Langrock - Princeton: Case Study in Retail Darwinism

We think of ourselves as a kind of successor store to the legendary Langrock, especially with fall – and the feeling for tweed, and football games in the crisp cool air, and Nassau Street with the huge oaks turning to russet – coming on.  So the question comes to mind: What happened to them, anyway?

They had a larger-than-life, country-spanning reputation for quality and style, even as their take on tailored clothing became more and more anachronistic. They specialized in heavy tweeds and Saxony suits in the Ivy League, three-button sack-coat model. The pant style was ankle-high and narrow at the cuff. They defined themselves as much by what they did not carry as what they did. (Believe it or not, some traditional shops like this are still in business today – albeit in pretty remote locations. Buffalo, New York, comes to mind.) They thought that men who still wanted to dress in that peculiar style that would have nowhere else to go. Even if that were true, it was a shrinking numbers game.

I tried to sell Langrock our new (1971) “West End,” model. Named for the upscale, fashionable end of London, it was a shapely, two-button, darted front jacket. I thought I could convince Allen Frank, the owner, that “updated” traditional was tasteful and right. He wasn’t buying, but with a vengeance. Mr. Frank wasn’t insensitive to my pitch; he was downright insulted. True Natural Shoulder style was his Religion; the three-button, undarted coat style, the flannelly finish, and skinny pants were the sacred icons of the faith. Anyone who proposed a change was the Infidel.

Never!”  He practically shouted. “I could never put that kind of stuff in this store! Never! My customers would be insulted.”  You’d think I’d been proposing human sacrifice. “This store stands for timeless good taste. We have no use for your fads and gimmicks. Our customers know what they want, and they don't want shape!” It never occurred to him that Ivy League itself was just a longish-lasting fad.

I left the store that day and walked around town in a daze, trying to figure out what was going on. Here was a respected, successful shopkeeper telling me that it was his customers who decided what his store carried. As if a single one of them even knew what the hell a dart was. If that was true, what did they need him for? Was I wrong to embrace change, to believe in progress? Looking back, I think Allen Frank had a terrifying premonition that the formula that had worked for Langrock to that point was not going to last. He knew what I knew. But he was saying, without being able to really admit it, that he couldn’t change. He knew what he knew and nothing else. Change threatened him.

The next time I saw him he was standing in a dark corner of the Princeton University store, in the “Langrock Shop.” It had not gone so well. The sign that had been outside his wonderful Nassau Street store was hanging above him on the wall. “This is a lot easier than paying all that rent,” he said. Two years later he was gone altogether; no more than a memory.

Let the dead bury the dead, as I always (well, not always) say. But there is a cautionary tale here. Forget about the fact that there was a certain arrogance and snobbishness to the way Langrock treated the customer; forget about the fact that they let some ideological bias take the place of creative merchandising; forget even that they ignored the Darwinian nature of retail. Remember this: good taste and good style are fluid. Doctrinaire, stubborn attachment to one type of style is to attempt to deny human nature. At least one Princeton gentleman, unable to find anything like anything new at Langrock, found his way to 45th and Madison, into the waiting arms of Paul Stuart.

FYI  A dart is a seam that makes shape in a garment. Rather than joining two separate pieces, the dart, in the case of the tailored jacket, allows the front to be gathered together and then sewn so that the waist line can conform to the natural lines of the waist.