According to a recent article in The New York Times, the company has hired Alex Carleton, a popular, edgy designer, to be the creative director of its new "L.L. Bean Signature" line. Coming out in March, the new products promise to be more tailored and contemporary, with buffalo plaid shirts and tailored linen blazers.
While this may seem to be a minor change, it cuts to the heart of what, exactly, "preppy" means. For many, the prep look seems to consist of adding a few key elements into one's wardrobe. The idea is that one can take a ribbon belt here, a pair of cranberry pants there, add in some Sperry topsiders, stir with a fresh gin and tonic and -- presto! -- prep is attained.
The truth is not quite so simple. While preppies tend to hew to a few key styles, this isn't out of a lack of options or a desire to fetishize khaki. Rather, preppy clothes reflect a sartorial regimen that has been endlessly tried and has proven itself true. For preppies, Brooks Brothers, Lilly Pulitzer and L.L. Bean reflect more than just trustworthy brands; they are pedigreed brands.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Ralph Lauren suits or Steve Madden shoes: they are well-made and reliable, fairly durable, and nicely styled. However, they lack the depth of history that a true preppy craves. For a hard-core prep, half the joy in a wardrobe lies in its eternal consistency. A Brooks Brothers suit is literally timeless: should a preppy rummage through grandpa's closet, he knows Poppy's suits will be cut the same way and made with the same attention to detail as his own. If he wanted -- and if he and Gramps were the same size -- he could probably add the old man's sportscoat to his closet and nobody would notice.
Half the joy, then, rests in an unbroken line of clothing succession: father-to-son, grandfather-to-father, all the way back to some ur-preppy who first discovered the joys of going sockless and wearing pants with a duck motif.
Of course, with cheap overseas products and the popularization of prep, it is hard to maintain the discipline of the preps of old. Perhaps, then, part of the preppy mystique lies in the fact that true preps are an endangered species. The classic prep retailers have, over the years, died off like some strange, otherworldly, khaki-accented life form. Florsheim wingtips, Tretorn sneakers and Sperry Top-siders are getting harder and harder to find, and brands that remain, like Orvis, Lilly Pulitzer, Brooks and Bean, seem to be straying further and further from their roots.
Of course, the greatest misery is A&F. While other brands had enough class to simply die quietly, Abercrombie & Fitch -- or "Abercrombie" -- decided to transform itself into an anorexic haven for substandard clothes and club drugs.
In this context, L.L. Bean's decision to change its style is more than just a retooling; it is a betrayal. In the heart of every preppy, there beats the worry that Bean won't stop with recut jackets and slimmer profiles. Rather, they will keep going, keep getting more and more trendy. They will add in colors that extend beyond the preppy palette, play with sizes, and --before you know it -- Bean will be selling khaki thongs and lumberjack plaid micro bikinis.
Of course, this probably won't happen, but change -- any change -- is the enemy of tradition. Regardless of anything else, one can assume that right now, across the country, proud preps are stocking up on Bean gum-soled boots and trying to figure out how big their kids' feet will grow. Just in case.