Goodbye To Landau

Editor’s Note:  This article is by James Taylor of Waterhollow Tweed fame.  If you are in the FB group you know him and his wares.  If you are not, you are missing out.  He offers one of a kind Ivy items, every so often.  You can see his listings in the group.  And you should.  I just bought a Cambridge University tie from him, it is excellent.

I have two major claims to fame—I was once the youngest person in the world, and I was the last customer of the iconic Ivy store Landau of Princeton.

Landau announced that they were closing in October 2020. The pandemic was causing havoc with their supply chains, and so the third-generation owners of the store, Robert and Henry Landau, decided that it was time to retire. After selling much of their stock at reduced prices they closed their doors. As a result of peering through their windows like a Victorian urchin at a pie-shop I knew they still had items available… and so I rather cheekily contacted them to see if they’d be willing to consign them with me so I could sell them though my small Facebook page.

Since I had made it clear I was just a hobbyist who loved Landau’s clothing I was a little surprised when Robert Landau actually called me back. He, too, was surprised—not that he’d called me back, but to learn that there was a whole community of people who loved “Ivy Style” and among whom stores like Landau, Langrock, and The English Shop had achieved the status of icons. After we’d chatted for a while he invited me to visit Landau’s one last time, to talk more about its history. 

Landau wasn’t originally located in Princeton. It was founded in Jersey City, in 1914, by Henry Landau. In 1919 the store was displaced by the construction of the Holland tunnel, and moved to Brooklyn, where it operated as The London Department Store—so called as it specialized in British clothing, such as tweeds and woolen sweaters. 

In early 1955 Henry Landau’s son David and his wife Evelyn moved the store to Princeton, where it opened as Landau. Still retaining its focus on British clothing, the store enjoyed considerable success, capitalizing on post-War prosperity and Anglophilia. But not all of Landau’s success rested on classic, traditional, menswear. When a customer asked about the “denim trousers” she had seen while visiting a dude ranch in the West, Landau started stocking jeans to be worn casually, not just for manual labor. In 1959 Landau was Wrangler’s largest specialty store. Landau had similar success with women’s hosiery. In the mid-1960s a customer who had just returned from England asked in Landau stocked “hold ups”—a new form of stockings with an elasticated top that didn’t need to be attached to suspenders. Landau didn’t. But, intrigued, found the company that made them—Pretty Polly, in England—and started stocking (!) them. They were a success, and in 1967 Landau became the first American retailer of Pretty Polly’s next innovation—pantyhose. 

While these innovations were commercially successful Landau’s really big break occurred in the 1970s, when Robert Landau purchased some Icelandic woolen wraps at a trade show. Thick, luxurious, beautiful, and exotic they sold out quickly. Within a few years Icelandic woolens and shearling outerwear made up almost a third of Landau’s sales. In recognition of this on one of their trips to Iceland Landau acquired a 150lbs stuffed ram named Lindbladier. This was placed on the sidewalk outside the store, delighting generations of children of all ages. (Alas, “Lindi” was stolen in 2012, and was replaced by Bjartur, who resided inside to avoid the fate of his predecessor.) Landau’s reputation as the premier American purveyor of Icelandic woolen was sealed in 1982 when the President of Iceland termed them “the wool family”. Never shy of capitalizing on success Landau started selling sheep-themed items (including small toy sheep!) to trade on its wooly reputation.

But it wasn’t until 1994 that Landau achieved national prominence… and not for its clothing. It was then that Paramount’s romantic comedy I.Q. (starring Walter Mattheau, Tim Robbins, and Meg Ryan) was filmed in Princeton. Set in the 1940s, the movie had Einstein playing matchmaker for a Princeton doctoral candidate and a mechanic. (It was just as bad as it sounds.) Sensing a marketing opportunity Robert Landau asked his customers to bring in clothing from that period, with the aim of having it worn in the movie and securing a credit for costuming. 

Paramount was not interested. 

Undeterred, Robert then put out a call for Einstein memorabilia in an attempt to attract the cast and crew to the store. This flooded in from Princeton’s residents… 

…and the movie people were still unimpressed. 

But by now Robert had the bit between his teeth and set up a window display of Einstein artifacts. People (but not the movie people) loved it, and eventually he dedicated the back of the store as a small Einstein museum. This became so famous that in 2018 Landau was featured in a Jeopardy question (“Oddly the only museum devoted to this physicist is tucked inside a woolen shop in Princeton NJ”; the answer was, of course, “Einstein”.) 

Establishing the Einstein Museum wasn’t the only way Landau contributed to the Princeton community. During the 1970s and 1980s the store served as an agent for the Princeton Small Animal Rescue League, securing the adoptions of hundreds of kittens through the simple expedient of housing them in the store window to showcase their adorability. 

The Einstein Museum that was in the back.

But innovations also lead to failures as well as successes. While we chatted Robert recalled the time that he found some tiger-striped sweaters, and immediately decided they would sell like hot cakes to Princeton alumni. So he eagerly ordered 900 of them in a variety of sizes. He sold 12. He also recalls wryly his discovery of a line of Australian shearling-lined boots which he thought would be a perfect addition to the woolen line, despite their off-putting name (“Uggs”). Almost none sold, and he disposed of them at a considerable loss…. Just three years before they became wildly popular and sold out everywhere. And, more recently, there was a line of beautiful Harris Tweed jackets…. Which turned out all to be in slim-fit sizes with very narrow lapels. I tried one on, went up a size, tried another, went up another size….  Watching me, smiling, Robert simply said “You don’t want any of those. Nobody else did, either. They’re…. fashionable”. 

Landau’s was never fashionable. On the same rack as the slim-cut Harris tweed jackets I was fruitlessly trying were two other tweeds—both 3/2 sacks—and a vintage Icelandic shearling coat. One of the tweeds was the first jacket Robert ever purchased—not from Landau, but from the Princeton Clothing Company. The other was his father’s. And the shearling was Henry’s. Knowing that I sold vintage clothing Robert had found these in case I wanted to buy them to re-sell.  

Because that was the kind of place Landau’s was. Not fashionable—never that. But thoughtful, kind, welcoming—Ivy in spirit as well as cloth. It will be missed.

James Taylor

17 Comments on "Goodbye To Landau"

  1. I spent (wasted?) many hours roaming the inventory-covered floors—a post Lahiere’s lunch ritual that served me, ever eager to delay the early afternoon return to the office, well. The Princeton U. hats, sweatshirts, and t-shirts, plentiful and frequently discounted, were always a (much) better deal than the U-Store’s offerings a few stores down Nassau St. The lambswool and cashmere scarves, tartaned and piled high, introduced front door walk-ins to the copious stock, comprising a congregation of woolens and tweeds. Later today I’ll supervise a thorough count, but an educated guess is that I’m the pleased-and-proud owner of at least two dozen Landau items—including Viyella tattersalls, an Aran crewneck, and Donegal tweed hats galore.

    I’ll now reach for a treasured patchwork derby, frayed and fuzzy, as I murmur liturgy of lament: this is a loss.

  2. Wonderful piece. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great piece about a store I hadn’t heard much about, and now wish was still around.

  4. I believe that it was not just the pandemic and supply chain problems that forced Landau to
    go out of business. The sad truth is that for some time they had to cater to the tourist trade rather
    to their traditional customer base of trad/ivy/Anglo-American style aficionados. Princeton students
    and most faculty members became just as badly dressed as their counterparts at
    most other universities and were no longer interested in supporting a retailer
    who maintained devotion to quality style. The situation is no better today, with young professors
    being virtually indistinguishable from undergrads. Needless to say, I’ve been referring to males.

  5. What a terrific profile! And what a loss to the community. Thanks for the great read.

  6. Charlottesville | February 17, 2022 at 1:51 pm |

    What a wonderful piece, Mr. Taylor. It is sad that so many traditional men’s stores are gone, and thank you for keeping Landau’s from being forgotten, at least among those of us at Ivy Style.

    S.E. – A very nice remembrance. I had some similar experiences at a handful of menswear shops over the years where talking with the owners and salesmen was as much the point of my regular visits as browsing among the ties and tweeds.

    About two weeks ago, I heard my name called out at the grocery store, and turned to see the former owner of The Young Men’s Shop in Charlottesville, whose store was a regular post-lunch stop for me when I had an office nearby a dozen or more years ago. He said that for the last few years in business it had been really tough to make a buck, with sportswear far outselling the tailored clothing, Alden shoes, etc. that had been the mainstays for decades. Now he is happy playing golf, riding his motorcycle on the Skyline Drive, and spending time with his family. But he said that the only thing he misses about the store was the regular conversations with customers who dropped by. I miss that as well.

  7. C-Ville, many thanks for your mention of the ‘name-calling’ at the grocery store. Golf, Skyline Drive, family– terrific and good for him.

    I wonder: how many ELJO’s stories do you have? I dropped by for a visit this past summer– it was great to see and chat with the Thurstons. There was a time when ELJO’s was the #1 or #2 Southwick/Grieco Bros. custom order shop–annually neck-to-neck with The Andover Shop. I was fitted for one per year, usually late August — always grateful for Myles’ knowledge of the W. BILL tweed books.

  8. Shopped there and at the defunct Langrocks many times. Used to hang out in the Yankee Doddle Tap Room. Happend to be in the tap room when Brooke Shields and her mother came in for lunch during their visit to Princeton.

  9. Charlottesville | February 17, 2022 at 4:01 pm |

    S.E. – Myles and his son Trent are still at Eljo’s, but I am sure that business must be tough for them these days, simply because of the dearth of well-dressed men willing to spend money on good tweed, flannel, etc.

    My recent purchases have been confined to Bill’s Khakis, ties, pocket squares, socks, sweaters and the like, and my wife regularly buys similar items for me for Christmas and birthdays. All of it has been of very good quality. Many, perhaps most, of their RTW sport coats are made by Empire, and I believe that is also true of their MTM coats and suits now that Southwick is gone. Miles still has stacks of swatch books, and the quality of the tailoring looks high as well, but I have not bought any sport coats yet.

  10. A bit of a non-sequitur vis-a-vis the subject of the post, but Charlottesville: your comment reminded me of many beautiful Fall and Spring days riding Skyline Drive years ago with my brother and dearly-departed father. I also had the pleasure last year of camping & hiking & shooting clays on a friend’s recently-acquired property near the tiny town of “Etlan”: from the top of the ridge on the property, you can see Old Rag.

  11. It appears timing is to retail what location is to real estate. The Business School calls it marketing.

  12. Charlottesville | February 18, 2022 at 11:33 am |

    Paul – It is indeed a beautiful part of the country. I’m glad to know that you have fond memories of the area. My wife and I are fortunate to live at the foot of the Blue Ridge on the eastern side, 3 miles from the point where the Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail meet. We never tire of the views.

  13. Otis Brewster Hogbottom III | February 18, 2022 at 12:34 pm |

    Excellent article. Thanks for that.

    I purchased two Icelandic wool sweaters from Landau’s. Still have one of them. It seemed that Laudau’s had them on sale for 50% off at least twice a year.

    (Also, The English Shop was mentioned. I purchased my first suit there: a navy 3-button sack in worsted wool. Finally let it go after 20 years.)

  14. Otis Brewster Hogbottom III | February 18, 2022 at 12:39 pm |

    The Yankee Doodle Tap Room was a great place, with tons of character, before the Omni took it over. Then it was just another hotel bar.

  15. Jesse Livermore | February 20, 2022 at 2:39 pm |

    Yankee Doddle Tap Room… could always find Princeton basketball coach Pete Carill there after a game…, lose or draw.

  16. I grew up in Princeton Junction, and knew Landau’s from my childhood, Landau’s was the place most of my female friends and my sister and mother bought their sweaters; I wasn’t much of a customer, preferring other more (in my opinion) male-oriented shops: Langrock’s, The English Shop, Country Squire, and for a brief time, The Lodge down on Witherspoon Street, In college I worked at the Polo/Ralph Lauren shop when it was located down next to St. Paul’s Church. Anyhow…my final visit to Landau’s was in September 2020 when I was in town for my sister’s wedding, My how much the store had changed, I didn’t recall from my younger days all the PU “swag”—t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, coozies, and so on—items you’d find at the “U-store” in it’s original location down by Blair Hall (and where Langrock’s spent their last days.). You could tell that Landau’s was on life-support. And regarding the Yankee Doodle Tap Room—I used to work the doors there checking ID’s and the $5 cover charge back in the 1980s. Good times,

  17. I graduated from Princeton more than 30 years ago. I still have my Landau’s wool throw in the back of my car as I now live in NH and on cold days my wife immediately grabs it whenever we go out.

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