It’s a very big year for LL Bean. In fact, it’s their 100 year anniversary. In 1911 Leon Leonwood Bean went hunting and got his feet wet. He spent the next year working out a solution to the problem, and the result was the Maine Hunting Shoe. He developed a boot that combined the best of a rubber boot with the best of a leather one, and proceeded to sell his creation by mail order. The results were astounding, and he was soon selling other outdoor wear as well.
Guaranteed to Last: LL Bean’s Century of Outfitting America was written for and published by the company to celebrate their centennial year. If you are looking for a critical analysis of the company, it would serve you to look elsewhere, as this is an ode to the man and to the company of LL Bean. And there is plenty to sing about. The writer, Jim Gorman, wisely focuses on what might be considered the icons of the company: the Bean Boot, the Boat and Tote, the Field Coat and the Norwegian Sweater, among others.
It’s hard to argue with the success of products like the Maine Hunting Shoe and the similar Bean Boot. It was, after all, the original product, and is still made by hand in Maine. After being big during the Preppy days of the early 1980s, the Bean Boot is having another moment in the fashion sun, riding the wave of heritage brand love. The boot is, in short, just about everything I love in a product except for one major deal-breaker – the boots are just not appealing to me aesthetically. Yes, I do think they are ugly, but each to his own.
I especially enjoyed this look at how the boots are made today.
LL Bean’s other Maine made product is the Boat and Tote. It has its roots in the 1944 Ice Carrier. This product did not last but was revived in 1965 as the Boat and Tote. Today, this is what all totes want to be when they grow up. They are made from #4 duck – the stuff used in conveyor belts. They come in a variety of sizes and they look good. Here’s my little family of them as they looked two years ago. They look exactly the same today, and I use them constantly. It is a superior product at a very reasonable price.
Today, LL Bean is more of a clothing marketer than an outdoor outfitter. Partly out of necessity to survive, they have had to shift the focus of the business from supplying hunters and fishers to selling clothing and accessories to the general population. Their store in Freeport, Maine is a tourist destination. LL Bean started keeping the store open 24 hours a day because often the hunters on the way to the lodges passed the store late at night and he did not want to miss a sale. Today, a tour bus can arrive at 2 am and the occupants can be assured that they will be able to shop.
I have a LL Bean summer catalog from 1977. It has 80 pages, about half of which is devoted to outdoor gear. In the remaining 40 pages, there are several dozen items I’d be happy to have in my closet, including a pair of rope thong sandals, Bean’s camp moccasins and a chambray camp shirt. The LL Bean website has thousands of clothing items for sale. I look at what they have and I’m bored. Several years ago I did happen to like a certain pair of side zip twill pants, so I ordered a pair in a light tan. When they came I was disappointed that they were made in China, but the fit and quality seemed good so I ordered the same pants in navy and black. They looked faded and tired after only one washing. Stick to the Boat and Tote.
Any criticism of the company today aside, the book is a fun read for people like me who love vintage sportswear. The book is full of examples of vintage garments from the company archives. There are also lots of vintage photos of vacationers enjoying the Maine woods. And be sure to check out the montage of vintage catalog covers above.
While I obviously would love to see LL Bean expand their offerings of made in the USA products, especially in their more up-scale LL Bean Signature collection, it does need to be pointed out that the company is a major employer of workers in the US, especially in Maine.