L. L. Bean

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L. L. Bean

L. L. Bean—based in Freeport, Maine—is a supplier of outdoor apparel, furnishings, and equipment. Since its inception in 1912, it has become renowned for its products and services and for the rustic, genteel lifestyle that it represents. With a largely unchanging mix of products such as khaki pants, the famous "Bean boot," and camping equipment, L. L. Bean has virtually defined the outdoors-oriented retailing industry. In the 1980s, when the "preppy" (see entry under 1980s—Fashion in volume 5) look was in vogue, L. L. Bean was practically revered. In Lisa Birnbach's best-selling book The Official Preppy Handbook, she wrote of the preppy rite of passage of going to the Bean store in Freeport at midnight. The L. L. Bean catalog has been a legend for decades. Until the 1990s, there was only one store in Freeport, and all orders were through the catalog. For most people, the catalog was L. L. Bean.

Leon Leonwood Bean (1873–1967) got started in the business because he was tired of coming home from outings in the Maine woods with cold, wet feet. He created a lightweight leather boot with rubber bottoms and sold them via mail order. Unfortunately, the stitching came out on most of them. This fault turned out to be a blessing, since he returned his customers' money and thereby established the famous Bean unconditional guarantee. He went back to the drawing board. The improved "Maine hunting shoe" is still sold today as the "Bean boot" and is probably L. L. Bean's best-known product. They have also offered a "field coat" since 1924, widely copied in the 1990s. Other Bean innovations have included keeping the store open for twenty-four hours a day year round, running a fly-fishing school, and offering a variety of environmental programs.

By the late 1990s, L. L. Bean was considered by some to be overly traditional. In an effort to keep up with competition from companies like Lands' End and Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI), the company expanded the number of stores and tried to be more market savvy. It is hard to tell if the new strategy will work, but as recently as late 2000, upscale fashion houses such as Gucci and Oscar de la Renta were drawing inspiration from L.L. Bean standbys, but charging a lot more for them.

—Karl Rahder

For More Information

"Bean There, Done That." Harper's (December 2000): p. 260. Birnbach, Lisa. The Official Preppy Handbook. New York: Workman Publishing, 1980.

"Get to Know More About L. L. Bean." L. L. Bean.http://www.llbean.com/customerService/aboutLLBean/index.html?feat=gn (accessed January 15, 2002).

Montgomery, M. R. In Search of L. L. Bean. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. Symonds, William C. "Paddling Harder at L. L. Bean." Business Week (December 7, 1998): pp. 72–73.