Jim Ockert: On the Art of Menswear
Carmel, CA, has long been a haven for visionaries, artists, intellectuals, and other creative types. Ansel Adams, Sinclair Lewis, and Upton Sinclair all once called this small coastal burg home, and for the last three decades Jim Ockert has made a name for himself in Carmel elevating menswear into art through styling and selling exclusive menswear at his shop, J. Lawrence Khaki’s.
Khaki’s is a family-owned business where husband and wife team Jim and Connie Ockert have created one of the nation’s most impressive menswear retail establishments. In its most recent iteration Khaki’s holds the premier location in downtown Carmel’s retail center. A storied 15,000 square foot corner location now houses a menswear shop that is internationally recognized as a destination retail experience. But Khaki’s is much more than a place for men to buy fine clothing, it’s a place to experience Jim Ockert’s unique sartorial vision, and that alone is worth the price of a trip to Carmel.
It is hard not to notice that something is a bit different about Khaki’s once you set your foot inside its inviting glass doors. The mannequins that flank the store’s entrance are dressed in a way that immediately grabs your attention. Menswear newbies and enthusiasts alike will be compelled to cast two, three, perhaps more, glances at the meticulously styled outfits draping the wooden bodies. They speak to you. But even if you don’t understand the language they speak—that of lapel widths, shoulder construction, collar styles, pick stitching, and surgeon’s cuffs, you will understand that they represent something different in the world of menswear. As someone who falls firmly in the menswear enthusiast camp, I was struck by the boldness of the colors, patterns, textures, and shapes that could be found on the nearly one hundred mannequins that populate Khaki’s at any given time. I wanted to know more about the person who’d styled those outfits. Enter Jim Ockert.
Ockert is, I think it is safe to say, sui generis. Though his influences can be discerned by those in the know, what he is doing now at Khaki’s represents a unique approach to menswear retail that not only goes against the grain of retail logic in the midst of a recession, but does so boldly and successfully. In a moment when many retailers are culling their brand offerings and playing it safe with reduced color palettes and betting on simplicity over the potential sales perils of giving customers too many options, Ockert has increased the numbers of exclusive brands he carries. He is even building a private label line of highly detail-oriented shirts, pants, and sport coats, many of which are hand made in the USA by the artisans at Martin Greenfield Clothiers, the venerable Brooklyn tailoring establishment which has made suits for both Wall Street movies, and that now makes the suits for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Ockert is not a retail maverick because he likes to take chances, or because he inherently thrives on operating outside the ambit of traditional menswear retail. He is a maverick because he has had his skin in the menswear game for nearly four decades, and knows the industry intimately from historic, artisanal, and sales-oriented perspectives. Ockert knows in his heart what will and won’t work from season-to-season and year-to-year because he knows menswear so well that he can predict its moves. Much like the menswear legends Murray Pearlstein of Louis Boston and Fred Pressman of Barneys New York, who together introduced America to Italian tailoring, Ockert works ahead of the curve. Little-known brands lining Khaki’s shelves right now are sure to be all the rage in a year or two.
Khaki’s is truly unlike any other menswear retailer I’ve visited, and I’ve visited my fair share. For instance, Khaki’s doesn’t only focus on suiting. Although Ockert’s personal background is in fine tailoring (he cut his teeth in the early days in Nordstrom’s suiting department, and can discuss the fine details of suit construction and tailoring with the best of them) Khaki’s stocks not just suiting by brands like Canali, Samuelsohn, and Brioni, but also carries stylish workwear by John Woolrich (Woolrich’s more tailored line) and Eastland, and fashion-forward European country attire by brands like England’s John Barbour & Sons (Barbour’s more trim fitting line) and Italian brands like CP, Mason’s, and Montedoro. The vast offerings help form the cornerstone of Khaki’s aesthetic, which Ockert describes as “fashionable, progressive, and wearable.” Ultimately, he concludes, “if you can’t wear a garment, it’s not right.”
While some designers pursue ever slimmer and tighter jackets and pants, to the point where the clothes become nearly unwearable, Ockert’s private label offerings mix sartorial pragmatism with a “high-bred” modernism that falls on the “eccentric side.” This is evident in the exclusive tweeds Ockert chose for this winter’s private label sport coat offerings: a thick purple Donegal, bold thornproof tweed windowpanes, and an almost blanket-like ivory herringbone that was so soft to the touch I thought it must be 100% cashmere.These jackets aren’t skin tight, and the fabrics are not ones you’re likely to come across often, if ever, but they somehow seem like they’ll stand the test of time and weather the strong winds of fashion because they, as Ockert says, “push the envelope” just the right amount without falling into caricature.
But timeless style needs to be balanced by value and durability, which Khaki’s private label offers in spades. When Ockert travels to Brooklyn to meet with Martin Greenfield, the conversations are never about what detailing can be taken out to reduce production costs; they’re about how to “put more into a garment, not less.” This attention to detail suffuses Ockert’s private label products, from the wool suiting fabric used to construct the back belt loop on Khaki’s khakis to the multiple shirting cottons used to line the waistbands and pocket bags on his wool and cashmere dress pants.
Although using the metaphors of art to describe the world of menswear has become somewhat hackneyed these days, Jim Ockert is truly one of a handful of retailers who have successfully elevated menswear to the level of art. Ockert has realized it through his personal vision of creating a magical menswear experience, making available to the public a “specialty store at the highest level.” Khaki’s bursts at the seams with a dizzying array of offerings, but once the visitor is past the initial shock and awe of the bold colors and patterns that immediately grab the eye, the idea that Ockert has carefully chosen each garment and shoe to create a broad sartorial palette through which the novice and expert alike can express their own individuality begins to crystallize. Though Ockert’s personal style suggests the deft hand of a seasoned veteran of style at work, often mixing patterns and textures in unorthodox ways (he compares styling mannequins to “writing a book,” each one telling a story replete with recurring themes and motifs), Khaki’s selection is so thoughtfully curated that men whose sartorial proclivities are more restrained can easily walk out with a charcoal grey suit, French blue shirt, and navy knit tie. But for those who want to begin the more personal journey of developing a signature style, there are few better places in the world to do so than J. Lawrence Khaki’s of Carmel.