L.L. Bean's new Signature line: The preppy look gets a risky makeover

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When L.L. Bean first announced its plan to launch a hip new clothing line targeting 20- and 30-somethings last August, I quickly joined the chorus of voices crying foul. After all, Bean isn't just a brand; it's an institution, a torchbearer, a monument to a bygone lifestyle. Along with Brooks Brothers, Sperry and a few other labels, it represents one of the last survivors of the great age of prep, when vast herds of preppy clothiers thundered across the American retail plain, dispensing tweed and bespoke throughout the land. While brand names like Abercrombie and Fitch still survive, the company's offerings would be completely unrecognizable to its earlier adherents. Yet, somehow, L.L. Bean managed to stay true to its core mission and survive, a tribute to classic clothing and New England perseverance.

As Chris Vickers, the VP of L.L. Bean's new Signature Line, notes, "LL Bean has been around for 100 years, and any good company tries to innovate and evolve." Last week, L.L. Bean launched the new line and -- to be honest -- it looks a lot like the old Bean apparel line, albeit with a heftier price tag and a sleeker profile.

The Signature line draws from classic Bean looks: some of its items are retreads of garments that the company retired in the 1950's and 1960's. And while Alex Carleton, the line's new creative director, may be considered an outside hire, his L.L. Bean roots run deep. Until 2003, he worked as a design consultant with the outfitter. When he left, he didn't go far: his boutique brand, Rogues Gallery, is based in Portland, Maine, less than half an hour from L.L. Bean's headquarters in Freeport. Still, while Rogues' emphasis on natural fibers and well-worn fabrics should seem comfortably familiar to any Bean fan, its market is far more upscale: the company's $88 tees and $160 chinos are priced well out of the range of many Bean consumers.

While not as pricey as Rogue's Gallery, the Signature line is still more expensive than Bean's basic line: for example, the signature cargo pants retail for $59, about $10 more than the basic Bean pair. Vickers explains the price difference as a reflection of the new line's more intricate detailing and finished fabrics. He also points out, however, that "The Signature clothes have the same high quality as the traditional Bean line and offer the same money-back guarantee."

The Bean guarantee is almost legendary, both for its simplicity and for its inclusiveness: "Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise." The guarantee puts Bean far above its potential competitors in the 20 to 30-year old office casual market. Gap (and its upscale sibling Banana Republic) allow returns for up to 45 days, while Abercrombie and Fitch offer a legalistic promise to accept any merchandise in resalable condition with an original receipt. The key difference is that Bean's open-ended policy allows returns on items that fell apart in the wash, an option that Abercrombie notably denies.

Unfortunately, classic Bean is also a bit old fashioned, tending toward high-rise pants and loose-cut shirts, with an aesthetic that is functional, but not really stylish. A quick glance through the comments section on the Bean site reinforces this: respondents skew heavily toward the 60-plus age demographic. And while the new clothes are recognizably Bean, they sport a more tight-fitting, body-conscious style that should draw in Gap, Abercrombie, J Crew and Banana Republic fans. As Vickers notes, the new line is aiming to be "Unique and relevant to Bean, while also being relevant to the marketplace."

To help the more fashion-challenged members of the marketplace, the Signature site also offers "Key Looks," outfits that are composed entirely from items in the line. Some of those looks are pictured here.

Admittedly, courting 20 to 30 year old shoppers will be a tough task for Bean: in addition to its geriatric associations, its offerings are skewed toward outdoors men, not hipsters, with designs that are based more on function than form. Then again, the same could be said of Carhartt, Pendleton, Timberland or any number of high-quality brands that have caught on among the hip demimonde. On the bright side, Signature offers wardrobe classics like oxford dress shirts and chinos at a lower price than other preppy retailers like Abercrombie and Banana Republic. In fact, many of its items are often less expensive than comparable garments at Gap, which has long been perceived as the well-made, reasonably-priced choice for the casually preppy look.

By one measure, Signature is already a success: in the week since the line opened, it has already generated a few comments on the new offerings. Most respondents describe themselves as 25 to 34 years old and, although there have been some complaints about sizing, the general response has been positive. Commenters have praised the style and value of the line. Perhaps the most telling response came from someone who bought newly-updated waxed canvas Bean Boots: a self-described clothes horse, the writer said that they were a "fresh take on the style" and that they'd kept his feet "bone dry during the last few ... snow and rain storms." Summing up, he said that he'd "feel comfortable taking these anywhere."

And where does this respondent live? The current Mecca for all things über-hip: Brooklyn, New York.

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