If you were asked to name Kanye West’s go-to brands in 2019, you’d probably think YEEZY and Balenciaga. There might also be a smattering of streetwear such as Bianca Chandon and Brain Dead, workwear staples like Carhartt and Dickies, and statement pieces from Louis Vuitton and Prada. West keeps his wardrobe fairly streamlined, usually finding something he loves and then wearing the hell out of it for the next month or two.
Back in November, Kids See Ghosts performed at Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, where West unleashed a sartorial left turn by taking to the stage in an Eddie Bauer Ebtek fleece. The item in question was seen again last week when the rapper was pictured with his niece True.
But who or what is Eddie Bauer? Chances are millennials, Gen Z-ers, and people outside the US will have no idea. But for Americans of a certain vintage, the name will transport them back to the ’90s, conjuring memories of urban style’s glory days.
Eddie Bauer formed his eponymous outdoor brand in 1920, almost 50 years before The North Face arrived on the scene. Bauer was a legendary Pacific Northwest outdoorsman who translated his passion over to business, initially managing his operation from a small storefront in downtown Seattle. He was a formidable innovator who was obsessed with the needs of his customers.
“If I didn’t trust the equipment, it wasn’t stocked,” he once said. “If I needed equipment that wasn’t available elsewhere, I developed it myself.” Those puffers you saw everywhere at Paris Fashion Week FW19? They can be traced back to Bauer, who in 1940 patented the first down jacket, an item known as the Skyliner, first released in 1936.
Bauer sold his company to General Mills in 1971 before it changed hands again in 1988. These successive owners diluted the brand and deserted its outdoor heritage, opting to take it down a more lifestyle-oriented path. In 1983, the company entered into a partnership with Ford, which produced Eddie Bauer Edition vehicles — as name-dropped by West in the song “30 Hours” — before the launch of an Eddie Bauer homeware line in 1991.
It was around this point that something odd started happening. The company had never consciously marketed itself to urban youth (a bit like Patagonia today), yet Eddie Bauer’s brushed flannel shirts and hooded parkas eventually wormed their way into the world of hip-hop alongside outdoor and workwear icons such as Timberland and Carhartt. “With the ready power tuckin’ my GUESS under my Eddie Bauer,” 2Pac rapped on “Hit ’Em Up.”
But two decades on and Eddie Bauer has experienced a tumultuous recent history, having survived two bankruptcies, one in 2003 and again in 2009. The brand isn’t exactly hot these days and most non-Americans born after 1995 won’t have heard of it, so why has West popped up in it now?
Well for one, the rapper has always had a penchant for vintage and outdoor clothing. Think of his loose-gauge COMME des GARÇONS Homme sweater and army hat (the latter borrowed from thrift store king Shia LaBeouf, whom Kanye once called “fresh as fuck”), or his archival Helmut Lang paint-splatter jeans. We’ve also seen West in classic pieces from Patagonia and The North Face, with their utilitarian aesthetic mirrored in some YEEZY designs. Eddie Bauer doesn’t possess anywhere near the same street cool as some of those labels mentioned before, of course, so perhaps West’s cosign is born of sentimentality for a bygone era.
My favorite pick-up so far this year is a vintage $50 fleece by British cold weather specialist Sprayway, which was all the rage at my elementary school in the late ’90s and formed a holy triptych of UK outdoor brands alongside Regatta and Berghaus. Pulling it on really takes me back. Brands are much more fun to wear when you can place yourself inside their narrative, connecting with them in a way that’s unique to you.
Maybe it’s the same story with West and his Eddie Bauer fleece. It’s not just a look, it’s an emotional resonance you can’t get when buying fresh off the rack. There’s probably a sense of anti-fashion irony somewhere in there, too, the same effect informing mooted comebacks by other by-the-wayside labels such as Von Dutch, JNCO, and Ed Hardy. And if that’s the case, there’s a lesson here. Rather than blowing money on vintage Eddie Bauer in a bid to be like Kanye West, invest in something you have a personal history with. It’s your story and your style.