Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Nowhere is its effects more potent than in fashion, an industry so prone to recycling the same ideas that its cyclical nature is predictable almost down to a T. (Or is it, heh, a "tee?") Over the last decade, the industry's most successful means of scratching that itch has been the collaboration, a template that allows big-name brands to pair up with smaller labels in the hopes that the symbiosis will translate to a win for both parties. It's a combination L.L.Bean is finally ready to give a whirl, in the form of an eagerly anticipated partnership with Todd Snyder that launched last week through both Snyder and Bean.
As much as this particular collaboration represents a throwback to the halcyon days of selvedge denim and oxford-cloth shirts—and a time when it felt slightly less ridiculous to tout any form of American exceptionalism, if only in the context of the clothing—it's also a monumental step forward for the Maine-based brand. The From Away collection marks the first time L.L.Bean let an outside designer poke around its extensive archives, a testament to the trust the company has in the Snyder team (and a nod to the power collaborations have to drum up interest in an increasingly saturated market). It's a format that has, more than anything else, set the tone for what menswear looks like today. And now a third party's getting in on the action, too.
It was on one of Todd Snyder's trips to the L.L.Bean archives that the idea of enlisting Brian Davis' curatorial expertise first occurred to the designer. Davis, a self-proclaimed "vintage menswear nut" and avid L.L.Bean collector, is the founder of Wooden Sleepers, an authoritative voice within the vintage scene. Wooden Sleepers permanently shut down its outpost in Brooklyn a few months after New York City went into lockdown, but the vintage emporium is still going strong online, buoyed by a devoted following Davis has been building since he set up shop a decade ago. His keen eye and deep knowledge make him something of a grail-whisperer when it comes to sourcing coveted vintage clothing, of the kind capital-D designers regularly look to for inspiration (or to knock off wholesale). For Snyder, who was interested in sourcing a selection of archival Bean pieces similar to the styles that inspired the collaboration, Davis was just the man for the job.
Davis opened Wooden Sleepers as a way to shine a light on brands he felt were largely overlooked in the mainstream vintage market, where a handful of labels from days of menswear bygone still command an outsized proportion of interest. When it comes to L.L.Bean, he says, "people don’t always realize how innovative they were and how deep their archive runs. Some brands are recognized for one product, whereas Bean had iconic pieces in every decade of the brand's 100-plus year existence." Through his picks—which include a medley of the brand's greatest hits, culled from the '60s through the '80s—Davis tried to highlight how the company has managed to maintain its relevancy over the course of such a long, storied history.
It's an undertaking Stephen Smith, the president and CEO of L.L. Bean, is very familiar with. Admiration for the company's legacy runs deep, Smith says. He's tasked not only with upholding that legacy but building on it, a mission he sees as rooted in the brand's commitment to crafting products with a purpose. A big reason the brand felt comfortable working with Snyder was that his approach to handling L.L.Bean's history was steeped in the same sort of respect that informs Davis' approach to collecting. By tweaking the pattern, shape, and styling of some of the brand's most iconic pieces, Snyder was able to bring a "contemporary feel to these highly durable products" that, Smith hopes, will one day become heirlooms for another generation of L.L.Bean customers.
Fall has always seemed like L.L.Bean's season, the ideal time to bust out the brand's immediately identifiable rubber-soled boots or the type of thick, hearty knitwear that's kept legions of its loyal customers warm over the years. It's fitting that the company's first collaboration—chock full of the types of silhouettes Todd Snyder customers still get excited about today—is dropping now, albeit under circumstances neither brand could've anticipated. Davis' devotion to the company and his appreciation for its prolific output hints at why L.L.Bean has remained, if not at the forefront of the current menswear conversation, than at least firmly in the mix—a big brother of sorts to the neo-prep-leaning labels it still inspires. (That particular degree of devotion also explains what moves such a large segment of the brand's customers to make the pilgrimage to its Freeport flagship store every year.)
For Smith, all roads lead back to the product itself. The fiery passion that brings customers to Maine in droves is a direct result of the company's commitment to functional design, which, in turn, translates into an incredible type of durability. And that durability, Smith points out, naturally lends itself to myth-making. "We get so many cool notes from customers who send things in to be repaired," he says. "When something's durable, a hole or a frayed seam or any kind of patina is the story. And that garment carries that story around." It's why so many people cherish their L.L.Bean purchases not only for the practical service they provide but for the stories they associate with them.
"Working with Todd Snyder on this project was an absolute dream," Davis says. Makes sense. For over a century, L.L.Bean's been in the business of selling those, too.
The entire assortment of vintage pieces handpicked by Wooden Sleepers is currently available at Todd Snyder's store in Tribeca and via the brand's Private Client service. The full Todd Snyder x L.L.Bean collaboration is also available now, in stores and online.
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