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Here is a bit of nostalgia wrapped in more nostalgia wrapped in a weird outer coating of modernity: The J. Peterman catalogue is finally raising funds to sell the "Urban Sombrero," 20 years after it was featured on Seinfeld. And they’re taking to Kickstarter to do it.
That might seem like an odd platform for a catalogue that’s known for featuring items with a romantic history. Since the company’s inception in 1987, they’ve been associated with clothing items like a "horseman’s duster" (for those in "horse country") or a "Jeffersonian Shirt (for those who walk through a "thousand castles, mansions, châteaux"). Those items always seemed to presuppose that their readers might be time travelers. Kickstarter, in comparison, seems awfully new age.
However, J. Peterman himself — whose real first name is John, not Jacopo, as Seinfeld led us to believe, and who was a second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates before founding the clothing company — explains, "Kickstarter offers the possibility of gaining a whole new generation of customers."
John O’Hurley, who played Jacopo on the iconic series and has owned a stake in the company since 1999, explains that in addition to gaining the new generation of customers, "This is a way for us to get our own control back. The Kickstarter approach is a way of funding out credit line to go back to being the company we want to be instead of having to make a bottom line that’s appealing to a lending institution."
They’ve been laboring to get their control back and return the company to its 90’s glory days for a while, now. Many (specifically this writer) will forever fondly associate reading the Hemingway-esque descriptions in their mom’s J. Peterman catalogue with their youth. However, the company has met with some setbacks in the post-Seinfeld decades. When the show was still on, the company was making around $75 million in sales. They proceeded to open 15 stores. By 1999, though, Seinfeld was off the air and the company went bankrupt. Everything, including the intellectual property rights to the name J. Peterman, was sold to Paul Harris Stores.
"I believe this new generation of 40-odd year olds believes in the same things that my generation did at 40 years old, the things we’ve been doing have become cool again."
In 2001, though, Paul Harris Stores went bankrupt too, and Peterman regained control of his company. Since then they’ve been focused on online retail. Today, O’Hurley remarks that part of the impetus to raise funds on Kickstarter is that, "J. Peterman’s feeling was that we’d become more mass appeal, we were doing things anyone could do and attaching a Peterman story to them. We should be going back to identifying items that are singular."
Hopefully, the time is right for that. Peterman explains that they feel ready for a resurgence and that, "I believe this new generation of 40-odd year olds believes in the same things that my generation did at 40 years old, the things we’ve been doing [offering singular items with a story to them] have become cool again."
Those 40-year-olds certainly still believe in watching Seinfeld. The show never really stopped being cool, especially to the generation that grew up with it. O’Hurley has been campaigning to sell the sombrero for years. He explained that in the past J. Peterman was reluctant to embrace the Seinfeld audience. "The hat represented the philosophy of Seinfeld and for years he was adamant that he wouldn’t do it. I’ve brought it up two dozen times. Two months ago he says, by the way, you win, I’m going to do the sombrero."
O’Hurley paused to remark, "I guess over a period of time you say, ‘Oh, why not.’ But I still won."
J. Peterman agreed, "I had John hounding on me for 20 years. And because it was 20 years I felt the sombrero had earned its authenticity. The reason I never wanted to put it in was that it was a commercial made-up product, but since then it’s kind of become an American icon."
O’Hurley claims that by now, "I think it has a romance to it, a mythical romance to it. The older things get the more things develop a momentum of their own."
In other words: Everything becomes a historical artifact if you just wait long enough. The Kickstarter isn’t only promoting Seinfeld inspired merchandise. J. Peterman, the brand, is also trying to revive a Mod Flapper Dress that’s Clara Bow meets Audrey Hepburn and a Café Racer Jacket inspired by pre-Brando motorcycle jackets. People who pledge $8,600 to the campaign will be taken on a buying trip through France, checking out local flea markets. You can expect it to be the kind of adventure the Peterman character was known to have on Seinfeld.
John O’Hurley claims that in real life, "J. Peterman walks his talk. If he was going to South America he’d go by freighter… He travels by train or horseback or bicycle. He’ll go by wine barge. He travels romantically, searches romantically, and shops romantically."
John Peterman isn’t sure if the millenial generation will respond. He notes that he As of right now, the kickstarter has raised $79,780. And so the company seems to be riding into the future, swathed in a horseman’s duster and an urban sombrero.