Back in 1884, Lewis Tomlin saw the virtues of selling cozy underwear to the English. Fascinated by the findings of Gustav Jaeger, a German professor who posited the benefits of wearing wool next to the skin, Tomlin opened the first Jaeger shop in London and soon had the likes of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Henry Morton Stanley caught up in his woolen undies cult.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Tomlin went on to offer women posh outerwear, such as cashmere sweaters, camel-hair blazers and gray flannel skirts. Showing a definite preference for the gentler sex, the company didn't offer men fashionable garments until the 1940s.
Over the years, as style took precedence over practicality, the demand for the original Jaeger unmentionables died down. Today, the only way to obtain a pair of woolen briefs or an undershirt is to place a special order out of London.
"Oddly enough," muses Rodney Johnson, the New York-based president of Jaeger Sportswear Ltd., "we get the most requests from the Far East, places like Japan and Hong Kong."
Keeping in step with the times in a genteel way, the company now markets to young affluent professionals in England and America, Johnson says. The original consumer, identified by him as "a horse-country type," has been replaced by the corporate type.
Following the success of the pilot Bullocks-Wilshire Jaeger menswear shop, Johnson says five more in-store boutiques will open Monday.
Johnson claims the firm's typical customer "seeks us out." Men, it appears, are in quest of impeccable, stiff-upper-lip sportswear and tailored clothing, which sometimes isn't British at all.
"We do a lot of soul-searching," Johnson solemnly claims, "before we get involved with an outside manufacturer."
Such was the case, he says, when Jaeger chose Hickey-Freeman as licensee to produce the suits, slacks and sports coats sold in America. "The sweaters," he adds, "are made by us. But everything has very much a British flavor."
The flavor surfaces in natty shawl-collared cardigans, crisp gabardine slacks, heather tweed sports coats and subtly patterned suit fabrics. Aimed at a youthful executive, the fit is on the trim side. "There's a bit more definition to the waist and shoulders, a bit more flare to the shape," explains Johnson, looking well-defined in a navy pin-striped suit.
While there's nothing in the menswear line that could rock the corporate ladder, Jaeger's British-made women's wear runs the gamut from a classic black cashmere blazer to trendier jackets and skirts in bright, patterned wools. They're intended "for a professional woman who wants to wear something other than a suit tailored from menswear fabrics," Johnson says.
For women, prices range from $80 for a lamb's-wool sweater to $800 for the cashmere blazer. For men, the price range is slightly lower: $60 for a Merino wool sweater to $525 for a wool suit.