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Bean’s, But Make It Fashion

Designer Todd Snyder's L.L.Bean–inspired fall collection drops this month, but it's not the retailer's first foray into high fashion.

Original photo by Victor Virgile via Getty Images.
By Alexandra Hall
L.L. Bean catalog
Courtesy of L.L. Bean

In February, when designer Todd Snyder debuted his “From Away” menswear collection at New York Fashion Week, it marked the first time that L.L.Bean has ever stormed a runway. (Vogue has the runway pics slideshow.) Snyder’s collab with Maine’s down-home outdoor apparel company — the results of which hit racks this month — may seem counterintuitive (or even, dare we say, a bit silly). But Bean’s has long had a boot planted in the loftier circles of fashion, style, and pop culture.

1912

Hunter and fisherman Leon Leonwood Bean begins selling a single product, the Maine Hunting Shoe, aka the duck boot, a hybrid of leather uppers and rubber bottoms. A century later, as celebs like Christina Aguilera and Lizzy Caplan sport “Bean boots,” the waitlist to get a pair will be 100,000 people deep. But at the outset, Bean’s business is a one-man, one-room operation.

Bean Boots

1933

Eleanor Roosevelt makes a surprise visit to the Freeport store. Though the First Lady is something of a trendsetter,  the store won’t sell women’s gear or clothing until 1955. L.L. doesn’t let her leave empty-handed, presenting her with a trout knife for the president.

Eleanor Roosevelt

1944

Release of the Boat and Tote, a structured canvas bag originally designed to haul ice from dock to yacht. The tote eventually garners high-profile fans, from the Kennedys to Chloë Sevigny to the editors at W magazine, and the mark of distinction is a custom monogram (Gwyneth Paltrow’s bag says Apple, her daughter’s name). The bag’s design spawns copycats from posh designers like Bode, Michael Kors, and Hermès.

L.L. Bean Boat and Tote

1957

In his landmark poem, “Skunk Hour,” reluctant Brahmin Robert Lowell wrestles with the decline of the Yankee gentry: “The season’s ill — we’ve lost our summer millionaire / who seemed to leap from an L.L.Bean / catalogue. His nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen.” Ouch.

1971

Author Hunter S. Thompson shouts out the brand in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and wears Bean’s in public appearances, lending counterculture cred, particularly to the Rainbow Lake safari jacket (though his is an Abercrombie version).

L.L. Bean Rainbow Lake safari jacket

1975

L.L.Bean receives a special citation from the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, known as the Oscars of the fashion world, for the company’s contribution to menswear.

1980

Author Lisa Birnbach’s Official Preppy Handbook, satirizing the ascendent yuppie culture, declares Bean’s “nothing less than Prep mecca.” The canonization boosts sales 42 percent and paves the way for preppie imitators like J. Crew and Tommy Hilfiger.

Official Preppy Handbook

1982

Writer Alfred Gingold’s bestselling parody book Items from Our Catalog purports to offer bras for spaniels, “social climbing shoes,” and Swiss Army earrings. It’s all in fun — Gingold assures readers he finds the real Bean catalogs “unique and true and American.”

1988

In Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, when interior designer/paranormal dilettante Otho arrives at Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis’s country home, done up in traditional New England décor, he winces and mutters, “Ugh, deliver me from L.L.Bean!”

2012

Blogger Elizabeth Pride’s viral blog, Your L.L.Bean Boyfriend, pairs Bean catalog models with made-up boyfriend names and snippets of droll, imagined-boyfriend bliss. (“Snow day tomorrow,” Liam mused. “Why don’t we just relax in front of the woodstove and cuddle?”)

2017

The vintage ’90s windbreaker is the year’s breakout style move for celebrity men like Shia LaBeouf and Drake. GQ fawns over John Mayer’s collection of L.L.Bean Aztec anorak jackets

John Mayer

2020

Snyder and Bean’s high-fashion team-up is the company’s first such partnership. Models strut the catwalk in tailored flannel, duck camo, and faux-fur earflap hats, inspired by Bean’s archives. The brand’s dalliance with swank continues off the garment rack: this fall, Kennebunkport’s chichi Hidden Pond resort opens a cabin “inspired by the runway collection,” with camo wallpaper, red-plaid furnishings, and framed vintage catalog covers.

L.L. Bean
Victor Virgile via Getty Images

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