Ed Mosher: an icon in men’s clothing

A gusty wind blows. A man enters the store, Mosher’s Limited, in the corridor between Plaza De Cesar Chavez and South First Street towed by his Blackberry. With neck crooked, he sighs into the phone and announces: “I’m looking for dress clothes.”

The proprietor turns and sizes the man up. For the last twenty minutes, Ed Mosher has been rummaging through an archive of photos from his store’s illustrious past, as well as his own: matte photos of silver screen legends, black and white advertisements, a wedding certificate.

Mosher begins the charm offensive. In ten minutes, a transaction is made.

Ed Mosher is not boasting when he says he’s an icon—it’s a plain fact that bears repeating. Despite his 83 years, he maintains a robust patina: small eyes with a feline shimmer, hair of chestnut brown that is very fine, a body in constant motion. He dresses in a style that was once considered young, though he is not.

That style, known as the Ivy League look, speaks of a particular form of transatlantic nobility. Characteristic of the storied WASP, old money, or the privileged academic, it is a balancing act hemming the line between cosmopolitan and the familiar. An Ivy League outfit is natural, breathable, a touch informal, and sometimes roomy enough to swim in. There’s little frill or posturing. It’s comfortable. It looks good because it feels good—what could be more American?

The hedonism of such fashion was championed to the extent that it did so with zero restraint. Casual suiting was replaced by t-shirts and distressed denim. If men wore button-down shirts, they ballooned at the waist or were left untucked, highlighting a phantom gut. Insouciance fell victim to slop.

Mosher rues this, and most trends, recalling San Jose before the silicon. In 1955, the San Jose State graduate opened his first store on the campus of his alma mater, later expanding to Stanford, Cupertino, and Los Gatos—all exclusively carrying the Ivy League look. Two women’s stores were soon to follow.

Each of the locations delivered on the promise to merge finery with a relaxed aesthetic, an elegant precursor to the abomination that is “business casual.” This fit well with the South Bay’s rise as a technological nerve center. At the time, however, the only computer company in town was IBM. And they held some positively conformist notions.

“You did not go to work at IBM without a jacket with natural shoulders, a woven silk tie, button-down shirt, and black socks,” Mosher says. And not just any pair of black socks, but high-rise ones that extended past the calf. Garters were probably involved. As Mosher remembers, a young man arrived one afternoon in search of the right pair, and with good reason: “It was his first day on the job and his boss said, ‘Don’t come back without those socks!’”

Mosher was drawn to the inherent theater of fashion, a motif that features throughout his life. His memories retain a dramatic flair, retold as minor epics—and more than a few beg clarification points, at which Mosher gently restates himself without a wink, or even a hint of how otherworldly and charming this all seems.

Before graduating from San Jose State with a degree in drama, he was a traveling magician, performing at USO tours during WWII. He learned what it meant to be a performer from his mother, a singer who stepped down as the “World’s Greatest Contralto” to move to California with her husband, a clothing store owner whose love of menswear didn’t make much of an impression on Ed Jr. until the mid-1950s. By then, he was donning a different uniform.

“I joined the Marine Corps and went straight to training in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was there that I discovered the Ivy League look. I never felt so good in clothes in my life,” he says.

A career in keeping up appearances? Not a stretch today, and it wasn’t then either. He remembered his father’s store; here was a chance to go into business.

Though promised a production job at Warner Bros. on his return, the twenty-three-year-old still wanted to act. “The problem was I wasn’t a good actor. So I thought if it wasn’t going to be theater, then it was lights, camera, fashion!” he says.

The day before graduation, Mosher’s unit was notified of their deployment to Korea. The anxiety he felt as a cadet was short lived—the next evening, in the middle of their graduation, the Korean War came to a halt. Mosher would spend the next two years drifting through the Mediterranean.

“It was a rough life,” he chuckles. With his wife staying with friends in Paris, Mosher began a tour that evokes the journals of Graham Greene or Ernest Hemingway. “From Algiers, we landed in Malta with the British, then Libya with the French Legionnaires—when they still existed—then against the Turks,” he recalls, staring offhandedly at the table before him. The exotic deployments multiplied, as turmoil loomed in the distance. The newlyweds vacationed in Cuba, enjoying the Havana nightlife and the island’s last pre-Communism Mardi Gras fête, months before the coup that would put Fidel Castro in power. Spending the last of their savings on a cross-country road trip, Mosher returned to San Jose with the dream of going into business with his father.

“I said, ‘Look dad, you’ve got to get rid of all this crap.’ At the time, downtown San Jose was home to thirty-two men’s stores that carried the ‘Hollywood’ look—giant pleats, big shoulders—and it looked awful. That’s what my dad was carrying. I knew I would have to start my own thing,” Mosher says.

His first shop was near where the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library now stands. Supply was low, and interest was lower. “People would come in and look at these ‘funny’ things. We had crew neck sweaters. Imagine people not knowing what a crew neck was!”

When Playboy ran a feature titled “Ivy League Look Taking Over the Country,” San Jose couldn’t get enough. “People ran into my store and said, ‘Ed, you predicted it!’” he says. After the article ran, the magazine contacted Mosher about sending a Playmate to host a Playboy Party—the first of its kind. In a series of photos from that day, a crowd of young men are gathered in front of the store: handsome, corn-fed students in military haircuts wearing plaid-print shirts and square-rimmed glasses, eyeing the blonde Playmate.

Mosher is there, too, speaking into a microphone, hair neatly parted, transmitting the same charisma that would lead him to become a champion of small business organizations, local theater groups, and fraternities. The photos are more representative of a time than a place; they’re a glimpse into another San Jose, a world known to a scant few.

Those photos also represent Mosher’s glory days. Soon after, he moved locations, expanding to meet the growing demand. He indulged his passion for theater with regular visits to Manhattan and was advertising in Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

The downturn began once healthy relationships with different manufacturers soured, as many cottoned to the whims of larger clients. “It became hard to get the right merchandise. Our main suit company was in New York, and they helped us grow. Then, Nordstrom went in. Overnight, they accounted for more than 50% of their business,” he says with detectable ire. “If the buyer is in bed with a manufacturer, he’s taking him out to dinner, buying him Broadway tickets, entertaining his wife—he’s beholden to these people.”

Though he couldn’t blame them, neither of Mosher’s sons were interested in joining the family business. By the ’80s, everything became a little too brazen for his tastes: power suits, shoulder pads, bad hair, football-sized car phones. Mosher reeled in completely, closing all of his stores except the downtown San Jose outlet.

And that’s where he’s been for over twenty years—shelved away, thriving somehow, though largely ignored. What’s in it for him? “Once you get me onto something, you can’t get me off. Plus, I get a free lunch at the Fairmont’s employee cafeteria. That’s a perk.”

Asked if change is good, he dwells on the question for a long time. “All that’s left in this country are the names and the distributors,” he says. “Fifteen years ago I prided myself on having everything made in America and England, but we’re struggling to keep up. So change is inevitable.” It’s a predictably diplomatic answer, but then he surprises: “The stuff from Vietnam or Malaysia is sometimes even better than here,” he admits.

Mosher walks everywhere, having given up driving in 1989. He goes out all night, every night. “The theater, mostly. Sometimes I take people out. I’ve got all these customers who are dying! But I can’t,” he muses. “Every day someone comes in here and says, ‘Oh my God, this is just like a store from my hometown. It’s gone now.’”

170 S Market St
San Jose, CA 95112
[as of October 2017, this store is in the process of closing down]

Article originally appeared in Issue 5.0 “Underground” (Print Issue is Sold Out)
Digital Version (PDF)