L.L. (Cool) Bean

New England’s beloved outdoor brand explores a stylish new frontier.

l. l. bean

Alex Carleton, creative director for L.L. Bean Signature, photographed at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, Maine. / Photo by Todd Dionne

We’ve come to expect certain things from Maine-based outfitter L.L. Bean: comfort, to be sure. Quality, of course. Style? That’s never exactly been a list-topper. But what’s this? The company that birthed the iconic, function-first “Bean Boot” is now turning out a surprisingly snazzy line of men’s and women’s apparel — L.L. Bean Signature. At the project’s helm stands creative director — and Cape native — Alex Carleton, whose fashion-industry experience and local roots provide him with just the right perspective for spearheading L.L. Bean’s first foray into contemporary casual design. “There’s a zeitgeist around traditional American sportswear,” Carleton says, “and it feels like the timing is right.”

Looks-wise, the Signature line is more a reimagining of the familiar L.L. Bean aesthetic than a strict departure, offering a recognizably outdoorsy feel but with a modern style better suited for brunches and meetings than for hunting and fly-fishing. Carleton and his team dug into the company’s archives for inspiration, combing a century’s worth of products for vintage elements that translate well into current fashion. “I’m not designing in a vacuum,” Carleton says of his development process. “I have a strong reference point that’s based on one of the few brands that really define sportswear. It’s great to have that archive as a keystone.”

Spring 2011’s concept, “Field and Stream,” focuses on khaki hues and menswear-inspired constructions for women, and juxtaposes classic designs with updated cuts and silhouettes. Carleton’s favorite new item? “Our madras shirt-dresses that we’re doing in men’s hunting plaids!” And the rest of the offerings are as exuberant as he is. “The whole line is acquiring more personality, coming into its own, and really developing more dimension,” Carleton explains. “We know [our] customer really responds to new ideas, so that gives us a lot of permission to experiment and explore.”