Yesterday’s post of some wonderful vintage LL Bean hunting gear from a LIFE magazine feature in 1941, led to The Weejun being followed on Twitter by LL Bean’s Head of PR. This set to me to thinking about bringing forward a piece I’ve been planning since first starting The Weejun, and that is the evolution of LL Bean from where it was when it started up to only 10 or so years and then to where it is now.
I was a bit sarcastic on yesterday’s post calling LL Bean ‘mumsy’ so I thought it only fair to elaborate a little. Back in the mid 80s when I first discovered Freeport’s finest, long before the easy click of the internet, the seasonal LL Bean catalogue arriving on my doorstep in London was, along with Brooks Brothers, Filson and Russell Moccasin, a rare glimpse into the escapist world of American traditional clothing and a rich heritage that stretched back the early 20th century. LL Bean had grown up with ‘the American century’ and was part of the defining of an indigenous culture of new tradition where despite America’s endless reinvention and relentless progress, men’s clothing seemed to remain a constant.
You can see a movie from the 1940s and Robert Mitchum will be fishing in chinos, hunting boots a flannel shirt and a field jacket. Step forward 40 to 50 years and you could still see the tradition being followed in any US movie or even sitcom. Button Down oxford shirts, loafers, sack suits, seersucker, chinos, work boots – all staples.
Even just 15 years ago the LL Bean catalogue would have had most merchandise made in the USA. The legend ‘Imported’ was reserved to show fabrics and materials where the American version was perhaps not the best – shirting cotton from Italy maybe, Portuguese flannel, Shetland sweaters from, of course, the Shetland Islands.
For everything else there was America’s finest – handsewn loafers and camp moccs from Maine, and all manner of traditional US made products – from fleeces, sweatshirts, anoraks and parkas to traditional single needle tailored shirts and of course, chinos.
Then, somewhere along the line, around about 1999, there began a subtle change. Maybe it had already been happening for a while. Men’s sports shirts (as opposed to dress shirts) had started to be sold in the ubiquitous S/M/L/XL instead of collar sizes and sleeve lengths. Of course sleeve lengths had disappeared in UK retail at least a decade before, but these were the details that made the clothes from America special to us, the outsiders. They were details that differentiated the clothes we wore from the dross of the UK high street as we dressed as if we were in our own Hollywood version of America.
Between the mid 80s and 2000 (the last time I ordered anything from LL Bean – Blucher Camp Moccs I believe) I turned on countless friends and family to the joys of the LL Bean catalogue.
Then came the the real signal that the ‘modern world’ had started to infect the Old Bean. Suddenly, the signature Double L flannel shirt that I bought every autumn in at least 2 colours in a size 16 was no longer made. Now I fell somewhere between an ‘M’ – too short in body and sleeve’ – and an ‘L’ – a giant sail of a shirt. I simply couldn’t buy anymore. Next came the classic dress chino – one of the only cuts available at that time that was classic enough to be really vintage (as opposed to the fake fashion cuts that pass for ‘vintage’ from most suppliers these days). Now only available with a crease down the front made of some kind of teflon. Try as I might, I could not get the damn things to look crumpled and casual as of old. Even the goat skin A2 style leather jacket used to come in suit sizes – I still have my 80s size 40.
There had always been ‘new’ designs and elements in each new catalogue but now there were ‘new’ products pushing out the old in a tidal wave of mediocrity. These new products were ever more bland, mainstream and Gap like. Everything was ‘nice’. Jeans were no longer made of raw denim as an option but ‘enzyme washed to feel like you already broke them in’. More and more products came in a ‘pre-washed for comfort’ kind of fabric or else a ‘pre-ironed for life’ alternative. My favourite product, the LL Bean stadium trousers, chinos with a sewn in scotch plaid woolen lining for the deep winter faded into distant memory.
For years LL Bean had been my staple every day American clothier, but I had to stop and look elsewhere.
Now, of course I appreciate that LL Bean was growing massively during these years (anyone remember the short lived UK catalogue based in Swindon?) and we all need progress, and some of Bean’s technical fabrics on parkas, fleeces etc were necessary and great evolutions of the genre. But somewhere along the way, the Old Bean lost too many of the classic elements that made it the institution that it was for many decades. As a business owner I understand some of the decisions to rationalise product lines and so on, but as a customer I lament the dumbing down of any classic brand.
To a great extent Land’s End (in the USA, not the poor UK relation), Orvis and the reinvigorated Filson (who used to make the LL Bean Upland Hunting coat) have picked the bones of many of Bean’s trusty classics in recent years.
A trip to Tokyo in 2003 had me eagerly seeking out the LL Bean store – surely the Japanese, protector of all that America throws away of its own popular culture, must have cool stuff branded LL Bean? Nope. The same old mumsy look and comfortable uncle’s clothes.
Could it be that LL Bean, as it moves towards celebrating it’s first century of American lifestyle, might reflect on where it came from and create a Heritage collection? Real ‘Made in USA’ traditional American clothes and footwear? The price would be much higher of course, but these days niche customers are a global phenomenon happy to pay for ‘authenticity’ such as it is and surely enough in number to warrant such a series, especially when the trickle down effect on the brand for its mainstream customers is also highly beneficial.
So if you’re reading this LL Bean PR, we’d all love you to come back to where you once were, even if it’s just those few evergreens that we all loved dearly.