Photo by Salt Water New England

Saturday, October 31, 2020

L. L. Bean

 

A reader question for the community:

When was L. L. Bean at its prime?

 

57 comments:

  1. Before my time but it continued through the late eighties and early 90s. I'd say the slow decline began in the mid to late 90s.

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    1. Agreed - the Fall Bean catalog was a rite of the season.

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    2. I always loved the catalogs. Today the models (and clothing) are so unattractive that I don't even give the catalog a glance- it goes straight into the trash.

      I've been shopping at LL Bean since the 70's and I can't really say when Bean was at its best. In my opinion, Bean has been at its all time worst since the spring of 2016.

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    3. I collected the catalogs before moving to Maine. They were brilliant! When I was working the phones at Bean in the early 90s an elderly gentleman asked me if I was the model on the cover of the Christmas catalog. I told him yes! He sounded so elated. My soul is ok with that white Christmas lie.

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  2. The quality is no longer there.

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  3. I'd say 90s, and had some good quality lingering into the early aughts. My folks still have Bean stuff from the 90s and I had stuff from the early aughts that lasted until recently. This was especially true for shoes, my father has a pair of camp mocs from the early 90s he still wears regularly. The first signifier of decline for me was when the buttons on their khakis started falling off in short order, which was around 2005 or 2006ish?

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  4. This comment will date me I remember when LL Bean's was in a diminutive turn of the century structure and shoppers had to climb rickety wooden stairs to its second floor store, open 24/7. Down two steps to the right of the steep stairwell was the elegant and sporty women's department. At the rear craftsmen were hand sewing moccasins and Bean boots to order. Old Town canoes hung from the ceilings and snowshoes lined the walls. The mail order department was on the first floor Fast forward to the late 1976. In a dress rehearsal for who would succeed Barbara Walters on the Today Show, a candidate for the job interviewed Leon Gorman (grandson of the founder). Intent on impressing her viewers with her hipness she asked the bashful executive..well how does it feel for LL Bean's to now be part of the "radical chic." I was horrified. The gentlemanly newly installed CEO looked embarrassed. That's when I knew Bean's was in trouble. The radical chic, eh?

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    1. I remember too. And Freeport's quiet Main Street. Different world.

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  5. The Bean's of the 60s-70s was very different from what I read above. Mostly outdoorsy clothing and equipment. There are sites on the Internet that have scanned the catalogues of that era and you'll see that there was very little of the trendy cruise wear and Summery pastel that have been the bulk of recent items for sale. The quality was high but the options were limited. Now, even the type of items that were foundational in the 60s, like the Scotch plaid shirts, are a shadow of that quality. Also there was very little in the way of clothing for women, but they did sell their own blend of pipe tobacco.

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    1. Funny there was indeed a dedicated women's department in its own room off to one side in the 1950s, (mostly skirts and matching Shetland sweaters, dresses, slacks, etc.) Maybe it disappeared in the mid 1960s only to return as women and men's activities reflected more shared outdoor activities and women wanted real sportswear too. Wish we could find some pictures on line.

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    2. PS Just found this on their company history website

      1951

      Ladies’ Department opens.

      "The women’s showroom opened after L.L.’s daughter-in-law, Hazel, and wife, Claire, convinced L.L. that women needed something to do while their husbands shopped for fishing tackle."

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  6. Try this: https://archive.org/details/TNM_Clothing_catalog_Fall_1964_-_L_L_Bean_Inc_20180118_0114/page/n7/mode/2up

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  7. I'm 35 years old so I can't comment on the alleged heyday of Bean, but I grew up wearing it in the late 80s, through the 90s in the deep south. I've lived in New England for 12 years now and find myself collecting vintage bean clothing and mixing in some of their new products. While they've had some missteps as a company as the brand has become more global, I think it's a matter of understanding what products they still make exceptionally well.

    The modern day Norwegian Sweater being a fine example. From the 1960s until it was discontinued in the late 90s/00s, it was an 80/20 wool/rayon blend. Today, through advancements in technology and materials, the sweater is built from 100% wool. I would argue that this version is the best they've ever made (and, happily, this is being done in Norway--not China).

    Lastly, and this will be unpopular opinion, I picked up a few of the Chamois shirts and the 1980s style Puffer Vest from yesterday's Todd Snyder x LL Bean collaboration collection. I must say, they're fantastic and clearly better built than the normal LL Bean products. I'm sure I'll have these for decades to come.

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  8. I think it depends on the product. Chamois shirts, LL Bean boots are still excellent today. Their amazing canvas briefcases are gone or diminished, but I have one of their leather briefcases that has aged extremely well. Many other things - khakis, oxford cloth shirts, most sweaters - I feel like the quality has fallen off.

    I feel like the heyday was late 70s/early 80s. When the original Norwegian Wool sweater, 80% wool and 20% rayon, was still made in Norway. I still have that sweater 40 years later, and it’s tremendous, and our son is wearing my Maine hunting shoes (rubber bottoms replaced a year or two ago) from my college days.

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  9. In 1968, my Dad took us on the "holy pilgrimage" to the LL Bean store in Freeport.
    So I'd have to say the mid-60s to the mid-70s.

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    1. Loved that little store back then....

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    2. Eight-year-old me wanted a cruiser axe.
      Much wiser Dad said no...

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  10. I would say that prime time for the company is the 1960s to the early 1980s. However, some of their products (men's dress shirts, men's chinos, men's dress pants, Norwegian sweaters) are now at the best quality they have ever been.

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  11. Growing up in the 70s in Massachusetts, for me the zenith of style was to splurge on an "Operation Pacific" t-shirt at Filene's. I knew there were exciting clothing designers, but they were expensive. When I thumbed through GQ, the captions read "available at Bloomingdale's". They never mentioned Framingham. LL Bean was familiar, but of little interest. Then, in 1980, "The Official Preppy Handbook" came out. It was satire, I knew. Yet it gave my unfocused brain clarity. Suddenly, my beloved velour pull-over made me blush with embarrassment. What I needed was there all along, under my nose. My Mother was happy to buy the inexpensive, well made clothes. My favorite new articles were a navy pea-coat, and a fisherman's sweater. Unfortunately, I think this sky-rocket of interest in LL Bean was the beginning of the end of quality.

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  12. Once the new store was built , the philosophy of service changed. You would try to buy a product and were told to go to the one of the phones and order it and it would be shipped to you in a few days. Things have continued to go down since then.

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  13. If only we could blame LL Bean (a dissipated disappointment) and Brooks Brothers (an atrocity) for their demise. But we cannot when there is so much blame to go around. The destabilizing dynamism of the 1960s disrupted both customer bases, bringing in new demands far outside the bounds of good taste. Globalism opened up new, distant and too often suspect supply chains. And competition from all sorts of highly marketed lifestyle brands (looking at you, Patagonia) tugged and pulled these late, great stores far from what they knew how to do well. After the taste and discipline assaults of the ‘60s, casual Friday THEN casual every day THEN I think I’ll wear yoga pants to church or a school function were really just logical next steps. “Me and my comfort come first, I owe no respect or courtesy to anyone. If you don’t like it you need to lighten up.” The clock is ticking on ties. We have met the enemy - and though it may not be us - our silence on these matters at every step was deafening. God Bless J. Press.

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    1. Well said! Excellent insights.

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    2. The pre-1984 LL Bean would have very little overlap in its inventory with Brooks Bros. BB might have wooden and gut snowshoes as a decoration, but that was it.

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  14. The 60's through the late 70's!

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  15. Our family has been customers for over forty years. My answer would be the late 70s through the late 80s.

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  16. They had some excellent premium khakis in the late 90’s, and they were all available in tall sizes. There were quite a few items that were lovely, well made classic designs, and not too expensive. I’ve been disappointed with nearly everything I’ve bought since 2010 or so.

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  17. I would say the 1970s... slow decline after that, rarely shop there anymore.

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  18. I have a barn jacket from the 80s that I still wear. Also bought one in the 2010ish. No comparison. Little details on the old one are not on the newer one. Still, better quality than others and customer service is still among the best.
    MaryAnne

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  19. I agree with 1970s into mid-1980s. From where I sit, there were two developments that turned Ivy style into preppy style right around this time period. The first was the integration into traditional Ivy style of summer and resort wear – the lemon yellows and Kelly greens and fire engine reds of summer, the whimsical and nautical motifs, began to turn up in corduroy trousers and Shetland sweaters and surcingle and ribbon belts.

    The second was L. L. Bean. I don’t know why or how it happened, but some tipping point was reached and the ragg and Norwegian sweaters, Maine Hunting Shoes, blucher moccasins, field coats, and so forth took their place side-by side with the tweed jackets, navy blazers, oxford shirts, khakis, and loafers of traditional Ivy style.

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  20. They still have some good products, though I wish they were all US made. American apparel businesses are in the fight of their life . Let’s face it, “preppy” style is in the minority these days as most young people prefer to dress in gym clothes 24/7.

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  21. I’m only 30 but have inherited many a 1940s-1980s Bean product (my grandmother-in-law worked there for years), and like many my age, I try to source vintage Bean where I can find it. I don’t think it was immediately felt, but the quality seemed to dip after NAFTA decimated domestic clothing manufacturing.

    I agree with those above who note plenty of their products are still very well made. Anything they still manufacture in the US or Canada is a sure bet quality-wise, and even a few that aren’t. Their chamois shirts, (some of) the polos, the untreated (let our clothes wrinkle please!) oxford shirts, the Norwegian crewneck, any jeans with 1% or less stretch, and their Bean Boots I and many millenials swear by. I’m cautious of the new Todd Snyder collaboration, but I’ve heard good things and they seemed to put a lot of care into it so I’ll likely be looking at their new puffer vest for the winter.

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    1. Personally, I rather like the no-iron all-cotton shirts. They are less trouble and wear much better. There have never been any clothing factories probably within 100 miles of where I live, so in a sense, they've always been imported.

      I don't think I ever bought anything from L.L. Bean until they opened their store in the local mall. There's also an Orvis store down the street in a strip mall. But take heart; Tiffany is still in a free-standing store. But it's close enough to the mall so that you can park in the garage there and walk to the store.

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  22. I live in Canada and L.L. Bean opened a store in my city in August. I went shopping at L.L. Bean this afternoon and bought a warm Double L mixed cable turtleneck sweater. The sweater is 100% cotton but it feels almost acrylic. Their other cotton sweaters felt the same. Did their cotton sweaters always feel acrylic-like?

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    1. No, they surely did not. I have a navy Double L crew neck that is showing it's age, but I will not replace it with another.

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    2. Ashley I have the same acrylic-like cotton sweaters from Bean as well as the 100% cotton sweaters purchased from Lands End and Ralph Lauren in the past few years. They have an unnaturally soft feel and pill after a couple of gentle washings. The RL sweater literally fell apart and my LE and LLB sweaters look terrible. I would like to know what kind of Frankencotton this is. One used to be able to trust that 100% cotton meant it felt and wore like cotton.

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    3. Why would anyone buy a sweater made of cotton?

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    4. They're not itchy, can be worn as a single layer, are great for late spring, early fall, brisk coastal Maine summer mornings and around the house.

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    5. I have an LL Bean 100 percent cotton fisherman's crew that is at least 25 years old and it looks brand new. The natural off-white cotton is very high quality, very soft and the weave pattern is gorgeous. I've never had a snag or hole in it. I've searched for many years on Ebay to find another one just like it because it's my favorite spring and fall sweater for those warmer days that quickly turn cool in the afternoon/evening.

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  23. For me, 1966 to 1992. Then, foreign made stuff took over. I was 13 in 1966. Brooks Brothers held out longer. I have a lot of clothing I bought from 1980 to 200 that is still perfect. I occasionally find something great on ebay. Here's something that is still the real deal-Frye harness boots made in the USA. They will easily last 30 years if you take care of them.

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  24. It's time? No, the proper question is when were customers of LL Bean in their prime? For decades, LL Bean catered to a very, very small group of customers comprised of residents of Maine and New Hampshire, wealthy people who summered in Maine and their children and relatives. Those years, roughly, ended around 1970. Prior to 1970, the only persons who did not fit into that demographic were prep school students whose friends at school were in that demographic. So, if you were a fourth form student and a fifth former work Bean boots (then without chain tread soles, making the boot extremely light and very comfortable), you found LL Bean in the catalogue someone left on the coffee table in the common room of your house at school. Then, you ordered you own pair of Bean rubber mocs, with no train tread. These shoes were uber, uber prep at the time and long ago entered the prep hall of fame for being utterly exclusive, somewhat bohemian and completely appropriate for every occasion except your aunt's funeral. So, to respond, LL Bean died when it hired marketing consultants in the early 70s and started to send catalogues to the unwashed masses based upon someone else's customer lists. Then, after ten years, everyone knew about LL Bean and the 'back to prep' craze of the 80s was founded on Bean products. A great tragedy for those of us who knew the secret, so long ago.

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    1. Unwashed masses ? Let me make this clear. My ancestors came to this country in 1620. We had our summer home in Maine for 100 years. The point is that I am not new to this. What an asinine comment. It is in your opinion that you are separate from the unwashed masses. Maybe it’s time we grow up.

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    2. Wow, I hadn't seen the comment on 'unwashed masses' before. A bit bombastic...ça me gonfle!

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  25. I would say 1978, before dressing like a "prep" became an 1980's "trend".

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  26. By the way there should be no space between the L.L. and Bean. It's L.L.Bean.

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  27. I would say late 70's, but the decline moved rather quickly. I still have three pairs of their country flannel trousers purchased just before being discontinued and every color of their Shetland crewneck sweaters: some the made in Scotland early ones and all of the later made in China ones. Not the greatest but the best for the money.

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  28. I can only speak for the late 1980s when I was in uni (no thanks to Lisa Birnbach btw). I still have a pair of duck boots from that era!

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  29. I don't have a good answer. I think probably in the 1980s. I know the quality for some of the products isn't what it once was, but I still order from them. I can't help it...

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  30. Yes, they source more overseas goods, and they have pulled (and sometimes brought back, arguably with lesser quality) old standards like the Norwegian sweaters, the bluchers, Shetland sweaters, country cords, and so on. Yes, they have moved from untreated natural fibers to no iron/no character stuff. However, they have never abandoned their alignment with their core market. Their core market that hearkens to the sixties and seventies now has an array of options they can buy online that are inevitably making life for L.L.Bean challenging (Barbours in place of barn jackets, Jack Donnellys or Bill's in lieu of Bean khakis, Quoddys or Rancourts in lieu of Bean bluchers). Despite these shifting patterns they still offer pretty nice stuff at pretty nice prices. I just got two pairs of their five pocket cords and really like them. Would that Brooks Brothers could have evolved along similar lines.

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  31. It may be just a coincidence but there was a roughly twenty year period from about 1990 to 2010, maybe earlier, when there were serious changes in the retail sector. During those years, local and regional department stores were being bought up by national chains, which themselves underwent some consolidations. These were what might be called traditional department stores. At the same time, the traditional five and dime stores began disappearing. Those were generally replaced by so-called big box retailers, most of which seem to be thriving. Most of those seem to be in freestanding stores. All of that happened before this year's pandemic ruined some of those businesses. L.L. Bean and similar retailers like Orvis and REI, Inc., are really specialty stores for the most part and it's hard to say what effect changes in other retail sectors had on them. Undoubtedly their customers changed.

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  32. LL Bean and Brooks Brothers both lost their way due to the political correctness which propagated the US during the late 80s thru the 90s. The focus on client sectors which gave them their prowess as Brooks Brothers at the office and LLBean outside the office became very cloudy. They tried to be everything for everyone which as we have seen throughout the ages does not work. Businesses are born thru a recognized need by a specific culture/identity. They then grow their product line to adapt
    to that specific culture/identity. This one-size fits all business model does work when you begin to outsource manufacturing to low cost countries such as China and India...wait, this guys onto something!:) Say hello to trendy clothing and disposable apparel, and good-bye to style and quality.

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