Detroit-born designer John Varvatos is one of his hometown’s favorite sons, but the New York-based success story has never been afraid to wear his Midwestern roots on his tailored sleeve. The 2007 GQ Designer of the Year, who uses rock stars like Alice Cooper and Green Day for his promotional ads, has even been the face of one of the Motor City’s greatest companies, starring in commercials for Chrysler’s well-received “Imported From Detroit” campaign. Varvatos and the automotive company recently took their relationship a step further by introducing the 2013 300C John Varvatos Limited Edition and the 300C John Varvatos Luxury Edition, both cars created by a guy better known for his sartorial aplomb than he is for his love of automobiles.
A high end menswear designer having input in the building of a car might seem like a strange partnership, but Varvatos isn’t the first to mix fabrics with gasoline; in 1983, Eddie Bauer signed a deal with Ford to help design special editions of the car manufacturer’s popular SUV, the Ford Bronco. Outfitted with special Eddie Bauer stitching, two-tone exterior paint jobs, and a premium stereo system, the Bronco was the original luxurious SUV. And while the Bronco line might be synonymous with O.J. Simpson’s infamous drive down a Los Angeles highway in 1994, there are plenty of people that will tell you that the Eddie Bauer edition of the sport utility vehicle was the one of the best SUVs ever out on the road, as well as a reminder of a time when Eddie Bauer was one of the premiere outdoor wear companies in North America.
Founded in 1920 by outdoor enthusiast Eddie Bauer, the company has been the Pacific Northwest competitor to East Coast companies likes L.L. Bean and Orvis, splitting the demographic of West Coast hunters, hikers, and fisherman for decades. But unlike L.L. Bean, Red Wing boots, and Barbour, companies that have lately been able to reach fashion-conscious consumers and menswear enthusiasts by starting signature lines and teaming with bigger name companies like J. Crew and Brooks Brothers, Eddie Bauer has struggled with tapping into the present fascination with heritage labels and classic, rustic, American outdoor wear.
But the company is trying to change that, smartly realizing that while L.L. Bean will forever be connected with fishing in New England, and Carhartt, a company also trying to make headway into more fashionable circles, will always be the workwear of choice for blue collar Americans, Eddie Bauer has something those companies don’t: a connection to the mountains.
Long before Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins would go on to outfit climbers and hikers in Patagonia and the North Face, Eddie Bauer was supplying the outfits for some of the greatest expeditions of the 20th century, including the 1953 American Karakoram Expedition, where Bauer introduced the legendary Kara Koram parka, which Dr. Charles Houston, expedition leader of the 1953 K2 climb, said was, “The finest article of cold weather, high-altitude equipment I have ever seen.” Bauer also created a the B-9 parka for pilots during the Second World War, the classic Arctic Parka, and outfitted many other expeditions, including the first to put Americans on the summit of Mt. Everest, an expedition that happened fifty years ago this year in 1963. (A Continuos Lean has an article about the anniversary that’s worth reading.)
Simply put: Eddie Bauer has been one of America’s grandest outdoor brands for nearly 100 years, but the company hasn’t been able to communicate its legacy to younger consumers the same way that other companies have used heritage strategies to boost sales. The brand is making strides to change all that, starting first by tapping British designer Nigel Cabourn for a well-received capsule collection that emphasized Eddie Bauer’s past. Cabourn had help, thanks to the fact that Eddie Bauer is one of the few brands that have an in-house archivist, Colin Berg. In a 2011 interview with Inventory, Cabourn talked of the importance of being able to work with a brand archivist and going through the Eddie Bauer archives, saying, “There are big stories here. You’ve got the Military story, the Field and Stream story, and the Mountaineering story, so that’s how I design conceptually. If you get that, you get Eddie Bauer.”
While Eddie Bauer is still interested first in the hunters, hikers, and climbers of today, it truly is the company’s past that makes it so great. People pay big money for vintage Eddie Bauer gear, and the Cabourn collection that emphasizes the past has gained praise from fashion blogs and magazines for being stylish and practical. And if Eddie Bauer keeps looking to that past to influence its future, you’re going to see a lot more people clamoring to buy their stuff.