Why J. Peterman Catalogs Use Artwork Instead of Photographs

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Talk to anyone at J. Peterman, and they’ll tell you: the pictures in his catalog – or, in J. Peterman jargon, the “Owner’s Manual” – depicting his kaftans, tattered shirts and watches are not illustrations. It’s art.

And what is the distinction there? As founder and namesake John Peterman says, “It’s the difference between describing love and being in love.”

Photo: J. Peterman Company

Since the 1980s, the J. Peterman Company has sold “exceptionally good stuff” through its owner’s manuals: thin catalogs defined by their flowery copy. Descriptions of each item include details about their materials and washing instructions, of course, but you’ll also find tangents about a captain who “knows well about threats to soaring birds, translucent riverine frogs, even entire rainforests” (accompanying the Grand Banks Long Coat and Hat in an early 90s catalog) and “laughs that are not polite, but real, approaching the edge of uncontrollability” (printed next to the working class Irish pub shirt).

When John Peterman and Donald Staley, his business partner, started the J. Peterman Company in 1987, in Lexington, Kentucky (Peterman still lives nearby, although the company’s headquarters are now in Blue Ash, Ohio), they decided that if they were going to be successful, they had to be different. When they spoke with catalog experts at the time, says Peterman, they were told that the consumer is not very intelligent, “so don’t try to write long texts, because they won’t read it. not”. Similarly, any attempt to be “funny or humorous” was discouraged: “You will offend someone.” All catalog readers could handle, Peterman and Staley said, were “product specifications, what fabric it is, what sizes.”

Against the grain that they were, Peterman and Staley decided to go their own way, investing their efforts in shrewd copy with an element of humor (this story about the captain and his translucent river frogs is played straight, but even if Peterman tends to talk about the catalog using words like “factual romance”, it’s undeniably funny).

What they were aiming for was not influenced by 19th and 20th century Sears Roebuck catalogs and their cramped pages of black and white designs. “It was a different kind of art,” Peterman says. “It was tall, thin fashion illustration. And we didn’t want to. And no, we only look at it before deciding what to do…it’s very interesting, but it’s a totally different style of art. It is an illustration, rather than a true work of art.”

Lyrical writing needed images to match. “We said, you know what, Ralph Lauren is the only one who can get emotion out of his photograph, and he’s paid $150,000 a day to take that photograph,” Peterman says, “and we can’t do that, then we have an artist.”

The rider’s feather duster
Photo: The J. Peterman Company

J. Peterman’s original illustrator and art director was “a true artist”: Bob Hagel, who died in 2013. “If you look at the early artwork in the catalog,” says Peterman, “it was very, very artistic “. Hagel’s style set the tone for the owner’s manual; his paintings “didn’t always give you all the details of the product”, but they made sense alongside the stories of rebellious women in silky georgette and wicker pedicabs whisking you to your seaplane.

It was Hagel’s decision to draw and paint the bodyless owner’s manual garments, so that his velvet blazers and silk scarves float through the air like well-traveled ghosts. Each element is frozen in a gesture, hands raised or heads bowed, but the hands and heads are not there. This is another detail that adds to the curious quality of the catalog. “Like most brilliant things,” says Peterman, “it’s exactly how Bob Hagel did it.”

To talk about catalog art, Peterman used to visit Hagel at his Upper East Side apartment, he says, where the artist would have “his little breakfast table there with fruit and cheese and coffee and juice – it was all so artistically done it was amazing. They ostensibly met to talk about work, but ended in long conversations about “ideas and art”, according to Peterman. It looks like a meeting between characters from an issue of the owner’s manual.

“I’m not a connoisseur of art,” says Peterman, “but I’m a connoisseur of emotion, I guess. When he and the writers worked with Hagel from The Company, and when they work with Artists How To Now, they describe each item is from, where it would be worn, who would wear it, and his opinion on the emotion. that she wears. It’s a theme that comes up again and again as we talk about the catalog. The artists Peterman seeks, he says, need to understand how to convey emotion. “Attitude is a wonderful thing,” he says. “He’s very subtle. I can’t tell someone how to do it.”

Peterman and Staley started out selling six items, but the catalog has since grown to 200, gradually requiring other illustrators as it grew. Today, the company has three or four artists who paint for it on a freelance basis. They work in gouache, a kind of opaque watercolor medium popular with commercial artists. Each painting takes approximately one and a half to two days, although this time depends on the colors and patterns of each element. Distinguished Readers, for example, probably takes less time than One Thousand and One Nights Robe.

Photo: J. Peterman Company

The catalog also contains line drawings which, according to Peterman, are different from sketches. He compares them to Picasso’s drawings: “He never lifted his pen from the page,” he says. “It was a line. It was a thin line. For artists today to do that, the hand is normally too heavy, and so the line is heavy…it has to be very thin, and it doesn’t is not a sketch, so you can’t get by with 20 [lines]. It’s a line, and good artists can do it.

The J. Peterman company’s wares have always been linked to the idea of ​​travel: its first product, a cowboy feather duster, was spotted in Wyoming by Peterman. He and Staley announced their version and sold it for $580,000; their first owner’s manual was sent to those 23,000 duster buyers. Today, the company hires merchants to travel the world to purchase items of interest to its customers.

Peterman always travels too, always with “a second eye” to catch things he doesn’t see. This year he started traveling in Europe in January and will continue in the spring and fall. “It’s always good to go to Paris,” he said. “I’ve been to Paris 25 or 30 times, and I still find stuff there.

The 1947 long-sleeved dress

In the past, the Peterman company has partnered with 20th Century Fox, the studio that produced Titanic, selling $1 million worth of replica Heart of the Ocean pendant necklaces. His latest visual inspiration comes from the archives and libraries of the Smithsonian, which Peterman compares to the warehouse at the end of The Raiders of the Lost Ark. “They have this huge amount of stuff,” he says, “and a lot of it is, you know, our kind of stuff. … There’s no point walking into one of these warehouses – it’s not organized like a store. So we say we’re interested in that era, or that era, or those people, or those events, whether it’s the boyhood age, or World War I or World War II, or military clothing, or royal prints, [and] we’re going to come down and see the real thing.

While some of her items are definitely archival — take Marie Antoinette’s nightgown, for example — they’re not exactly recreations. Instead, they iterate over prints, cuts, fabrics, stories.

Like his illustrations – or, sorry, art — J. Peterman’s clothing exists in a dream world that is not entirely contemporary, but generally not identifiable as belonging to a specific historical era. “I would like to say that we are anti-fashion,” says Peterman. “I don’t care what’s hot. …I look for things that are unique, hard to find, and have factual romance. Not a sex romance – if there’s a romance, there’s sex, but you never have a say in it.