If you were selecting candidates for inclusion on a Mount Rushmore of American retail, L.L.Bean would secure a nomination on the strength of their duck boots alone. To that you can add their sizable catalogue of other iconic offerings, legendary customer service, over a century worth of history and heritage, and an enduring appeal that spans nations and transcends the vagaries of fashion. Taken all together, L.L.Bean seems to have more than just a boot in the door as far as the greats of U.S. clothing manufacture are concerned.
A common theme in the canon of American menswear is a name that commands a certain level of attention. The founder named enterprises, in particular, seem built to have ellipses trailing them. Brooks Brothers…Levi Strauss…Ralph Lauren… In the case of L.L.Bean, the man who lent the business his name had an even more memorable appellation than the business he founded. He rejoiced in the title Leon Leonwood Bean, which all but legally obliged him to start a company bearing his moniker.
That’s exactly what Leon Leonwood did, although it wasn’t a pleasing name that bade him do it but rather a practical necessity — or, perhaps more accurately, a persistent annoyance. Bean was a keen sportsman, but after one too many hunting trips in his native state of Maine had left him with cold, wet feet, he took the matter into his own hands. Having found his traditional oiled leather hunting boots wanting, Bean invented what he called the ‘Maine Hunting Shoe’, which comprised a hardy leather upper and an all-rubber base. He cannily realised that he couldn’t be the only outdoorsman who suffered because of soggy shoes and got his hands on a list of all those in possession of hunting licences in the state. Thus, in 1912, with a good idea and a list of prospective clients, a business was born.
In a sense, those early days of L.L.Bean set the tone for much of what has come since. A business now renowned for its mail-order catalogues, L.L.Bean got its start when its eponymous founder mailed a three-page flyer to every address on his list of hunters bearing the following text:
‘Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your footwear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed. The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by a hunter who has tramped the Maine woods for the past 18 years. They are light as a pair of moccasins with the protection of heavy hunting boots.’
When 90 out of those first 100 pairs of boots that were sold proved faulty, Bean replaced every set free of charge. It was a surefire way to build a loyal customer base while honing the product and was the first iteration of the brand’s legendary lifetime return policy, which remained in place until a few years ago. Even more than a century later, the original Bean Boots (typically called duck boots) remain one of the company’s best-selling products, with sales figures having reached around half a million annually from about the time of the company’s hundredth anniversary in 2012.
If you want to read more about L.L.Bean’s cornerstone piece of footwear, I’ve written about it elsewhere, although the hunting boot proved far from being the brand’s only bit of iconic design. 1924 marked the release of the ‘Maine Duck Coat’, a canvas field coat that still enjoys a large following and was initially meant to accompany the similarly named set of boots. The ’20s also saw the release of the brand’s signature button-up, the chamois shirt (pronounced ‘shammy’), which is prised for its soft texture, slanted pocket flaps, and its array of colourways. In 1934 the company rolled out their leather duffle bags — once a must-have for any aspiring traveller — and a decade later in 1944 came the ‘ice bag’, which remains the menswear community’s tote bag of choice decades later. And, in case all of the ice in your bag has you feeling chilly, as of 1965 L.L.Bean has offered you the cosy comforts of their Norwegian Sweaters and, since the ’80s, a popular and rather extensive line of fleeces.
With a growing product range came an ever-expanding catalogue. The U.S. Postal Service grew to include parcel delivery in the 1900s, which allowed Bean to develop his legendary mail order operation. In 1925 he sent out his first full-sized catalogue, which included apparel not limited to footwear and sporting goods, complete with illustrations and lengthy descriptive copy. Over time the catalogue would grow to 50 or more pages, with some seasonal editions running well in excess of 100 pages. By the mid 1980s, L.L. Bean was sending out 20 different catalogues a year and at their peak they put 200 million catalogues in the mail per annum. Even with changing consumer habits, they were still generating 60 per cent of their sales via mail order in the year 2000.
These days they have taken other innovative strategies to drum up sales with the addition of a size 451 duck boot outside of their flagship outlet in Freeport, Maine, as well as a ‘Bootmobile’ for the brand’s 100th anniversary in 2012 (the latter proving so popular that a second boot-shaped vehicle soon followed). As of 2020, you can also buy a selection of L.L.Bean offerings at the department store chain, Nordstrom, and more recently they entered the collaboration-heavy landscape of contemporary fashion via high-profile collabs with such brands as Todd Snyder and Beams.
Their core demographic remains largely unchanged, however. Decades worth of dedicated service and high-quality products have cemented L.L.Bean as a staple of active, outdoor living in North America. It allowed them to thrive even during the Depression, such that by 1937 the business had reached more the $1 million in sales every year. During the Second World War, they supplied the U.S. Military with special versions of their hunting boots known as ‘shoepacs’ and L.L. himself paid a trip to Washington to offer advice on how best to outfit the troops in cold weather. They also earned the avowed trust of well-known customers like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Wayne, and Ernest Hemingway.
By the 1950s, L.L.Bean had earned its place as a household name. So loyal, in fact, was its customer base that when the company’s founder died in 1967 at the age of 94, they received 45 000 letters of condolence honouring Bean’s legacy. To this day, the brand’s flagship store in Freeport is open 24 hours a day, 364 days a year. It used to be year-round — a tradition started by Bean himself in 1951 — although these days it shuts only on February 5th in honour of his passing.