The North Face collabs with fashion designers. Arc'teryx and Patagonia command cult followings.
And then, there’s L.L. Bean.
While the brand’s boots and totes have carved out a place in capital-F Fashion, the influential outfitter has just never cracked the modern street scene. Heritage brands of a similar strain – Eddie Bauer, Helly Hansen - are enjoying a moment. Its rich history and deep design catalog have made it a true “brand behind the brand,” with everyone from Polo to YEEZY gleaning inspiration.
And yet, Bean itself flies under the radar. Underrated or overdue? Brand problem or suffering from success?
In many ways, L.L. Bean has been passed over by streetwear. In many others, it just got there first. This is the story of the brand that streetwear forgot.
The Woods of Maine
L.L. Bean was always a household name. In October 1872, that house was a cabin in the Maine woods.
Leon Leonwood Bean was born in the town of Greenwood, Maine, one of six children. Flanked by hardwoods and the slopes of Mt. Abrams, Greenwood (pop. 830) is – and was – a remote place. Fittingly, the young L.L. grew into an avid outdoorsman.
Bean’s love for hunting and fishing defined his life. In 1911, a case of cold feet post-hunt led L.L. Bean (the man) to design his own lightweight, leather-and-rubber “Maine Hunting Shoes” he hoped would prevent future footfalls.
Ads for the shoe were mailed to every hunting license holder in Maine. 100 were bought. And when the first batch of Bean’s boots were reported defective, he refunded his customer’s money, fixed the design, then tried again.
At that moment, L.L. Bean (the brand) was born.
Before long, Bean had expanded to apparel – canvas Field Coats, chunky sweaters, the whole nine yards. The same commitment to service and functionality those first Boots embodied grew to a line of clothing made for well, the Maine woods.
“We’re not talking about ‘sports clothes’ in the way that Champion made them, comments G. Bruce Boyer, author, editor, and menswear expert. “L.L. Bean makes ‘field and stream’ clothes – for hunting, fishing, hiking. The image is backwoods of Maine, with hunting boots and maple syrup.”
Accessible, durable, functional clothing designed for spending time in the wilderness. Not exactly streetwear. Not yet, at least.
The Streets of Japan
As Bean grew, a curious thing happened: its hard-wearing clothes went from hardwood forests to concrete jungles.
“L.L. Bean became popular with the elite Eastern establishment,” continues Boyer. Old money had the time and the resources for cabins in the Maine woods. When they visited, they wanted what Mainers had. When they returned, they brought their Bean boots, field coats, and sweaters back with them.
This look – functional and accessibly-priced – spread.
“Uniform is too strong. Bean just was outdoor clothing,” explains W. David Marx, fashion historian and author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. “If you’re in New England, going to prep school in the snow and wet, it just makes sense.”
Prep schoolers brought their L.L. Bean sweaters to college. Eastern U.S. colleges, swelling with returned G.I.’s, replicated the established look. By coincidence, at the same, a trend called “Ivy style” had taken Japan by storm.
So when four Japanese fashion editors – some working for Men’s Club, a popular fashion magazine – traveled to the U.S. to create a style bible that would show the real Ivy League wardrobe to their audience at home, they unknowingly put the spotlight on L.L. Bean.
“In Japan, you have Ivy, you have the hippies, and then you have Yasuhiko Kobayashi,” continues Marx. Kobayashi, a fashion illustrator for Men’s Club, began his career drawing suit-and-tie Ivy looks. Not long after that style bible (1965’s legendary Take Ivy) is published, however, his interests took a marked turn.
“Kobayashi starts going to the US a bunch and notices hippie style moving into outdoor lifestyle," says Marx. "He and his other writer-editor friends were outdoors guys, so in ’72 or ’73, they visited L.L. Bean headquarters in Freeport, Maine to see the most representative brand of that lifestyle."
Kobayashi would spend two full days in Freeport.
“He was looking at every single item like a true obsessive,” comments Marx. “Kobayashi and his friends were into L.L. Bean without seeing it as fashion – it was purely lifestyle wear to them. But because they were involved in Men’s Club, they had a big impact.” Kobayashi’s illustrations begin featuring outdoors gear. Lots of outdoors gear. Christening the look “Heavy Duty,” Kobayashi and the Men’s Club team turned millions of blazer-and-tie Japanese youth onto the other half of the Ivy Style paradigm.
“In Japan, you had kids wearing outdoor gear as streetwear,” concludes Marx. “It’s probably the first place in the world where that’s happening.” Accessible, durable, functional clothing was now capital-S Streetwear. Due in no small part to L.L. Bean.
The Brand Streetwear Forgot
And yet, short of a few ravenous collectors, the OG outdoors streetwear brand flies under the radar today.
L.L. Bean’s influence spread quickly, but its sheer exposure shrank the novelty factor that Japanese customers were looking for.
“In Japan, because the demand for information is so high, all the buyers were looking for the next L.L. Bean-alike brand they can get,” comments Marx. “By the late ‘80s, they had dug out all those other American heritage brands.”
Bean was everywhere, which opened the door to Pendleton, then Woolrich, then Filson - you get the point. Before long, Bean’s distinctive designs – even the bulbous Duck Boots – were just part of the landscape. Its influence lives on through Bean-inspired pieces by NEIGHBORHOOD and Junya Watanabe, not to mention a small but mighty place in the vintage scene. But in Japan the brand itself is, if anything, too common to be cool.
A similar phenomenon happened in the US.
“I don’t know if L.L. Bean has fallen out of the spotlight,” comments Jack Carlson, the man behind Rowing Blazers, the Ivy-inspired streetwear brand behind menswear’s prep revival. “It’s more had a subtle, ongoing influence on so many different brands.”
Reference-driven brands like Ralph Lauren used vintage American clothing to inspire their designs. Because Bean was function-first and spread across society, garments like the duck boots, fishermen’s sweaters, and field jacket were reinvented many times over. Ralph, Tommy, Nautica, and even YEEZY have brought Bean’s legacy – if not the brand’s name – forward.
Bean, the brand, had been too exposed to be cool. Bean, the designs, were cool and everywhere.
Counting on Bean
As heritage brands of a similar strain – Eddie Bauer, Helly Hansen – find their own moment of anti-cool, where, then, is L.L. Bean?
In many ways, it’s right where it started.
L.L. Bean is still based in Maine. Its famous Bean Boots are still handstitched in Maine. Unlike most competitors, it’s still independently-owned. While this background has gotten the brand in hot water (and underscored the sensitive politics around working class brands in the U.S.), Bean still approaches product through a lens of function and accessibility above all else. Including, in some respects, what Instagram thinks is cool.
While that may not lead to Puma sneaker collabs, it does lead to well-designed pieces and some of the best values in functional fashion. Black-on-black GORE shells for $199. PrimaLoft puffers with NASA-developed insulation for $169. And then, there’s the traditional stuff – like $99 fleeces that give any Patagonia a run for its money. All backed by a long-lasting return policy - albeit, no longer the "lifetime" policy the brand was once known for.
“The moment you say L.L. Bean, you picture such clear things – the boots, the tote, the catalog cover,” says Carlson. “There’s something cool about the fact that they’re not trying too hard to be relevant.”
Whether that stubborn devotion translates to the next breakout streetwear hit (hello Crocs) remains to be seen. For right now, with cozy season right upon us, it’s worth checking out L.L. Bean.
For more about the link between outdoors and streetwear, find out how limited-release sneakers left a footprint on the outdoors, or learn more about outdoors streetwear in Japan through the story of Goldwin, aka, the brand behind nanamica and The North Face Purple Label.