If you’ve heard of Reed College, the liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, there’s a pretty good chance it’s because of Steve Jobs. The Hollywood biopic Jobs opens with a barefoot Ashton Kutcher portraying the onetime Reed student scoring tabs of acid and hallucinating a trip to India under the shade of a large tree on campus. And in an often-referenced commencement speech Jobs delivered at Stanford in 2005, he famously told the story of how, after he dropped out of Reed after six months, he hung around campus for another eighteen to audit, of all things, a calligraphy course. Reed, he told the graduating students, offered “perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country,” and instilled in a young Jobs an appreciation for serif and sans serif typefaces. At the time, he saw no practical application for this area of study, but ten years later, when he was designing the first Macintosh computer, “It all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac,” Jobs said. “It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”
Or maybe you remember reading about Reed in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. The novel’s narrator, Ray Smith, is based on Kerouac, and Smith’s friend, the woodsman and Zen Buddhism enthusiast Japhy Ryder, is based on Gary Snyder, the Beat poet and Reed alum. “Japhy travels around on that bicycle with his little knapsack on his back all up and down Berkeley all day,” Kerouac wrote. “He used to do the same thing at Reed College in Oregon. He was a regular fixture up there.” More recently the school turned up in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a chapter of which is devoted to the story of Chris Langan, an unusually brainy student who won a scholarship to the school, then lost it on a technicality. And even more recently, the school popped up in the coverage of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s 2012 memoir, Idea Man, when Allen told a reporter for Wired that he had wanted to go to Reed but, though he was accepted, could not afford the tuition. Had Allen attended the school, he would have been there at the same time as Jobs, introducing the question: How might the history of the personal computer unfolded differently had Jobs met Allen and teamed up with him instead of Woz?
In any event, if you had never heard of Reed before reading this post, you are by now getting an idea of what kind of place it has been over the years: a profoundly nerdy one. And if this gift of a news story is any indication, it still is. What Reed is decidedly not known for, as you may also have deduced, is an emphasis on fashion. When I was a student there, in the late nineties and early aughts, there were a lot of pre-normcore Birkenstocks, a lot of men in patchwork hippie skirts, a lot of dreadlocks on white people. This was a place where, come the annual spring festival known as Renn Fayre, a good many people would strip naked and paint themselves blue. A place where it was considered not only kosher but cool for students paying some of the highest tuition rates in the country to pretend they could not afford the food served in the commons, wait near the cafeteria’s dishwasher, and gobble up the scraps left on the food trays of others, in a process known as “scrounging.” And a place where it was also cool to source your clothes from the “Free Box” in the student union, where you could leave clothes or take clothes, and from which at least one of my fellow students contracted scabies after taking home an ironically conventional letterman jacket. If I had to give Reed’s governing aesthetic principle a name, I would call it conspicuous non-consumption.
So when, earlier this year, an issue of my alumni magazine arrived bearing on its cover an image of Emilio Pucci, I was more than a little surprised. More unexpected still was the indication in a cover line that Pucci was, in fact, an alumnus. (Class of 1937!) How on earth had Emilio Pucci, heir of one of Italy’s most patrician families—according to lore, the first family in Florence to use forks—found his way from the Palazzo Pucci to Portlandia?
The story, it turns out, is about as bizarre and unlikely as one could hope for. In 1935, bored by his classes at the University of Milan and “stifled by the snobbish conventions of the Italian aristocracy,” Pucci enrolled at the University of Georgia to study cotton agriculture. He didn’t stay there long, and was soon cut off from the financial backing of his family due to the growing unrest in Europe. An avid skier who had represented Italy in the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, Pucci found his way to Mount Hood in Oregon for a skiing trip. While passing through Portland, he approached the then president of Reed, Dexter Keezer, and made a deal: In exchange for tuition, room, and board, Pucci would form and coach the school’s first ski team.
According to Keezer’s written recollections, obtained from the Reed archive, Keezer was “immediately attracted by the personal charm and grace of the young man.” The president was also intrigued that Pucci was a fervent member of the Italian Fascist Youth Organization. “This was a faith which I shared less than none at all,” Keezer wrote. “But I thought a vigorous champion of it could enliven our campus in an intellectually stimulating way.” Pucci delivered on this promise, engaging students in debates and authoring a thesis titled “Fascism: An Explanation and Justification.” The Reed Magazine story reports that Pucci also cut quite the figure on the dance floor, teaching his fellow students, then mostly from the Pacific Northwest, to dance the tango and the Viennese waltz, and remarking to his roommate, “A moonlit night like this is made for love.” Pucci also proved to be, Keezer wrote, “a considerable artist on skis.”
But the most amusing detail of this story—and one that won’t surprise longtime Pucci aficionados—is that Pucci not only coached the ski team but designed its uniforms. Pucci was among the first couture designers to focus on skiwear, and his first big spread in a fashion magazine, in 1948, featured models on the slopes wearing his clothes. Clearly his early designs for the Reed ski team were a seed of the Pucci lines that followed. Is it surprising that this onetime scholar of fascism later ran for Parliament as a member of the Italian Liberal Party and embraced the 1960s psychedelia with which his prints became so synonymous? Not a bit.