17 December 2010

Lost In Translation (or "Heritage", reprise)

Seems like every time I touch on the issue of the "Heritage" or "Workwear" trend/concept, the nerve I invariably touch is always a raw one, to say nothing of the inflamed nerve I tend aggravate whenever I receive any form of compensation for the years of hard work I've put into this blog in the form of gratis goods. Anyway, my point is:

An oatmeal colored ragg wool crewneck sweater is something that carries some real heritage,

especially when it's an old one made in USA by L.L.Bean. This is an old example of something real, made domestically by a brand that brought these kind of things to prominence in the first place, a hard wearing garment, made by common folk for common folk, i.e. heritage.
The kind of thing that's most at home with a plaid shirt, blue jeans, and blucher mocs, for good measure. Comfortable, simple, classic, and thoroughly American.  The sweater is cut full enough for comfort, but not like a set of drapes...slim enough to be "cool" but not so slim that anyone older than 23 looks like a fool in it.

I love heritage. If you don't believe me, remember that I've spent the better part of the last three years writing a blog based on a lifetime habit of accumulating old things, to say nothing of my unquenchable thirst for the old and well made things that were once so common. I also think it's great that there's a wave of young people out there with a new found interest in well made old stuff, and its heritage. Any sensible company would seize this opportunity to make this stuff available to a public eager to buy it. Great.

So if "heritage" is going to be used as a marketing tool to get double price for a special set of goods, then make them doubly valuable by giving us real heritage. There is no heritage in things once you restyle them and make them cheaply out of cheaper fabrics while still maintaining a price premium that they never really had in the first place.

Never mind that I bought this sweater in a thrift shop for $2.00. Never mind whether the stuff in these new "Heritage" lines is good or not, or worth the money. A lot of it is nice stuff, a lot of it is junk, but it's new stuff, targeted at a specific demographic and marketed in a specific way. All well and good, or not, depending on how you see it, but it certainly isn't heritage in the true sense.

My grandmother made some of the most memorable food I have ever eaten. She lived to cook and feed people. Her food was honest and old, learned from generations before her, something that lived in her soul. Heritage barely describes it. If I were to take her way of cooking, and make it low fat, gluten free, with turkey breast substituted for red meat for "today's more health conscious lifestyle", that heritage loses something in the translation. True, I may be making something good, but I'm no longer dealing in heritage, not really.

It's largely an argument of semantics, but a valid one.

p.s. fresh goods available in the shop: flannel pants, sweaters, plaid jackets and a vintage USA made North Face parka. Check it out.


Old School said...

"There is no heritage in things once you restyle them."

Hear! Hear!

Anonymous said...


I agree with you wholeheartedly, but whatever spirit L.L. Bean imbued in his company is gone. Same thing for whomever started Lands End. Those guys and gals are dead. The founders of those companies would probably be rolling over in their graves if they knew what was being shilled in their names today.

Or would they?

After all Mr. Bean could have continued making his boots and a few other items and still made a decent living. But he expanded his revenue stream with all kinds of useful (or useless depending on your view) items for the consumer. I don't begrudge the man making money, however, when you become a huge business giving your consumer good value becomes rather secondary at best. Granted, a lot of their stuff was made in the US, but that sure ain't the case today or hasn't been for awhile.

Who knows maybe the founders would be okay with the "as seen in GQ and Esquire" tagline that both companies promote? After all, they were running business with shareholders to please and all that.

Anonymous said...

Not to be totally unfair, the return policies and customer service for both LE and LL Bean are excellent.

Anonymous said...

I'm totally down with your aesthetic, but I think your ignoring the state of retail clothing today; it's 90% branding, 10% made in China content. The younger generations have been raised on a steady diet of Mexx, Guess, et. al. The traditionalist lines like Land's End and L.L. Bean are trying desperately to get their attention. Ironically it's the Rugby (Polo)and Tommy Hilfiger neo-preppy lines that are beating them at their own game.

2Stoics said...

Well said!

You publish what is, in effect, a magazine with a wide circulation, and you do it essentially for free. I read you all the time and I've never paid for the pleasure. If you can squeeze any sort of compensation out of this thing without watering down your content I say well done.

What the hell are we, Communists? Please.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that the price premium comes from them making less garments. The materials may be the same quality as the mainline, but because projected demand for the heritage sweater is 1000 versus 20,000 for a mainline sweater, the materials are more expensive. The same as buying a six-pack at the grocery store versus a case at the warehouse store. The price per can is higher for the six-pack, even though it is the same product.

Heritage comes with time, so give them some. The marketplace will dictate if it was the right move or not. I think each line has hits and misses, though unfortunately a lot more misses.

Northmoon said...

The word 'heritage' becomes just another marketing ploy, meaningless at best, a lie at worst. Not something earned over years, but an instant add on to present an illusion of quality, made in China or wherever.

The ability of the modern corporation to bend the truth is very disturbing, and no one seems too bothered by it anymore. With a few exceptions like you of course.

Anonymous said...


Bravo; I would love to eat your grandmother's food.

I think 'heritage' is a bogus word (same as 'curate', for example)that should be consigned to the dustbin (trashcan)of history. Oops - I believe it is the dustbin of history.


Scale Worm said...

So much junk out there peddled as "traditional", sprayed with phthalate and formalin infused carcinogens made for pennies on the dollar, shipped across great expanse of ocean and land, only to fall apart in a month's time. I spent the past 6 days looking for two pairs of U.S. made Croakies for my thrift acquired U.S. Made Raybans, and actually did so in a little surf shack in Pa'ia Maui (vacation).
Patience and perseverance over quick buy paid off. Better made, local "my tribe" made, less acquired!

NCJack said...

I have no problems with Bean, Brooks, etc. selling more "fashion forward" looks, but I agree with you that calling it "Heritage" or the like is a misnomer.

Roger v.d. Velde said...

Let's be honest, there was once a time when clothes for the working man were either fairly expensive or made at home. The likes of LL.Bean and Co made ordinary clothes,but sold them quite expensively for the time, as have all known European clothiers.

Actual 'heritage', if we plumb deep enough, is probably a home-knitted pullover and the sort of corduroy trousers many a farmer, fisherman, blacksmith or what-have-you would have worn.
L.L.Bean, much like Sutherland, or Paul & Shark are - like Anon at 06.36 said - branding merchants.
If e.g. Arrow cared about making the finest shirts (not that they routinely produce tat by any stretch), they would stop producing those shapeless tents with a collar they make for the sake of sales.
Personally I don't think working men's clothes like that oatmeal jumper are traditionally American, they have older counterparts among the working-classes of the UK and Europe, and a lot of that had no label, just the results of a woman's knitting needles or a local tailor's label.

Young Fogey said...

Sellout! Benedict Arnold! Shill!

[turns sarcasm off]

Anyone who knocks you for finally getting more than emotional rewards for your labor of love--this blog--is acting like a complete tool.

Andy N said...

I spot a green dot on the label; in my experience that marks an item sold at one of the Bean outlet stores. Given that many retailers have entire second product lines for the "outlets", wouldn't it be nice if the real-deal made in the USA stuff from Bean was quietly sold through the outlets?

(Also, what RulingPart said)

Jho78 said...

Don't let anyone make you feel weird for accepting freebies. It's clear that you haven't been swayed by your reviews of these companies and their wares. You give honest reviews and anyone who doesn't understand the difference isn't worth much thought.

Anonymous said...

Largely semantics is pretty accurate.

james at 10engines said...

ragg crew neck sweater... practically icon status in northeast... nice snag G.

chris said...

I have this exact same sweater. Unfortunately, rogue nails in door frames have put a few holes into it. How does one repair it? Is it a tailor-only job?

Gregorius Mercator said...

There's no testimonials page, but I just got the 42L blazer by Filene's with the light check pattern and I have to say, I'm very happy with the purchase. I was a little worried I might have to have it taken in a bit at the sides, but when I first put it on, it fit perfectly. A coworker was a seamstress in northern PA before all the textile mills closed shop, and she was impressed with the construction and how much of the pattern matches up across seams, pockets, etc. It's the perfect addition to my current outfit of gray tweed pants, white shirt, and red v-neck sweater.

This is an amazing jacket, 100 percent wool, American made, and to think it was only $28. Thanks for the great value!

scone said...

The entire global economy, and the environment, is being deeply distorted by exploiting cheap non-union labor to produce huge quantities of junk for export. Combined with cheap credit and asset bubbles, you have a recipe for depression and even war. We have seen this before, no?

Compared to that, the "authenticity" issue is tertiary and derivative. What we really need is good stuff made in America and bought with saved-up dollars, not credit cards, dollars that get recycled in the American economy. Without that, you're living in Walmart World. A heritage of junk, debt, structural unemployment, political instability, and environmental disaster.

If you want real heritage, real quality, you have to be willing to support the whole American way of life-- the culture which is literally embodied in the clothes. And that means paying adult Americans a living wage, not locking Asian kids up in sweatshops to make "fashion items" they can't buy, or use, themselves.

Isn't that the point of valuing the "heritage brands" in the first place?

Young Fogey said...

I detect an undercurrent of hostility towards corporations in Northmoon's comment, to wit:

"The ability of the modern corporation to bend the truth is very disturbing, and no one seems too bothered by it anymore."

A corporation is a tool, like a hammer or a rifle or a computer. None have a will of their own; what's important is how they are used.

I would also like to add that politicians, entertainers, and "educators" (i.e., indoctrinators) are also exceptionally skilled at bending the truth.

Claude said...

Great post. I wanted to chime in on the discussion, particularly to represent for LL Bean. While we can use hindsight to lament what these lines have "lost", I think that it's important to remember that in the "golden eras" of LL Bean, or any other retail business, there were likely some lemons. What we consider "heritage" products are likely those that survived "capitalist selection", meaning that that they survived because they were popular. I like the look of a lot of the new "signature" items, but I only buy a few new items a year from Beans, and some of the LLBS prices are a hair on the steep side. In general, and speaking for myself, a tailor/seamstress/alterations person is more my style than slim fit anyway. When you're 6'4" tall, buying big and getting alterations is a very good practice.
My wife digs the LL Bean Signature items she has, because she finds everything in the regular catalog much too boxy- she loves LL Bean anyway, and the signature line was pretty exciting to her. So there is some sort of a need, it would seem, and the jury is out on the longevity of the line.

The point made about the unassuming "regular-old" products being the ACTUAL heritage products is excellent, BTW. An excellent insight, that I appreciate very much.
PS- the idea of a post explaining ironing to the uninitated sounds great, also.

Danny Q. said...

I thought i would chime in seeing as i'm 23 years old, (i'll be 24 next month!) and i'm a slim guy, (not my fault, i used to play sports in high school and no matter how hard i tried to bulk up i just couldn't gain weight). It seems from your post that i would be part of the key demographic of these 'heritage' lines. For me fit comes first while dressing and LEC and ll bean signature fits the bill better than their parent company's goods do. I have many sweaters and OCBDs from LEC and one button down madras shirt and a pair of Signature boots. Some of the shirts i've had for a year now and don't show any signs of letting up quality wise. I also don't see much of a price differance between the heritage line and their parents, maybe because i stick to the basics. Other than using the word 'heritage' for marketing i don't see where the problem is. If the clothes don't fit then so what, return it and stick with the parent companies.

Anonymous said...


Interesting article on LL Bean Signature line and how it has been performing and its influence on the mainline

Robin N. said...

well said !

David V said...

My first Bean ragg wool sweater was bought just around the corner from my house in Chicago at the Royal Knitting Mills factory store.
It was a second and lasted for decades. I never found what the inspector rejected it for.

Anonymous said...

Hi Giuseppe: I wore my Grandpa's old chore coat through college (lovingly mended when needed by Mom - his daughter). He broke it in working the blacksmith trade. My first Pendleton shirt was a second whose only fault was a single non-conformist thread going its own way against the plaid (very "'70's"). Both wore well and lasted for decades. To me that durability of function is what heritage of quality is about, whether blue-collar or luxury pedigree (or thrifted or new purchase). The current makers of the pricey heritage-styled clothing, footwear and bags include longtime survivors and newcomers. If they can turn out enough fair-priced quality products to a public large enough to thrive in business for years to come, more power to them and our economy here at home! However, while my kids are in college, I will continue to seek these items from thrift sources like those you have found.