What’s Wrong Old Bean? LL Ain’t What It Used To Be

| 10 Mar ’09 | 13 Comments
A Classic Illustration: LL Bean 1972 Catalogue

A Classic Illustration: LL Bean Spring 1972 Catalogue

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.

LL Bean Illustration from Spring 1939 Catalogue

LL Bean Illustration from Spring 1939 Catalogue

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.

LL Bean Spring 1959 Hunting Catalog

LL Bean Spring 1959 Hunting Catalog

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.

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Category: jackets, penny loafers, shirts, Shoes, vintage

Comments (13)

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  1. ScarletStreet says:

    This post was especially poignant for me. Your views on the once mighty Bean hit pretty close to home. My mom is a Maine native. The catalogs and the clothes were a staple growing up. I still purchase certain pants from them and still hunt the vintage on the ‘Bay, but I do so with a heavy heart. It’s just not enough to try to compete with Land’s end with cheap versions of iconic items thrown as a bone to long time customers. Not enough for L.L. Bean, anyway. Enjoying the blog, though. Keep it up.

  2. MaineFlyBoi says:

    You make it sound they are the ultimate sellout company.

    L.L.Bean has been and will continue to be true to the heart of Maine. As you well know a growing business like L.L.Bean is bound to go through changes as it expands it’s horizons and grows into a nationally recognized company. Like you said, A “Vintage Line” would have a higher price tag. In today’s changing economy people can’t afford the high priced clothing that you speak of. Instead, L.L.Bean offers quality clothing that has proven durability (tested and re-tested by real Maine residents in the worst of conditions) all covered by the same hassle fee warranty. They stand by their products, and in doing so support their customers in the best way possible.
    They have many offerings for the people that truly matter in Maine, and take care to produce products for all walks of like, not just the fat pocket weekend pheasant hunters or smart ass businessmen who feel they need to dress in $200 shirts. I have absolutely no complaint about how L.L.Bean has grown or conducted business. I’ve always worn their clothing and used their products and that will never change. I guess you have to be born and raised in Maine to really understand how important this company is to our way of life. Self-Butchering their own Heritage? It’s called progress. New technologies lead to new products lead to more customers. I bet I can find 50,000 people happy with Beans current direction for every 1 person who shuns it. It’s completely unrealistic to offer 20 different “suit” sizes for many different styles of shirts and pants when your customer base spans the globe. I’m sorry their clothing isn’t so expensive and “one of a kind” that it doesn’t make you feel important anymore. L.L.Bean used to be a company for the elite, now it has evolved into much more. I understand you might not like how their clothing feels when compared to past products, but I highly doubt you can’t find a single product in the pages of their latest catalog that would be worth wearing.

    With that said, great pictures. I just strong disagree with your perspective.
    -Ben

  3. H.L. Poling & Sons says:

    Great essay, Weejun.

    LL Bean has grown its business in ways that necessitate appealing to a broader demographic and bigger audience than it was during the first several decades of its life. And, along the way, has given up some of its unique products and diluted its image as one of the last great, flinty, made-in-America Yankee businesses.

    So be it.

    And while “good things” may be coming, it takes a long time and a lot of effort to turn a ship this big around.

    But we’ll all be watching and waiting, faithfully.

    And what of those “good things”? What would be on everyone’s Wish List?

    My vote would be for the old Lounger Boot (unlined: none of that newfangled Thinsulate stuff, pls.) with brown uppers. Oh–and with the old “Maine Hunting Shoe” label on the back. That “Bean Boots” label is just too cutesy, mall-mentality, suburban soccer mom for an old-line masculine store like Bean.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Well said. Mr. Weejun. I’m also an extra-medium, and I like my clothes to fit well, so I don’t buy off-the-shell SMLXL’s. Always too baggy in the middle, or the arms are too short, or the neck is too small.

    By the way, please fix your RSS feed to put off the whole article and not just a blurb.

  5. 3button Max says:

    weejun- well said-great post.
    I can remember ordering red candy stripe shirt w/Press style pocket flap from Bean in 1979 –their ocbd wasnt as voluminous or quite the high count quality pima cotton as offered by B2 but still excellent–and a fantastic value-I think summer chinos were 9$ and I ordered them as I had seen ad in New Yorker magazine.Still have an old Bean Hamilton mechanical field watch.
    tempted by only a handful of things these days , rubber mocs ,camp mocs and bluchers.
    The “teflon ” pants-no match for the trousers from days of yore–but one may remember several posts on various forums gushing over( in my view total “NOWSTALGIA”)
    Bills khakis- how “trad” is it to spend that kind of cash? I can accept the plain chinos (more or less) from LL &save 100 . they offered tassel loafers and I had a pair c 1991-I wonder what the source was.. sebago or Bass-great shoes—again great post weejun…

    Max

  6. The Weejun says:

    Thanks Max, H.L. Poling, Jeremy & Scarlet Stree. I think you guys can see that what I wrote was out of respect for a past master.

    Maineflyboi – That other great American behemoth from the West Coast, Levis, had a similar trajectory, now makes clothes for mall Dads and teens, but still has one foot in its deep heritage that acts as an anchor for the brand. If it didn’t work then why would Levis still be producing these goods after 10 years and why have the once mightly Wrangler and Lee copied them down that road. Being from Maine you’re perhaps just a little touchy on the subject. And BTW, why does good have to mean expensive in your mind? Good design is no more expensive than bad design. In fact bad design is more expensive in the long run and the damage it does to a brand and reputation.

  7. Russell Street says:

    A very good post indeed – Thank you, Mr. Weejun. I’d love to see a handful of the old clasics back in the mix over at Bean too. Just a few for those who wanted them & were happy to pay a little more.
    I’d question a comment above that Bean were once ‘a company for the elite’. Was that ever really so? I’d like to know more about this.
    Best –

  8. The Weejun says:

    Hi Russell, You’re right Mainflyboi’s comments don’t ring true somehow. I’ve never seen a catalogue from any era where the prices were high. He’s from Maine and so maybe doesn’t like foreigners (i.e. anyone outside of Maine) pointing out some hometruths. Methinks the fellow doth protest too much.
    In contrast, I have to hand it to Old LL themselves – they’ve linked to the lowly Weejun on their facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/LLBean/6589192414

    I think they can see that from what all of us on this post are talking about, that the lament is out of respect. We’d all love to buy Bean instead of Gap, Uniqlo, Lands End etc.

  9. Russell Street says:

    I’d also pay more for Made in the USA items from Bean.

  10. 3button Max says:

    re LL Bean being a “company for the elite”-as per Maine fly and referenced by Russel Street–
    the folks I knew that had LLBean staple items (late 70s to early 80’s)-all had some link to or had attended major universities -or had some connection to eastern colleges. (generally ivy league)- I think Bean had an insider quality or character (as regards their “street clothes”-ouside the scope of sportsmen- certainly appealing to educated elite at least..

  11. Russell Street says:

    Hi Max – That rings true to me, but was that Bean’s intent? Doubtful, I think.I’d say that Bean was just a company with ‘elite’ appeal. Maybe I’m hair splitting again here… Old habits die hard and all that!
    Surely every kind of person has shopped at Bean at some point?
    It’s an interesting point.
    … Hope they’re loving us on Twitter!
    Best –

  12. MaineFlyBoi says:

    Hello,
    I was referring to “elite” appeal as Russell said above, not for the elite. I should have said that differently (your right, I am a tad touchy on the subject). Any no, high quality doesn’t have to mean expensive, your right. What I was trying to point out is that I still see L.L. as a high quality clothing manufacturer, and that offering 20 different “in between” sizes would be the expensive part. My frustration clearly mangled my words.
    I don’t hate people outside of Maine, thats just silly. With that said I still feel like L.L.Bean is a Maine thing first and foremost. The elite appeal is what bothers me. I don’t understand why change automatically means they have sold out. I’m not saying that’s what the intention of your article was, but thats the way I understood it. Some of my favorite L.L.Bean products have come out in recent years, so I still regard Bean as a classic company with classic appeal constantly trying to compete in a modern economy.

    I enjoy the pictures, and the rest of your blog even though I disagree with some of your views. Tis the world we live in.
    -Ben

  13. The Weejun says:

    I appreciate that Ben, and of course thats’ why I published your comment, to stimulate debate. As I said in the original post, new items, technical fabrics etc are important. But dumbing down your classics for supposed ‘fashion’ is a mistake. No one expects them to stand still, but all of us here would love Bean to keep its heritage in mind at all times.

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