Established in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean, L.L. Bean’s first item, the Bean Boot, is still one of the brand’s most-popular items. With its signature five bar toe cap and “snow tire chain” outsole, the Bean Boot has become a winter classic for customers who live far beyond New England, and is the hero shoe for the outdoor recreation company. Vamp spoke with L.L. Bean’s footwear merchandising manager Willie Lambart about the enduring style.
VAMP: Since 2007, the Bean Boot has experienced a huge surge in demand, thanks in part to a desire for heritage footwear. What makes the Bean Boot a classic style?
Lambart: It’s always been a big piece of our assortment and our brand, simply because it was the first product L.L. Bean created in 1912. That really launched the company. We’ve seen things ebb and flow. We don’t as a company chase fashion trends, but sometimes we’re lucky enough to have the trends come to us. In the early 80s it was with the official Preppy Handbook and we’re currently going through a similar heritage trend, fueled by the internet and the fact that we have a larger retail footprint than we did back then.
VAMP: L.L. Bean doesn’t chase trends, but how can a heritage brand incorporate new footwear innovations or new technologies?
Lambart: We can take heritage products and not dramatically change the aesthetic of them, or the emotions that the products give long-time customers. But we can update them to make them drier, warmer, slip resistant. Even though our customer doesn’t really want to be trendy—and we don’t want to be trendy—everyone wants to be “on trend” to some degree. Everyone wants to look like they know what’s going on, even if they wouldn’t consider themselves a fashionista. Everything that we build is really practical, so even if the Bean Boot is or isn’t “on trend,” it’s just really practical for this time of year.
VAMP: Tell me more about the manufacturing of the Bean Boot.
Lambart: Our boots are still made in Maine, and we doubled down on our U.S. initiative a few years ago, making sure that not only are the boots made in the U.S. but they’re made from all U.S. materials. The boots are sewn together in Brunswick, Maine. The leather comes from a tannery in another part of the state.
VAMP: How many people work at the Brunswick factory?
Lambart: Around 300. We’ve really been trying to hire people to keep up with the demand. That’s another unique thing about the Bean. We’ve had a lot of demand and we could have made a lot more Bean Boots these last five winters if we started to source differently or manufacture outside of Maine, but we haven’t compromised on those qualities. Sometimes that can be frustrating because we know we’re missing business but it’s something you can take pride in because you work for a company that doesn’t compromise just to sell that next pair of shoes.
VAMP: How does being a New England brand influence L.L. Bean’s design?
Lambart: The first obvious answer is weather. When you live in New England weather drives a lot of decision making. Whether you’re talking about muddy trails in hiking boots or cold snowy winters. The other thing is that New Englanders are pragmatic people, so simplicity of design, but functionality is important.
VAMP: What is in store for L.L. Bean footwear in 2017?
Lambart: Right now we’re working with third party technology suppliers like Vibram to help improve traction on upcoming L.L. Bean footwear in our hiking and other collections. There’s just been a real lack of newness in the industry and what’s hurting a lot of business right now is there’s no real call to the consumer to go out and buy something because it’s a shoe they don’t already have in their closet. To some degree it plays in our hands because there’s not much to take consumers away from L.L. Bean into the fashion space. So if we can come out with things that are problem solving, and give them a better experience, we generally win.