Shirt Tales

Shirt Tales

Closed for good earlier this year, a cozy clothing shop on the corner of Elm and York Streets was the last local vestige of a once-mighty local company. You wouldn’t necessarily have known it from a visit to Gant, where racks of preppy button-down shirts, khakis and sweaters were neatly displayed in a small space lined with wooden shelves, but the global Swedish brand got its name right here in New Haven.

The story behind Gant—often stylized as GANT—actually begins in New York City, where Ukrainian immigrant Bernard Gantmacher arrived in 1914 and went to work in a lower East Side sweatshop sewing shirt collars. There, he met his future wife, Rebecca Rose, an expert in buttons and buttonholes. Gantmacher and a partner, Morris Shapiro, started a small shirtmaking business called Par-Ex (for “par excellence”) in Brooklyn, making shirts on contract for several different companies. In 1927, they moved their operation to 20 Wooster Street in New Haven, where there was an abundant workforce of mostly Italian immigrants.

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It was no small feat for the shirtmakers to survive the financial challenges of the Great Depression and World War II, but the end of the war finally brought just the boom Gantmacher needed. The sportswear industry was about to take off. “Function and a high quality of clothing and other supplies in the armed forces had set a new standard,” writes Mathias Björk in a history of the company titled Gant: The Story (2008). “T-shirts and chinos—pieces of clothing originating from the military—stood for a timeless style, characterized by an informal and functional dress code. In many respects this was the birth of sportswear.”

The button-down shirt, originally designed with collar tips buttoned to the shirt itself to keep them from flapping during athletic contests, was a Brooks Brothers creation, introduced at the turn of the century. By the end of the war, it was a wardrobe staple. “But the only shirts available were custom-made,” Björk writes. Gantmacher’s sons, Marty and Elliot, “saw an opportunity and convinced their father to leave the contracting business and enter the manufacturing arena. Their focus was to make perfectly-executed button-down shirts for the mass market.” In 1949, Gantmacher parted ways with partner Shapiro—but not with New Haven—and founded Gant.

Several distinctive features of men’s shirts originated with Gant: a neck button on the back of the collar to keep a tie in place, a button tab at the collar that gave it a neater appearance, a back pleat for more give and roominess without sacrificing tailored style and the “locker loop”—a loop at the pleat meant for hanging a shirt on a hook in a locker. The loop became a cultural symbol; young men removed them (or their girlfriends pulled them off) to indicate they were “going steady.” Gant was also known for color in an era of white shirts. Its striped, madras, checked and solid-color shirts were popular with Ivy League students—the shirts were best-sellers at the Yale Co-op—and eventually brothers Marty and Elliot instructed their retail salesmen never to wear a white shirt to work, even though Gant made those, too. Beginning in 1971, Gant produced its first collection of sportswear including ties, trousers and the popular “rugger,” a takeoff on the classic rugby shirt. Even when the company manufactured shirts for other retailers, it left its stamp on them in the form of a “G-tack,” a G in a diamond that marked Gant as the manufacturer.

Part of Gant’s marketing strategy, Björk reports, was to “sell only to the best store in town. If a store opted not to carry the Gant brand, the Gantmachers didn’t go for the second best alternative, but rather waited for their first choice to come around. This strategy was bold, bordering on foolhardy.” Nevertheless, it worked—at least for awhile. Gant opened a new factory at 130 Haven Street in 1955, the same year that founder Bernard Gantmacher died, and the company rode the postwar wave into the 1960s. Other Gant factories at various times were located on East Street and 162 James Street in New Haven; Wood Street in West Haven; Wauregan, Connecticut; Kingston, New York, and Salisbury, Maryland.

But it was here in New Haven that Gant would extend too far. A 1966 paid advertisement trumpeted that Gant was embarking on a “monumental expansion program,” building a new, state-of-the art factory at 40 Sargent Drive in Long Wharf. By 1979, the New Haven Register labeled that same building an “albatross.” The new factory “included a one-of-a-kind warehouse that was completely automated, run mechanically by IBM’s latest computer technology,” Björk writes. But “the construction had been developed by engineers who didn’t know anything about the textile industry,” and the automation turned out to be an inefficient flop.

Gant had also run into trouble over the years with its longstanding “in-stock” policy, pledging retailers immediate delivery on reorders, a promise that was often hard to deliver. When the company fell short, so did its reputation. By the time the Long Wharf factory was threatening to sink it, Gant had already been purchased by conglomerate Consolidated Foods, though brothers Marty and Elliot had stayed on for a time. When a new buyer, Palm Beach, Inc., came knocking in 1979, 500 New Haven garment workers were caught off-guard.

“Workers at Gant are bitter that they read about the Gant closing in the newspaper before the company announced it to them,” the Journal-Courier reported in June of that year. “Many of the Gant workers are older women who are paid on a piece-work basis.” Some were later hired by Sero, New Haven’s other shirt manufacturer, founded by Gantmacher’s former partner, Morris Shapiro. (Sero filed for bankruptcy a decade later, in 1988). Gant’s once-lauded factory was sold to Jackson Newspapers to become home to the New Haven Register and is now occupied by Jordan’s Furniture.

Until this year, the Gant brand lived on in New Haven at the corner of Elm and York, despite the fact that three Swedish entrepreneurs had obtained Gant’s licensing rights in 1980. “We say that Gant was born in the U.S. and raised in Europe,” CEO Patrik Nilsson told WWD, a womenswear trade magazine, in 2015. “It’s American sportswear but with European sophistication.” At that time, the company reportedly had 552 stores in 70 countries and net sales of $1 billion.

In 2019, Gant celebrated its 70th anniversary with a publicity campaign that included a video set in a fictional dorm room. “Seven Decades Seven Icons” features Gant clothing through the decades. Though the college in its romanticized vignettes is never named, it’s easy to imagine “the shirt that dressed Yale” back home in New Haven.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring the Gant retail store at York and Broadway in November 2020, sourced from Google Maps Street View. Image 2, featuring a Gant factory at James and Exchange Streets, date unknown, provided courtesy of the New Haven Museum.

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