Course of Style: J. Peterman tees up for golf

February 3, 2010

The J. Peterman catalog, which has long attracted a cultlike following for its classic clothes — and the romantic prose legends used to describe them — launched its first golf collection at the PGA Merchandise Show last week.

It seemed like a scene straight out of Seinfeld. Cocktail time Friday in an obscure corner of the convention floor in Orlando, Florida: There was John O’Hurley, the tall, silver-haired actor who played the J. Peterman character (Elaine’s boss) on Seinfeld, toting an ancient canvas golf bag filled with wood-shafted clubs. (A scratch golfer, O’Hurley collects antique clubs and has been a board member of J. Peterman since 2001.) He was accompanied by a stunning blond (his wife) and in the background, a mystery man in a long coat (a duster?) and leather Panama hat. Could it be the man himself, J. Peterman?

It was. “We’re putting our toe in the water of the golf business,” said John Peterman. “Frankly, I see a number of opportunities for our company.”

Unlike the character on Seinfeld, a pompous aristo with attention-deficit disorder, the real J. Peterman is a low-key, plain-spoken, 60-something guy without a whiff of phoniness about him. A former third baseman on the Holy Cross baseball team that twice made it to the College World Series (1962-63), he lives on a farm in Lexington, Kentucky.

His golf clothes, like most items in the Peterman catalog, are exotic and come with a colorful back story. After appearing on dozens of Seinfeld episodes playing the fictional “Jacopo” Peterman, O’Hurley became friends and partners with the actual J. Peterman. In return for letting O’Hurley humiliate him on the golf course, Peterman says, he named his new collection for the actor. The O’Hurley Golf Shirt is made of Pima cotton — derived from Egyptian cottons transplanted to Pima County, Ariz. — combined with linen, then double-mercerized for extra softness. The O’Hurley sweaters, cardigans (of course) and vests, are also a cotton-linen blend. Both have a Peterman horseman logo on the breast. The shirts and sweaters will be available in the April catalog, and at pro shops beginning in March.

Peterman hopes eventually to expand his golf offerings and to interest green-grass (country club) retailers in carrying his off-course (“lifestyle”) clothing. The idea here is to put the J. Peterman approach of recovered or lost-chic items — from a proper trenchcoat, for “saying goodbye at an airport,” to a “Victor Lazlo shirt” from Casablanca to a silk charmeuse “Champs-Elyees dress” in the New Look mode — in front of a literate, well-heeled, worldly audience that understands it.

Meanwhile, the current Peterman catalog is as amusing and as educational, from a fashion point of view, as ever.