I’m worried about where L. L. Bean is going. Before recycling the catalog I usually flip through it and covet the sweaters that I can’t afford and that anyway are increasingly no longer available in tall sizes. Bean is about my style — has been for many years. I can’t wear the young men’s jackets with the pseudo-military epaulets. Too reactionary. A few years ago I had a pair of Sketchers that even my college-aged nephew commented on (“Cool shoes!”), but after I wore them out I started wearing my Rockport “man shoes” full time. And as hard as I try, I can’t resist the urge to tuck my shirt in. I’m darn nar a half-century old, for crying out loud. At least, I’ve thought, I’ll always have L. L. Bean, the middle-aged slightly dorky family man’s outfitter.
But something troubling is sneaking into their marketing. While sorting a long-neglected heap of mail today, I ran across a Bean catalog that advertised an apparently new line called “Signature”. Right away, my B.S. antennae started wiggling like mad. On the cover were a young, very young man and woman, both looking out at the camera from inside or next to some vaguely barny structure. They did not look at each other. They in fact seemed to be unaware of each other. Two black holes of youthful self-absorption, isolated from all else, except their clothes, which they rocked.
The setting is familiar — Bean catalogs are all about porches, fireplaces, the barn, the maple sugaring house, the dock down by the lake — but what was new was the attitude of the models. They were not my generation. In the past, even the models much younger than I were still “of my generation” spiritually. As Angela put it, they were “happy, middle-class, college-educated people starting families and taking vacations on the coast”. They were always smiling. The women looked like young moms, open and fun, and the men were always doing easy but real things — fetching a few logs for the fire, tying up the dinghy — often accompanied by a golden retriever and always in a good humor. Their demeanor always suggested the presence of other people, their families and friends, very close by. Sometimes they were looking down sheepishly as though chuckling at the very idea of their picture being taken, as though they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They knew they were part of a community and that it was okay for them to be a little fuddy-duddy. “Hey, are you takin’ pictures again? Well, hurry up, I gotta get these firelogs into the cabin and get back to our game of pinochle before someone looks at my cards.”
These new models don’t smile. They aren’t doing anything, aren’t on their way to join their spouses or children, or even their friends. They just exist in this moment of handsomeness or loveliness. It scares me. Is that what L. L. Bean thinks I’m shooting for? Is that what they want to sell me, to reflect to me about my aspirations? The venerable outfitter must be hurting for business. Or maybe this was inevitable and I’m just feeling that age-based dissing that everyone eventually experiences at the hands of fashion but that just smarts a little more in today’s culture, when these consumer goods are so ever-present around us.
I’m making it sound as if the old Beanies are more real in some way, and I know better. After all, they were just models, too. Selling duds. But you can learn an awful lot about where the culture thinks it’s headed by what marketers reflect back at you in your catalogs. I’m a happy, middle-class, college educated family man who vacations at the coast, and I preferred it when L. L. Bean was trying to sell me that image of myself.