As U.S. heritage brands go, it’s hard to beat L.L. Bean. Established by outdoorsman turned outdoor-gear impresario Leon Leonwood Bean in 1912 in Freeport, Maine, the company has been synonymous with all-American wilderness-ready style for more than 100 years. Throughout that time, the company has never partnered with an out-of-house designer, nor let one into its archives.
That all changed recently, however. After months and months of careful collaboration with the brand, menswear designer Todd Snyder sent models down the runway at February’s New York Fashion Week wearing contemporary, and instantly covetable, creations based on classic Bean icons. And now, on October 30, the more than 50 pieces in that fall/winter collection—camo-print down-filled puffer vests, orange-soled bison-skin duck boots, and cashmere blue-and-white bird’s-eye-patterned sweaters, among them—will go on sale at Snyder's two Manhattan boutiques and Bean's Freeport flagship, as well as online.
Departures recently got a preview of the collection and an exclusive look at Snyder's time inside the Bean archives, which he describes as an amazing treasure trove.
“They have everything from oars to stuffed animal heads to fishing gear to miniature canoes that really float,” he says—not to mention shelves of canvas Boat and Tote bags and row upon row of boots. It total, the archives contain tens of thousands of pieces of clothing, equipment, catalogues, and other ephemera.
Snyder traveled from New York to Freeport more than 20 times to visit the archive, which occupies an annex built onto the back of Bean's own late-19th-century Queen Anne–style home. The finds he unearthed there, with the help of Owen Kelly, Bean’s vice president of product creation, as well as the brand’s archivist and historian, Ruth Porter, led him to the wonders he conceived for the catwalk.
“I've been a huge fan of L.L. Bean since before I can remember,” says the Iowa-born Snyder. “For so many people in the U.S., the brand was such a part of our upbringing.”
Before starting his own line, Snyder headed up menswear at J. Crew, where he was known for his collaborations with Redwing, Timex, and other iconic labels—something that made partnering with him especially appealing to Bean.
“Todd has been at the forefront of giving classic American brands a different perspective, looking at them in a fresh way,” says Kelly. He recalls walking around the archives with Snyder and noticing how the designer saw things with fresh eyes. “Straight away, we got excited about his excitement,” Kelly continues. “It was very catching.”
Among the things that excited Snyder was the story of Bean himself, who started his career escorting wealthy city clients around the wilds of Maine to go hunting and fishing. While doing so, he realized that these well-heeled travelers didn’t have the right clothes for the tasks at hand. And so, he decided to go into business making them, using traditional menswear materials to create clothing that could withstand nature’s wildest wilds.
“He was a pretty dapper guy, always in a tie and trousers,” Snyder says he discovered. “I kept coming back to him as I designed the collection.”
Archival material informs every piece in the collection in one way or another, be it a chamois shirt that incorporates a particular style of pocket Snyder pulled from a bit of hunting gear, a turtleneck sweatshirt printed with a pastoral autumn scene found on an old postcard, or the labels, sewn into each item with zig-zag stitching, that feature a version of Bean’s own signature, discovered in a vintage boot.
Snyder added his signatures, too: He designed items with a more tailored fit, for example, and, often, more elevated materials. There’s also the brighter-than-bright hunting-blaze orange he used as a recurring accent color throughout.
“Everything Todd looked at, he kind of flipped or remixed to make something new and fresh,” says Kelly, who notes that at the same time, it all remains authentic to L.L. Bean’s brand DNA. “It’s important to us that everything we do is about getting people outside, making them look good while they enjoy the great outdoors. This collection is a love letter to L.L. Bean, done in a creative way.”
Of all the items Snyder saw and fell in love with in the archive, those that most enchanted him weren’t clothing but instead a cache of letters—fan mail, of a sort—originally written to Bean, who died in 1967 at the ripe old age of 95, and later to the brand more generally.
“The letters are just touching, and they made the whole project feel human to me,” says Snyder. “They show how much people love the brand, and how much the brand is a part of families’ lives.
“So much of fashion today is disposable,” Snyder continues, “but Bean clothes got handed down from one generation the next. They have meaning and purpose for people.”
Now, he hopes that the pieces in this collection—and the ones he’s currently working on with Bean for 2021—will too.