Retail Darwinism In Tigertown: Nick Hilton On Langrock


Nick Hilton, Princeton-based son of late Ivy clothier (and Ralph Lauren’s first investor) Norman Hilton, has written a terrific post on his blog about the legendary clothier Langrock.

Entitled “A Case Study In Retail Darwinism,” the piece explores how Langrock’s resistance to change — even after the fall of the Ivy League Look — doomed it to extinction. Hilton writes:

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.

Get the full story here.

29 Comments on "Retail Darwinism In Tigertown: Nick Hilton On Langrock"

  1. I long for the good old days when men learned/knew how to dress properly from their fathers, sporting the American style and not like trendy pretty-boy Europeans like so many do today!!!

  2. @ Jim.
    This old and not so pretty European thinks you shouldn’t worry your head about our young trendies, but concentrate instead upon the likes of Luciano Barbera, a great sartorialist who i know fully acknowledges the part Ivy and American style plays in dressing properly.

  3. Thody Evans | July 11, 2014 at 1:32 pm |

    Re: Mr. Hilton’s remark: “…Ivy League itself was just a longish-lasting fad”.

    Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ivy League style was and still is the only proper way for a gentleman to dress.

  4. @’Thody’ Evans (sic) I think the Romans probably thought much the same,but sadly the last toga emporium in London closed quite recently. Possibly good quality togas (made in China from ethically grown long staple Peruvian cotton) are still obtainable in New York and Shoreditch; I’m sure we will hear it first here.

  5. Waldo Walters | July 11, 2014 at 7:23 pm |

    Stay classy, Nick. Let’s see how well your “Ascot collar” goes over.

  6. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, Allen Frank’s view toward changes in clothing represented a broader generational view toward change in general. By the mid-1960s, society had not changed that much in its rules since post WWII (and really even before). Technology had not changed in the paradigm-shifting way it has – constantly – since the 1990s. If you were in your 40s, 50s or 60s in the mid-1960s, your world socially and technology wise hadn’t changed that much for your entire adult life.

    Because of this, a mentality had set in of “this is the right way to do something, period,” or “we’ve always done it this way, so why change.” Also, this relatively unchanging world valued experience (which comes with age) over youthful nimbleness and ability to adopt new ideas, since experience, not adaptability, is more valuable and successful in an unchanging world. Hence, there was a strong aversion to change, an arrant view of how “the world should work” that I found prevalent in the adults in my life growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t know it was a cultural value system they were advocating, I thought it was a timeless truth.

    The 1960s social upheaval started a gail-force gust that has been blowing through our culture ever since. Dress, courtship, marriage, race, sexual, religious views were all disrupted, but while the change began in the late 1960s, the effects weren’t immediate everywhere and many (the older and more secure) could, initially, cocoon themselves away from the changes for years. Hence, Mr. Frank’s view – and seemingly overwrought anger – was not a simple response to a dart in a sport coat, but a cry from the heart for the world he knew to stop changing – for his value system to remain relevant.

  7. Nonsense. How about this gem:

    “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.”

    The customer is usually wrong, apparently, and always uneducated. Where’s the logic here? Should stores listen to their customers or not? The reasoning appears to go “Langrock should have ignored what THEIR customers wanted and listened to what OTHER stores’ customers wanted.” I actually agree that concessions must be made to current trends while remaining tasteful, but the error lies in the analysis given here. What’s wrong with “Listen to your customer AND listen to other stores’ customers”? Offer something for dad and something for son.

    Or this:

    “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.”

    Completely backwards. We’re supposed to believe that arrogance, snobbishness, and a lack of creativity weren’t the significant contributing factors to Langrock’s failure? I don’t buy it. There were still guys wearing undarted natural shouldered sack suits through the 70’s. Brooks Brothers and J Press didn’t just disappear for ten years until 1980 rolled along. Re: the fluidity of taste and style, there may not be rigid rules, but there are guiding principles. Proportion, line, color theory, however you want to describe them, these principles are often the same as those behind great art. Truly great art transcends fashion, and so should taste and style.

    The whopper is the bitchy little dig at O’Connell’s, which seems to be flourishing through a brimming e-commerce site and strong internet sales, while Nick Hilton doesn’t currently offer any online shopping at all. Who’s the dinosaur? Also, Buffalo may be a “remote location” to someone from New Jersey, but has anyone ever described a visit to Nick Hilton as a “pilgrimage”? Now Landau’s…there’s a Princeton icon worth the trip, remote or not.

  8. You’re exactly right, DCG. Years ago when I got into periodical publishing, a senior member of the McCormick (Chicago Tribune) family advised me, “Find out what people want to read, and then print it.” In other words, your readers essentially decide what you’re going to print, the same as in a retail store you would find out what your customers want to buy, and then stock it for them.

  9. “Ivy League itself was just a longish-lasting fad”.
    When a “fad” persist so long time is not more a fad but a classic style.
    Conservatorism is good.

  10. Bill Feus | July 13, 2014 at 5:13 pm |

    I grew up in Princeton, and remember when Langrock’s shut their doors on Nassau Street and retreated to the tiny space in the “U Store.” It was strange, but truth be told, all the traditional men’s stores on Nassau Street–The English Shop, Country Squire, and Langrock’s–had closed. I can’t deny what Mr. Hilton experienced, but for decades those clothiers successfully sold their natural shoulder wears and narrow cuffed trousers to Princeton men of all ages. I learned to tie a bow-tie at the English Shop! When “prep” died out on college campuses, a river of customers dried up. For Langrock or The English Shop to change to suit the changing sartorial tastes of college students, well, what were they to evolve into? Urban Outfitters? How long did it take J. Press to develop York Street? Mr. Hilton seems to delight a bit in his relative “triumph” over Langrock; however, I’d say it’s a pyrrhic victory at best. I’ve been in Mr. Hilton’s store on Witherspoon Street–a far cry from the “high rents” on Nassau–and have yet to make a single purchase, largely because I guess I’m more a Langrock man. I still mourn their passing. Three-button, natural shoulder–ah, the stuff of legend!

  11. Bill Feus | July 13, 2014 at 5:17 pm |

    Further, a tip of the cap to DCG–you nailed it, the “bitchy little dig at O’Connell’s.” I’ve never set foot in their shop, but love the e-commerce they do. And you are so spot-on about a pilgrimage to Hilton’s–less than glorious digs.

  12. Regarding Bill Fues comment, this:

    “When “prep” died out on college campuses, a river of customers dried up. For Langrock or The English Shop to change to suit the changing sartorial tastes of college students, well, what were they to evolve into? Urban Outfitters?”

    is a really good point. Maybe there was no strategy of evolution that would have worked and if it had gone the Urban Outfitter route, we’d all be lamenting how it “sold out” or we’d be saying “remember when it carried…” Tastes change – sometimes quickly – and markets go away. Once college kids gave up dressing Trad / Ivy / Preppy many of the Trad / Ivy / Preppy stores were doomed (as were the typewriter stores when word processors came out).

  13. Dutch Uncle | July 14, 2014 at 11:47 am |

    I find it to be miraculous that I am still able to find navy blazers, tweed jackets, reppe stripe neckties, buttondown oxford cloth shirts, grey flannel trousers, chinos, and Bass Weejuns in spite of the fact that college kids have no taste whatsoever and have given up dressing Trad / Ivy / Preppy.

  14. A.E.W. Mason | July 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm |

    Apologies for the late comment. I find Mr. Hilton’s article–and especially Mr. Frank’s reactions– interesting implicating, as it does, an insoluble conflict not only in business but in many other aspects of life. Hearing about Mr. Frank, I first thought of this exchange from A Christmas Carol:

    Jorkin: “Mr. Fezziwig, we’re good friends besides good men of business. We’re men of vision and progress. Why don’t you sell out while the going’s good? You’ll never get a better offer. It’s the age of the machine, and the factory, and the vested interests. We small traders are ancient history, Mr. Fezziwig.”

    Fezziwig: “It’s not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business…. It’s to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved. No, I can’t see my way to selling out to the new vested interests, Mr. Jorkin. I’ll have to be loyal to the old ways and die out with them if needs must.”

    As it concerns style, someone pointed out that one can still wear a jacket with a dart or even a pleated trouser and still maintain many of the most important characteristics of “Ivy” tailoring. The natural shoulder, the drape, the easy fit, the fabric. And this got me thinking that there was something dogmatic and ideological about Mr. Frank’s reaction. I have a varied wardrobe with lots of three button undarted sack suits and sport coats, and I love them. But I also have many slightly more updated items. And, I don’t think old Fezziwig would accuse me of disloyalty to the “old ways” in wearing them. I guess while I sympathize with Mr. Frank, I think his overreaction spelt his own demise.

  15. Plenty of men’s shops have prevailed because they broadened the stock to meet the demands of the fellow who’s smitten with “updated traditional.” And more than a few of them continue to offer a 3-button, undarted jacket option to the gent who’s willing to go made-to-measure. The Andover Shop’s house style is 2-button undarted; ditto, I think, for Ben Silver. They stay in business because they cater to the needs of the business professional who prefers the Paul Stuart look, and, in so doing, can serve also serve the minority–the old school “J. Squeeze” fellow.

  16. That said, I don’t think the tapered, padded styling of “updated traditional” works for most of the men who go that route. A great many would look much better in a lightly padded, natural shoulder jacket. And plain front trousers look better on everybody.

  17. James Redhouse | July 15, 2014 at 12:04 am |


    The day I discovered pleated trousers, I realized that plain front trousers were only jeans made out of woolen cloth. Pleated trousers definitely add something to the Ivy look, as do two-button jackets, whose simplicity looks far more elegant than that ludicrous reverse button hole on the 3-button model

  18. Clever.

    But, really, do take another look at the plain fronts. I promise: no matter height or weight, you’ll look better.

    The button question is funny. Do we feel equally contemptuous of the lapel buttonhole below the notch? Or the lower button, which is never used?

    Let us concede that a lot about the suit is–may I, Christian?–a matter of aesthetics. Not function.

  19. Back to the original topic: the politics of the old, classic 3 button sack jacket (suit).

    If it’s a “fad,” then it has been for a good, long while. We’ve seen the pictures before, but they remind us that long before the style was adopted by the masses, it was worn by students (thus affirming Christian’s thesis regarding the connection to the campus) and alums.

    These pics are circa the 1920s, not the 1960s. The pedigree of the UN(!!)darted sack jacket (suit) goes way, way back.

    Why have the mass production suit and jacket makers (who make for outfits like Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Warehouse and so on) embraced a certain version of “updated traditional”? Well, a heavily padded (especially in the shoulders) jacket is easier to make than one that’s softly tailored (not the same thing as “unconstructed”), and the (noticeable) front dart is relatively quick-and-easy way to suppress the waist.

    Padding, wide shoulders, waist suppression. The going look.

  20. Pleats most certainly add something, about 10 pounds and hips in the wrong context. High waisted with braces keeping them well hidden under your suit jacket, pleated trousers can undoubtedly add an elegant drape, but like braces/suspenders they should only be seen while lounging at the bar after midnight. Done right pleats can look fantastic. Done wrong (which in the real world is 99% of the time) they look tragic.

    The right two button jacket with tailored pleated trousers can and does look great on a lot of guys, but it won’t look “Ivy”, more Anglophile sophisticate (Main Line in the late 80’s through the 90’s anyone?)

  21. A.E.W. Mason | July 15, 2014 at 2:04 pm |

    I agree in some respects with both Messrs. Redhouse and S.E.

    The problem most men have in wearing pleated trousers is that they are worn with a belt. This causes bulging which shortens the profile and effects the look of a paunch; the wearer is inclined to end up looking like Fred Mertz (see “I Love Lucy”)–a man constantly at war with his trousers. But a nice pleated trouser from Ben Silver worn with suspenders shows a beautiful, long vertical drape. It should be easy fitting and, if worn with a two-button Ben Silver coat or coat of similar cut and quality, gives a truly graceful and restrained look. For a beautiful Anglo-American example, see the suit worn by Henry Daniell in the movie Witness for the Prosecution. And if you’re in the MTM or bespoke market, a single pleat is very elegant. Is it pure “Ivy”? No. But it sure is graceful and understated.

  22. I’ve a friend who’s just lately taken an interest in single pleat pants.

    As for darts, whatever one decides, here’s a tailor’s take. Not just any tailor. Maybe the best bench tailor in America. Mr. Frank Shattuck.

    “It is very turn of the century. Very old school.
    Dartless is very old school. Yes. Very old school.
    I have not seen another. Only in Merchant Ivory films.”

    Since shaping (suppression) can be achieved by way of the side seams and back seams, the front dart is arguably a mostly cosmetic matter. Post JFK, the darted 2b must have seemed very cool and “the new thing!” and “with it, man.”

  23. (of course we know the dartless jacket lives beyond the scenes of Merchant Ivory films. But Mr. Shattuck’s point is well taken: it’s an old school, classic look. Not a fad)

  24. Bill Feus | July 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm |

    To follow on what Mark said, “Once college kids gave up dressing Trad / Ivy / Preppy many of the Trad / Ivy / Preppy stores were doomed (as were the typewriter stores when word processors came out)”, not knowing Mr. Frank, but having shopped in his store, it wasn’t that Langrock’s relied totally on the college crowd, but certainly to a large extent. Another store in town went belly-up by 1990–the Lodge, which was part of a chain, if memory serves; H. Gross was a shop in Palmer Square (where I actually met my wife) that catered to the trads/preps of both high school and college age; they too expired, to be replaced by J. Crew. Unlike Brooks Brothers, for example, who for good and ill have shifted with the times (for more ill, I would contend), Langrock’s would not. Should they be chided for digging in their penny-loafered heels? No. They were faithful to core values, and when the culture shifted, well, they had gambled and lost. We all lament those stores that have come and gone–my grandmother used to decry how those hippies in the Sixties cause Best to close. What Mr. Hilton fails to reveal in his blog post is that it was about a decade and a half between when he had the encounter with Mr. Frank in 1971 and that “next time” he saw him in the Princeton University store. Langrock’s relocated to the U-Store sometime after I had graduated from boarding school in 1984. So Langrock’s demise was a long time coming.

  25. To a certain type/kind/sort of gent, the “new” style, shaped 2b with padding, must have seemed all sorts of things all at once. And none of it good. For the older gentlemen I know who have stood athwart history yelling “Stop!” for the past few decades, clothing was more than cut cloth. Remember the Langrock ad found in an old copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly? The courageous, upright knight sitting alertly on his horse, lance in hand. “For 81 years the defender of the Ivy look.” This suggests the look in question needed defending. And in a sense it did. Defense by way of definition, in no uncertain terms: “The Ivy look means natural shoulders. It means three button style. It means unobtrusive lapels. It means distinguished traditional tailoring. It means comfort as well as fit. It means fine fabrics, superbly tailored.”

  26. SE
    Totally agree with you on “the look”, but most don’t buy MTM and there are limits to waist suppression depending on body type.

    Pleated pants? If one wants to avoid the colostomy bag look were only forward pleats regular rise, worn at your true waist. If one sits at a desk all day pleats have a comfort advantage. Yes everyone can wear plain fronts as long as they’re not cut like 501s.

  27. True about MTM.

    Which leads is to the obvious point that Ivy done well is one the more unique “dressed up” styles around.

    I dare to guess this why a lot of younger guys find it so appealing: in a vast ocean of “updated traditional,” including the heavily padded 2b darted suit and the notoriously ubiquitous spread collar-solid shiny-tie combo, Ivy stands out.

  28. A.E.W. Mason | July 16, 2014 at 3:08 pm |

    I quite agree that the heavily-padded two-button (usually with a low button stance) darted suit is an awful look. It lacks all gentility. Michael Anton, in The Suit, calls it “the designer” model, to be avoided at all costs. But then he also has nothing nice to say about the sack suit. There is, I think, a misconception–under which Mr. Anton labors–that the sack suit must have absolutely no shape. That’s not true. That said, when a sack IS worn with absolutely no shape, hanging like a bag, it can look dreadful. As much as I love the original “wise man,” Henry L. Stimson’s sack suits make him look like a lump. Worn that way, a man looks like a boring “middle-manager” who’s never read a book or dated a beautiful woman, and who starts his day with cold porridge. Yuck!

  29. A version of the drape done (very) well. My tailor can approximate, sans darts.

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