L.L. Bean - Fashion Designer Encyclopedia



American clothing manufacturer and mail order company

Founded: in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean (1872-1967), in Freeport, Maine. Company History: Company founded for mail order sales of Maine Hunting Shoe, patented 1911. Camping and fishing equipment offered, from 1920s; bicycles, cookware, watches, luggage offered, from 1930s; casual apparel offered, from 1980s; retail salesroom added to manufacturing plant, 1945; offered 24/7 service from 1951; first branch store opened, in Japan, 1991; began offering separate catalogues for men, 1998; opened first full-line retail store outside of Freeport, 2000; launched first women's skin care line, 2000; introduced SUV in partnership with Subaru, 2000. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1975; American Catalogue Awards Gold award, 1987, 1989, for hunting specialties catalogue; American Catalogue Awards Silver award, 1989; American Catalogue Awards Gold award for women's outdoor specialties catalogue, 1989. Company Address: L.L. Bean, Inc., Freeport, Maine, 04033, USA. Company Website: www.llbean.com .

Publications

On L.L. BEAN:

Books

Montgomery, M. R., In Search of L.L. Bean , Boston, 1984.

Griffin, Carlene, Spillin' the Beans , Freeport, Maine, 1993.

Articles

Dickson, Paul, "L.L. Bean," in Town and Country (New York), February 1977.

Crews, Harry, "L.L. Bean Has Your Number, America!" in Esquire (New York), March 1978.

Longsdorf, Robert, "L.L. Bean: Yankee Ingenuity and Persistence Transformed This Little Maine Boot Shop into a Veritable Sports-man's Candy Store," in Trailer Life (Agoura, CA), May 1986.

Kerasole, Ted, "L.L. Bean: 75 Years," in Sports Afield (New York), October 1987.

Zempke, Ron, and Dick Schaaf, "L.L. Bean," in the Service Edge (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.

"Bean Sticks to Its Backyard," in the Economist, 4 August 1990.

Kaplan, Michael, "Gumshoe," in GQ (Gentlemen's Quarterly), October 1992.

Hirano, Koji, "L.L. Bean's First Japan Store," in Daily News Record (DNR), 13 November 1992.

Symonds, William C., "Paddling Harder at L.L. Bean," in Business Week, 7 December 1998.

Hays, Constance L., "L.L. Bean Casts About for Ways to Grow," in the New York Times, 14 August 1999.

Palmieri, Jean E., and Melonee KcKinney, "L.L. Bean Set to Open Second Full-Line Unit in Virginia," in DNR, 21 April 2000.

Dodd, Annmarie and Jean E. Palmieri, "L.L. Bean Warms to Its Male Customer," in DNR, 12 November 2000.

***

The assimilation of the work of L.L. Bean into the world of fashion design is a direct result of the eclecticism in late 20th-century culture. Sportsman, businessman, and inventor Leon Leonwood Bean stood outside the world of fashion during his lifetime. His mail order company, based in Freeport, Maine, began before World War I selling sporting garments and accessories which were innovative, durable and, once perfected, consistant in appearance over many decades. They were, initially, the epitomé of antifashion.

Founded on the innovative design of the Maine Hunting Shoe, patented in 1911, L.L. Bean's range of clothing came to include traditional articles such as leather moccasins, based on American Indian footwear, long red woollen underwear, and collections of well-made weekend clothes for sportsmen and sportswomen. The appeal was their comfort, durability, and timelessness of appearance.

Bean's early business success was aided by the U.S. Post Office's introduction in 1912 of a cheap parcel post service. Similarly, the construction of the national highway network and the expansion of private car ownership in the 1910s and 1920s promoted recreational travel for sportsmen and helped to create a need for the specific kinds of garments sold by Bean. Their shop in Freeport was open for business around the clock, 365 days a year, demonstrating a genuine devotion to customer service and an understanding of the particular needs of their specialist clientéle. Through its marketing policies, L.L. Bean came to represent solid, ethical values of conduct in commerce. The personification of integrity, L.L. Bean tested his own equipment prior to marketing, as the company president does today.

A notion of the L.L. Bean style had developed by the 1920s, when the company's catalogue was known worldwide. The catalogue had, from the start, a unique look and quality. Written in L.L. Bean's personal descriptive style, it was presented in a casual, scrapbook format, with its familiar Cheltenham typeface, plain wholesome models, and cover illustrations by America's foremost painters of outdoor life. By the 1980s, the catalogue had become an institution and a symbol for a particular lifestyle. It attracted references in publications such as Lisa Birnbach's The Preppy Handbook , which dubbed Bean "Preppy Mecca," and it was parodied in a National Lampoon "Catalogue" which featured a range of items including an "Edible Moccasin" and a "Chloroform Dog Bed." The genuine catalogue layout has contained such surrealist juxtapositions as jackets, trousers, and duck decoys.

Following the death of L.L. Bean in 1967, the business passed into the hands of his grandson, Leon Gorman, who expanded and modernized both the operation and its products while maintaining its essential character, rooted in Down East hunting and fishing culture. But modernization had its dangers. Enthusiasm for their newly developed synthetic fibres, useful in extreme weather conditions, had carried over to the range of casual clothing of the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s, however, in keeping with the rising tide of environmentalism and a new public appreciation of the natural, as opposed to the synthetic, L.L. Bean returned to 100-percent natural materials in their traditional clothes.

Expansion from shoes and outdoor clothing to accessories and equipment such as snowshoes, fishing gear, and canoes showed a keen awareness of links between apparel and the utilitarian accoutrements of modern life. Later catalogues acknowledged the rise of the fitness movement, with new lines of garments for exercising, water sports, and accessories for activities such as roller skating and cross-country skiing.

In 1975 L.L. Bean was recognized as a bona fide member of the fashion world when it received the prestigious Coty award. This accolade signified an expansion of the meaning of fashion and confirmed its role as a mirror on contemporary culture. The genius of L.L. Bean had been to recognize the recreational potential in his local surroundings and to invent ways to cater, through clothing, first for the growth of outdoor sporting activities and, later, to the booming leisure market.

Since its founding, L.L. Bean clothes have reflected the social attitudes, leisure pursuits, and health awareness of America while also embodying a dream about the unspoiled American landscape and the values it represented. Yet in the late 1990s, L.L. Bean ran into financial trouble. Its sweaters, parkas, khakis, and boots were no longer perceived as fashion-forward, but rather as clinging to the same outdoor and preppy looks that had been behind the company's success in the 1970s and 1980s. Analysts felt Bean's management had not kept up with changes in the mail-order and apparel industries. Many of its competitors—of which there were an ever-growing number—had moved into the children's market, for example, but Bean had not. It also was out of sync with the industry in its continued direct response-only strategy. Therefore, despite a strong brand name, a high level of service and customer satisfaction, a reputation for quality, and a sophisticated warehousing system, sales were flat.

The company took several steps to effect a turnaround. While its original product, the Bean Boot, remained one of its bestsellers, it undertook to update its apparel and footwear styles. It also began to put profitability on an equal footing with customer service—as opposed to its traditional belief that with good service, profit would follow—and increased marketing expenditures. Bean began to release catalogues for specific market niches, such as the Freeport Studio casual clothing and accessories catalogue targeted female Baby Boomers. Separate men's catalogues were introduced in 1998 and, by 2000, Bean issued six men's-only catalogues per year, emphasizing detailing and color palettes. The company similarly segmented children's and home products and now publishes 50 catalogues per year.

Meanwhile, Bean added new products and product categories that tied in with its brand image. In 2000 it introduced skin care products to its women's catalogue, focusing on items that protect the skin in the midst of an outdoor lifestyle. One of Bean's more unusual product extensions is a sport utility vehicle, the Subaru Outback Limited Special L.L. Bean Edition, also introduced in 2000. Bean also began expanding its distribution. In 2000, Bean opened its second full-line store (after its Freeport flagship). The launch marked the first step in a conservative retail strategy encompassing three to five new stores in the Northeast U.S. over three or four years. L.L. Bean also operates 10 outlet stores in the U.S. and 20 retail shops in Japan. Its stores feature both soft and hard goods, including the L.L. Bean Home collection. The company was an early entrant into e-commerce and has seen success with its Internet program, being rated among the top sites for sales and customer satisfaction.

Despite all the changes, Bean has remained focused on its core brand attributes. It is not attempting to become a designer brand— which it feels would alienate its loyal customers—but rather to create a more cohesive presentation and a greater emphasis on lifestyle. L.L. Bean had parlayed this focus into sales well above $1 billion by the turn of the century.

—Gregory Votolato;

updated by Karen Raugust



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