Piecing Together the M.J. Knoud Story or How Quickly Things Fade on Madison Ave.

Knoud

“The Master of the Universe stood up and managed to hold on to the leash and struggle into his raincoat. It was a worn but formidable rubberized British riding mac, full of flaps, straps, and buckles. He had bought it at Knoud on Madison Avenue. Once, he had considered its aged look as just the thing, after the fashion of the Boston Cracked Shoe look. Now he wondered.” – Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

As someone who at least attempts to be a writer, reading Wolfe is a cruel game. His passages at once show the possibilities of the English language and act as a constant reminder that I’ll never achieve such dexterity over the written word. All that aside though, Wolfe’s 1987 assessment on life in the evolving big city, is rife with passages such as the one above.

As Bonfire of the Vanities cuts across New York’s avenues and alleyways, Wolfe drops bread crumbs along the trail, leading the reader back down the rabbit hole to a fading era of this city. I’d like to believe that Wolfe was well aware of the fleeting nature of New York and its many establishments when he wrote this book, as he lines the pages with references to storefronts, restaurants, and even landmarks that no longer exist. Wolfe’s work is that of a written time capsule in a way, which brings me back to Knoud on Madison.

Situated at 716 Madison Avenue, M.J. Knoud was one of the finest saddlery and hunting outfitters in the world. Founded by David H. Wright in the 1930’s, Knoud’s was a family affair, equipping New York’s elite class with their house line of saddles, jackets, hats, hunting supplies and other riding gear. Park Avenue princes, The Kennedy’s, “Masters of the Universe,” these were Knoud’s clientele, those wealthy enough to choose an athletic pursuit based on how well it reflected the size of their bank accounts.

They ordered custom saddles, officer grade trenches, and hand crafted lamps at a time when the English countryside and exotic hunting expeditions were fantastical diversions for the East Coast’s upper class.

And yet little remains of the Knoud empire. Not a single article, photograph, or sketch of the store remains. Their wares rarely surface on eBay or at auction, and the only real mention the store gets is as footnote in the occasional Jackie O. biography.

Today the store is a Jimmy Choo outpost.

For sixty some odd years, Knoud’s was a fixture of the East Sixties, and then one day in the 90’s the Wright’s sold their shop and poof it was gone, almost without a trace. In the modern menswear era, we see brands pop up and fizzle out in a matter of years, but in their wake, they leave behind enough ephemera to fill a whole block of prime New York real estate.

Advertisements, collection photos, reviews, profiles, they stack up like neat little Upper East Side brownstones. The retail scene is never stable, but I find it intriguing as to how a store could exist for more than a handful of decades, and be all but forgotten entirely.

Without stores like Knoud’s there would’ve been no basis for Banana Republic, no context for the fetishization of old Abercrombie (and anger over the company’s current look), and no background to the current uptown shopping landscape, with Berreta and John Lobb occupying the same rarified air as FiveStory and R by 45RPM.

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The Knoud story reminds me of another fascinating piece of history that I’ve come across through writing this site: the above photo from Gentry magazine. A snapshot of midtown shopping from the fifties, I only recognize about three of those store names now, and yet these were the stores that Gentry publishers declared as the one’s that men the world over should be aware of during the mid-twenty-first century. Now imagine a map of Soho, with its scores of various menswear shops, and think about how many seem “vital.”

Now imagine that all but three of those stores disappear.

How would you remember them?

And, really how many would be worth remembering?

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2 comments
  1. Funny how it occurs to you to Goggle something – and find a post about M. J. Knoud but 16 days old. Your story’s close but missing a critical first generation – Michael J. Knoud and his wife Matilda – and the calamity of the third, but first Great Uncle Mike, who came over from Ireland sometime at the turn of the 20th century. Already a saddler by trade, he took a job, then soon opened his own shop at the corner of 59th and Park, moving over to 63rd and Madison I believe in the early ’20s. My father, David H. Wright was born in 1910; at some point he started working summers for his uncle. He’d just started college at NYU when his uncle suddenly died, probably in 1929, leaving his business to a son who had no interest in it, and to my father. Over time, the son was bought out.

    Of course by this time, the Depression was in high gear, and to hear my father tell it, you could pick up a fine thoroughbred by simply taking a train, a saddle and a bridle out to Long Island; they were being turned lose all over, as were out-of-work horsemen – trainers, grooms, farriers, you name it – who found their way into the city; the shop became an unofficial employment agency, while Aunt Mattie ran a soup kitchen in the basement for the men. Somehow, they all survived those dreadful years; the men they helped finally got back into jobs and formed a devoted customer base for years to come.

    I won’t go into the details of the typical 3rd generation debacles that often bring down family businesses. M. J. Knoud didn’t just suddenly vanish. My sister ended up running the store herself, into the ground. In 1991, one of my brothers managed to get it sold to a Gucci (saving our parents from bankruptcy). The Gucci ran it for two years, then stopped paying the rent; in time, every item in the place was auctioned off. Only the memories – oh, what memories – are left.

    • Timothy A Fisher said:

      I have one of there saddles that I bought here in New Mexico.

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