Harvard Seeks Hipsters
With a new fashion line and an NYC Prep cameo, Harvard is making a bid to become the hippest Ivy. Kathleen Kingsbury wonders whether selling seersucker at schlocky retailers will help make it the go-to destination for glamour.
It’s Marketing 101: If you want to cultivate prestige, breed exclusivity.
Which raises the question, have the folks at Harvard been nodding off in class lately? Already the Cambridge, Massachusetts, institution has opened up its online courses to anyone willing to pay. Now comes the news that the school has inked a 10-year licensing deal to launch its very own “preppy” fashion line, Harvard Yard.
Cambridge never has been a destination for Hollywood glamour the way Brown, Columbia, or even Yale tend to be.
Details on the menswear collection have been few and far between, but don’t expect to find the university’s logo anywhere. No, manufacturing partner Wearwolf Group, a New York-based retail vendor, has instead promised the “seersucker shorts, regimental stripes, sporty knits, patterned jackets, and fancy pants” of a 1960s Harvard man.
Trousers will run about $165 a pair and sports jackets $465. “It’s a style that has become current again and not just with the American consumer,” the line’s creative director, John Fowler, told WWD. “We think Harvard Yard will have global appeal.”
So far the buzz seems to be that the collection is an attempt on Harvard’s part to trade in its rather staid image for a more stylish one.
“Something fishy seems to be going on at Harvard: The university is trying to be hip, possibly even chic,” New York magazine’s Amy Odell writes.
The school’s cameo on the Bravo reality show NYC Prep has only worked to fuel such rumors. And it’s true—Cambridge never has been a destination for Hollywood glamour the way Brown, Columbia, or even Yale tend to be.
Such noise must have Harvard administrators grinning. Especially if it helps at all to cloud this latest move for what it must be: a shameless money grab. For one, some of the top retailers Wearwolf’s Web site lists for its collections—Macy’s, Men’s Wearhouse, and JCPenney—are about as far from Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive as you can get.
But it’s also no secret that the recession has wreaked havoc on the school’s finances. In the last fiscal year, its endowment lost some 30 percent of its value—or $12 billion—leading to layoffs and hiring freezes.
Neither Harvard nor Wearwolf has yet disclosed the financial details behind the deal, but profit margins on licensing deals are notoriously high.
And this one was negotiated by IMG Worldwide, the talent-management agency that has made its name securing millions for clients like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. What’s more, when the Beverly Hills School Board last January suggested it would forgo bake sales for similar fundraising avenues, it estimated licensing could bring in between $500,000 and several million dollars annually.
So even if it means selling out to a schlocky retailer of seersucker, there’s little room for dignity on a college’s bottom line in these trying times. And that might just be an OK thing. With the Harvard Coop already stocking any number of crimson tube socks, why not make a little more room for a bit of higher fashion if an English Lit professor or two can be saved down the line?
Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.