Everything Old is New Again

Todd Snyder and L.L.Bean pair up for the Maine retailer's first designer collaboration

L.L.Bean is best known for capturing the spirit of Americana, for producing fashionable yet utilitarian wares, and for its history of craftsmanship and innovation. When Todd Snyder, the American fashion designer who is incidentally known for these same three things, connected with the company he had admired his entire life, L.L.Bean’s first high-fashion collaboration was born. In advance of the October 30 launch, we spoke with Snyder and Owen Kelly, vice president of product creation for L.L.Bean and fellow Morrissey fan, about creating a fresh vision while preserving heritage.

Maine magazine: First things first, what kicked this collaboration off?

Todd Snyder: L.L.Bean obviously has always been on my radar. It’s one of those things you grow up with. You have L.L.Bean boat and totes and you’ve got the duck boots, as we all call them in Iowa. It was just part of when you grew up. Your mom would buy clothes for you when you were growing up, and you always got a smorgasbord of different things.

As I got into fashion, I started taking notes on brands that have been around for a long period of time. If you asked most people when L.L.Bean was founded, they wouldn’t know the date. But as I started getting into collaborations, I always have taken note of brands that have been around for more than a century. I’ve probably been courting L.L.Bean ever since I started my own brand.

MM: Has L.L.Bean done something like this in the past?

Owen Kelly: We’ve never done anything like this before. When Todd was bringing all of these iconic American collaborations together at J. Crew, that’s when he got on my radar. I just really loved what he had done there, bringing those classic American brands into a different kind of perspective and a different limelight.

MM: How does a collaboration like this work?

TS: It’s a relationship. It’s almost like getting into a new friendship because you’re really getting to know someone else. There’s definitely a trust piece to this whole thing. They’re literally opening their doors to their archives and allowing me to go through things that no one else outside the company gets to see­—whether it’s old catalogs, old garments, or old Bean boots. I could’ve spent a week in there and still not get through everything. I almost look at it with a historian’s approach.

The team at L.L.Bean is so humble, and they’re very proud that they’re humble. Coming from Iowa, I think I’m very much the same way. That’s how I approach a lot of things; I’m not going to come in saying it’s my way or no way. It’s really a partnership. They know everything about what it’s like to be a Mainer, but also what it’s like to make great clothes that are great quality and aren’t overly expensive. And part of that journey is for me to really tell their story in a different way.

OK: Todd is such an expert with the collaborations, and he has really guided us through this. He has so much integrity, respect, and trust for L.L.Bean. That is something that we’ve learned over the last year. It has really been a case of just trusting each other. I knew something could come from this the first time he came and we weren’t even at the archive. We have some vintage samples floating about here and he was just picking up samples, old vintage blankets from the ’40s, and you could just see his excitement. The beauty of this is for him to reimagine his vision for the brand in such a beautiful, respectful way.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about the design process?

TS: What I was doing with the archive was the first step in the journey, and we spent hours going through everything from customer letters to letters from Leon, which I found incredibly interesting. That was the first time I discovered he was actually a person, which I was kind of embarrassed by. You just think L.L.Bean, this ubiquitous brand, and you forget there was a founder. If you look at old photos of him, he was a really stylish dude. He always wore a tie; he always had this affinity for apparel. I really wanted the collection to be about the man himself. He was an incredibly cool dude.

So, I started there, and spent a lot of time in the archives, and spent a lot of time researching online. Went to Bean’s, as they say, and bought the books. I spent two days up there. I probably should have stayed up for a week. I really just tried to immerse myself in all this great history. They took me through the factory and gave me a tour. I got to see how all this stuff was made and the level of quality.

Then I worked with an amazing team—I don’t know if you’d call them designers or technicians. They are so proficient at designing. They’re totally old school. They still draw by hand. They do all their tech packs by hand. The knowledge they have and the amount of detail that they put into their work is tremendous.

MM: What is it like to launch something like this amidst a pandemic?

TS: I didn’t know what Zoom was until March. Seriously, though, we live in a digital age, and 90 percent of our business is digital. We have three stores, two in New York City and then one in East Hampton, and they’re probably 50 percent of what they used to be, for obvious reasons. But we know we’ll get through it.

To read about Snyder’s collaboration with Kennebunkport’s Hidden Pond, click here.

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