The Legend Of J. Peterman

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

It's very possible that many of you reading this have never heard of J. Peterman. The name may not immediately ring an bell, but it is possible that latent memories of his legend are hidden withing the deepest crevices of your brain. This is likely due to the variety of Seinfeld reruns on TBS that you've watched while stoned. However, it should be noted that the iconic bit character played by John O'Hurley on the classic American sitcom is, in fact, a real, actual person and founder of a real, actual clothing company. And that catalog copy Elaine Benes wrote for the Urban Sombrero? A real life phenomenon. The godfather of such brilliant prose is none other than John Peterman, underappreciated swag tyrant and pioneering #menswear blogging godfather.

Try perusing The J. Peterman Company website to find an actual photograph of an item for sale. It's nearly impossible. The default images for every single product are literally cartoonish line illustrations. J. Petey knows you ain't buying them khakis for the images, fool. No, he understands that lush, humid prose turns clicks into transactions. That signature way with words, which started in 1987 when Peterman founded the brand, begat a legacy—one only semi-realized when the Seinfeld writers threw Elaine to the wolves, but later came full circle, like a starving ouroboros, as #menswear blogs hit the mainstream.

The driving force behind Peterman's story is product copy that cajoles would-be shoppers to tears out of equal parts joy, shock and absurdity. We poke fun at the grandiose claims and illogical statements that a pair of boots may save your life all of the time, but for 12 glorious years, J. Peterman owned over-the-top product copy, growing his brand to $75 million in sales against stiff competition from the likes of Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Tommy Hilfiger, just to name a few. Shockingly, it would be the Seinfeld exposure that would cause the company's initial demise.

His knack for crafting languid rationalizations for expensive items is our lifeblood.

Though O'Hurley's J. Peterman appeared in just 22 episodes, his articulate dramatization of the man himself sparked huge growth for the business. But what was at first the kind of dream PR that money can't buy eventually went south. Despite all efforts, the company just couldn’t keep up, and a disastrous venture into brick-and-mortar J. Peterman locations led the business to go belly up in 1999. An empire that began with just $500, a small business loan and the signature "horseman’s duster" had been effectively reduced to rubble.

Some two years later, though, like a phoenix shrugging off the haters to rise from the ashes, J. Peterman bought back his company and started doing things his way. He even wrote a book on his trials and tribulations, entitled J. Peterman Rides Again and, in a sheer, unadulterated power move, brought on John O'Hurley to invest in the revival.

Today, J. Peterman's copy is just as lean and mean as ever, and the products still channel the glorious nostalgia of the Old West with a variety of cowboy-inspired Americana garb.

Sure, GQ and Esquire have been around for the better part of a century, and have established audiences and devoted fans worldwide by breaking down clothing in detail. But their language does not embody the #menswear spirit like J. Peterman does. In fact, no one can. Peterman made it not corny for men to wax poetic about the clothing they know and love. Everyone may point to the Hollywood stars of yesteryear, like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Cary Grant, as menswear's archetypes, the blog idols. But the men, no matter how great, were simply charged with wearing the clothes, not learning every intricate stitch or cut to distinguish one from the other. Every Blogspot you followed in '08, every Tumblr in 2010, every copy of Fuck Yeah Menswear, Four fucking Pins—every single one owes a debt of gratitude to John Peterman.

There are few voices more relatable to the bedroom blogger finding his way in the wide world of #menswear than the Peterman catalog voice. His knack for crafting languid rationalizations for expensive items is our lifeblood. Do you like J. Peterman's products? If you're like us, probably not. Still, the influence speaks to many. Us, and you, the reader, are forever indebted to our lord and savior, the one true god, John Peterman. Amen.

1. petermanlead

Not Available Interstitial

2. peterman 1

Not Available Interstitial

Actor John O'Hurley who played J. Peterman on Seinfeld in part turning the tiny catalog company into a household name.

3. peterman 2

Not Available Interstitial

4. peterman 3

Not Available Interstitial

5. peterman 4

Not Available Interstitial

6. peterman 5

Not Available Interstitial

If this were a story on GQ, this would be J. Peterman's 10 Essentials.

7. peterman 6

Not Available Interstitial

The cover of Peterman's book, amazingly titled Peterman Rides Again, where he dropped knowledge on the downfall and rebirth of the J. Peterman brand.

Latest in Style