Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Trad-Ivy Tuesday: When Ralph Came to Britches

David Pensky and Rick Hindin had this idea. And the idea ultimately became Britches of Georgetown. Britches in its heyday was a Washington Trad institution with what I’ll call an experimental edge. At least when the likes of Pensky, Hindin and Rykken were still on board. And for some reason I can’t separate Clyde’s from Britches. Both Georgetown institutions kinda spawned together and there was a time when you could buy cans of Clyde’s chili at Britches. Clyde’s still holds on. Britches is long gone.
I called Britches the Poor Man’s Polo shop. It wasn’t Georgetown University shop nor was it Adler’s or any of the other slowly steeped patinated Trad shops that many of us recollect and long to see again. 
Britches was different. Sure, you could get your fill of Trad-Prep gear at Britches but you could always find things that pushed the Trad-Prep Code to its very outermost limit. And if you know anything about Washington D.C., the Three Button Sack Coat Goofball town that it is sartorially, you know that the outer edge of any style construct is about half an arm’s length away. So the Britches guys were doing cool things in a town full of Sartorial Flatlanders.
So what was it that they did? Pensky-Hindin-Rykken were masters at spotting emerging design talent and showcasing the wares of said up and comers in their Britches stores. Ralph Lauren and a young Alan Flusser come to mind. Britches had Alan’s first ready to wear line in their stores back in the very early 1980’s and the goods were tasty to say the least. I had two or three Flusser rounded collar French cuff dress shirts from that era and they lasted forever. And they were different enough, just fuzzy enough for people to ask you where you got your clothes from. The Britches guys would get in early with a designer and would integrate their offerings in a way that there was always a new look, a design variation or something fresh at Britches. Their offerings swizzle-sticked the standard Trad-Prep cocktail.
And they weren't rip-off artists by any stretch of the imagination. But they did do a great job of offering private label goods that reflected their personal taste level as well as their ability to observe what was emerging and integrate it into their house brand goods. This was also the Britches inventory sweet spot that a starving kid like me could afford—when it was on sale. There was even a suit model at one time called the Rykken, named obviously for the point man who for many years for the guy behind the Britches of Georgetown clothing business…Mark “Puerto” Rykken.
I will never be able to convey this tale like Mark Rykken does. And I’ve asked him like a little kid who admonishes an adult to read the same bedtime story for the eleventh “tell me the Ralph story again, Mark.” But here goes. It was announced to the Britches of Georgetown gang that “We are doing an evening event for Polo and Ralph’s coming.” Now this might have been before Ralph himself became an iconic part of the Polo brand but he was still a God to anyone in the business. 
This was early enough in the Ralph ascendancy for people to still be agog at the rise of this man and his oeuvre. This was still the time when High WASPs were steaming, guffawing and chortling over this lifestyle interloper and appropriator from the Bronx. I’ll leave it right here regarding the Ralph electricity because I don’t want to steal the thunder from another story about when the little Trad shop I worked in finally “got permission” from Ralph to carry the Polo line.
So all of the peacock devotees of Ralph who worked at Britches had about two weeks to churn themselves into an absolute lather about what to wear when Ralph comes. I mean think about it. You are a clothes fanatic and you work in an incubator of great sartorial ideas, angles and offerings. You probably already own enough foppish goods to contrive some kind of “hey Ralph, look at me” statement that will surely lure him directly over to your twenty two year old ass as soon as he walks in the door. And you’ve got one change to get it right.
Rykken tells the story about all the guys just obsessing over what to wear for the Ralph event. After all, if Ralph likes you and likes what you have on, he might even recognize your talent from the get-go and hire you. Interestingly, that’s exactly what happened to the Britches employee who was charged with picking Ralph up at the airport and ferrying him over to Georgetown. That would be one Jeffrey Banks.
So the Britches guys preened and posed and coiffed and accessorized and augmented and foppified themselves to the point of caricature. Puerto Rykken shared that the Polo affectation bordered on hilarity. My mind’s eye sees a gaggle of Beau Brummels on steroids standing around the store awaiting Ralph’s entrance.
And enter he did. In an anti-fop contrivance that was riveting in its simplicity. Rykken said that Ralph crossed Britches’ threshold wearing a light gray flannel suit, white, straight point collar with no pin, a black grenadine tie, white linen pocket square and black monogrammed slippers. All of the Britches Preening Peacocks suddenly found themselves stewing in a broth of chagrined self-awareness.
Surveying the foppish sycophant-entreat of “look at me…look at me” …Ralph the Anti-Fop, just smiled. When Ralph came to Britches.
Onward. And yes I know it’s Wednesday. I’m on vacation. Shut the Fop up.



ilovelimegreen said...

Britches....I remember going there in 9th grade - to the one in Annapolis not far from McGarvey's. My father took me there on one of our afternoon jaunts. I bought a kelly green duffle bag with navy binding/handles. I took that on every trip with me for the next ten years. A few years ago, I found it in a closet at my parents and was aghast at how tiny it seemed. And whenever I think of Britches, that is my memory.

Pigtown*Design said...

I am remembering the same thing as Lime Green. We always called the women's store, Britches for Bitches.

Anonymous said...

Best of all, you can still buy the monogrammed slippers- with Ralph's initials on them.

Rex Luthor

Phil Asby said...

I absolutely loved Britches - and Britches Great Outdoors - for years. As a high school kid and college student it pushed the envelope just enough from the Lacoste, LL Bean, Brooks Brothers, Bass staple wardrobe I otherwise wore. I still have, and wear, several BGO Warthog Polos that are, bar none, the best made polos I've ever owned. Wear like iron, didn't shrink in odd ways (hello Ralph) and were fitted just about perfectly. At some point they pushed the envelope too far and became too edgy (particularly BGO) and lost their core market - a bit like Hilfiger did for some time - but didn't have Hilfiger's footprint and cash to recover... too bad at it was, in it's prime, perhaps my favorite store of all time.

The Leopard said...

I remember Britches from years ago when they offered a purple velvet sport coat (mondo fuzzy)and these totally impractical WW I reproduction cigarette lighters, I bought a few things from them and they were well made, sorry they're gone I thought they had panache. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for both the trip down memory lane remembering Britches, and the entertaining new story. I used to work near the Connecticut Avenue location and patrol it regularly for sales (I couldnt really afford the full price back then either). And the Britches Great Outdoors store was the epicenter of preppy/trad for suburban kids in the 1980s (duckhead pants and warthog shirts were staples).

Tom Buchanan

BethAnn said...

I've been curious to know your thoughts on Britches of Georgetown. I managed the BGO Women's stores in Pentagon City and Tyson's Corner back in 92-93 (right up until they closed). The Women's store, even though BGO, had a mix of "Georgetown" as well. Nothing really ever replaced it, although I think JCrew tries but fails on quality. Fond memories of those times and I still fold everything as if I still worked there.

NaturalShoulder said...

I remember Britches and BGO fondly. I worked at one of the Chicago area locations while in law school in the early 90sand purchased many items with my discount. I really liked their suits. I purchased my last item in the late 90s and noted the decline in quality of the jacket. I believe they went out of business soon thereafter.

Anonymous said...

With great respect to RL..., but a black tie with a grey jacket just looks wrong.



Anonymous said...

Excellent Max, and so was the "deconstruction" by blogger MSRP, good link. I remember walking into the Georgetown store in the mid-70s and being blown away by the pulled-together decor alone, I was new to DC at the time, new to such a cool shopping experience as Georgetown was back then, and oh yeah sure, Clydes tightly bracketed with Britches in my mind as well, no question. Ralph always has that glowing tan, you don't realize he's accessorized the color camel tan when he wears gray.


Anonymous said...

Interesting take. I think calling Britches of Georgetown an institution with an "experimental edge" is not consistent with my recollection. Maybe I've been exposed to too much clothing marketing to recall, though. I thought they were a really nice clothing store with a conservative look ... and in a conservative city like D.C., I just don't recall that as experimental.

Now, wasn't there another Britches -- Great Outdoors? One of the first super-annoying places to shop. The second you set foot in that place, you had some freak following you around the store trying to help you pick out clothes

Anonymous said...

moved up to dc in 1985 when i was in the 8th grade and loved britches right away. shopped at britches great outdoors through high school and then made my way onto britches of georgetown. still have a beatifully made double breasted camel hair long polo coat with striking black britches label on the inside pocket. gosh, i miss that place; such a shame it's gone.

ADG said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Interesting that Britches evoked such memories from you.

A few specific things in reply…

The “experimental” , more creative side of Britches, I think, was largely gone after the founders sold Britches to the corporation that owned them for the many ensuing years.

Also, G.B., one of the general msanagers during the closing days said that he knew it was all over when the final owners asked why Britches needed an in-house tailor shop.

I think the guy whose website you’ll find in the first link indeed summarizes what happened to Britches.

And Britches Great Outdoors…I knew that Britches had strayed too far when I saw a BGO at Schaumburg Mall in the Chicago burbs. I also knew I’d strayed too far when my then girlfriend had moved to Schaumburg from North Clark Street in Lincoln Park. Both were gone in no time.

And BethAnn…My friend N.S. used to manage the Pentagon City Britches that was right beside your BGO. I’m thinking our paths did not cross, though. Had they, I’d have remembered.

Anonymous said...

I just gave away a double breasted black cashmere extra long winter coat that I'd bought from BofGT over 20 yrs ago when I was an a senior executive in the DC area. Gave it to one of my mediocre nephews. The coat was still buttery smooth and rich with a black gloss silk lining and its BofGT gold label. I gave away 15 BofGT suits to Goodwill all of from BofGT and a few at least 20 years old and all in great shape- and still "in style" with the conservative crowd in.DC. I still have a double breasted blazer and brown trousers from BofGT and a few ties picked out by the excellent sales staff. That blazer, trousers and a ridiculously expensive, but all so beautiful, Burberry's raincoat are all I have in "business clothes." I left Washington when Bush rolled in, sold my house on the Potamac and retired in Florida... got too lazy once my party got the Presidency back in 2008. BofGT was of the sales associates used to call me when a new suit came in he thought I would driver would double park, drop me off and in 15 minutes I buy a couple of suits and 5 ties and the next day my suits would be expertly tailored and ready to picked up on my way to Mount Vernon. I must have had 100 ties from BofG. Wore their clothes to meeting around the globe and was as comfortable in the MOD in London or the MD in Paris as I was on K Street or in my office on the e-ring. BofGT was great to me....

Anonymous said...

Where do you get off giving tykes credit equal to Ricky and David ?
He was a store manager, never anything more!
John Clark, jack gubank and a few others were influential but not mark rykken.

Anonymous said...

You are exactly correct. Mark Rykken was never in merchandising. He was a store manager. David Pensky was the brains behind the merchandising concept, Rick Hindin was the creative behind the awesome advertising that represented Britches including the catalog in a box. John Clark was the VP of Store Operations and Jack Gubanc was the VP of Merchandising. Dan Laytham was also a big part of the "old" Britches as he traveled around the world and purchased many of those unique gifts we used to sell in the stores. With all of the recent talk about Rick Hindin reviving the Britches of Georgetowne name, I thought I would add to the above post and let people know that Rykken had nothing to do with the actual selection or purchase of the merchandise. I know, I was part of the Britches gang from 74 to 99. Had a lot of fun watching the company grow and being part of the growth. Hopefully, the comeback will be inclusive of the "well made" clothing thT lasted for years and years and that some of us still own! Good memories!

ADG said...

Settle down, boys. You guys sound like two mules fighting over a turnip with your "Rykken was just a store manager" declaration. Who gives a shit at this point? Rykken worked for Britches and Rykken told me the story.