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.
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.