry’s collaboration with Noah is a great illustration of this prep nouveau, one which doesn’t target the aging WASPs of New England nor the masses but the young generation of buyers who celebrate limited edition collections and unique pieces. At a 200% price increase over normal Sperry boat shoes, the collab sold out almost immediately. One can’t help but wonder where J.Crew would be if they brought in new well-known designers to make unique, high-cost items in a limited run.
It turns out we are not seeing a prep revival, but a reinvention.
As this prep reinvention begins, I’ll look for success with the companies that embrace creative new pieces that take inspiration from classics without being weighed down by the strict rules or culture that has accompanied them in the past. The customers will go to the brands that aren’t afraid to try something new and remember that even patchwork madras broke the rules at one point in time.