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Storming the Catwalk in an L.L. Bean Boot

It was the impregnable fortress of heritage labels. Behind its clapboard walls lay an unlikely grail. Let international designers like Junya Watanabe and Demna Gvasalia have their way with Red Wing, Filson and North Face. Nobody touches L.L. Bean.

Until this week, that is. Though scores of others had tried without success to breach the resistance of a staid and privately owned Yankee institution, in the end what worked for the Midwest-born designer Todd Snyder was, he said, a healthy dose of “Iowa nice.’’

Thus, for the first time in its 108-year history, L.L. Bean will appear on a runway, as a core element of Todd Snyder’s fall men’s wear show, the tent pole event of New York Fashion Week: Men’s.

L.L. Bean has had prior dalliances with capital F fashion, though these amounted mostly to superficial tweaks. Just over a decade ago, the company hired Alex Carleton, a designer named at the time by GQ and the Council of Fashion Designers of America as one of America’s best new men’s wear designers, to revitalize its fusty image.

Mr. Carleton, best known until then for the hipster bro styles turned out under his Rogues Gallery label, reimagined the L.L. Bean classics for a 200-piece men’s and women’s Signature collection.

Fits were updated. Minor adjustments were made to staples that remained so familiar that they hardly seemed to have been designed. Fleece linings and olive waxed-canvas uppers were added to Bean’s duck boots, rendered as knee-highs. A Matinicus Blue Rock pullover introduced at about the dawn of yacht rock was stealthily slenderized. Red-and-black buffalo plaid Maine Guide shirts were updated to suit the Paul Bunyan legions braving the pickle aisle at Smorgasburg.

Still, no one ever managed to coax Bean onto the catwalk until Mr. Snyder came along.

“I have to say, I’m shocked,” said Lisa Birnbach, the author of “The Official Preppy Handbook.” That book, which was published in 1980, had the distinction of exporting to a broader culture the sartorial folkways of what was once a wealthy Eastern elite. The book not only boosted L.L. Bean’s bottom line, but also fostered the creation of successful imitators like J. Crew.

“I thought putting a shawl collar on the Norwegian sweater was about as far as things could go,” Ms. Birnbach said.

For her, the notion of L.L. Bean appearing in a fashion week presentation amounted to “an essential conflict on a molecular level.”

“I mean, are they fashion or are they gear?”

The answer is neither and both, according to Owen Kelly, a vice president for the brand. “We are very loyal to our core customer and true to our outdoor ethos,” Mr. Kelly said. “But this is an opportunity to take our classics and flip them, push them forward.”

The risk lay in fixing what isn’t broken. For the fiscal year ending in February 2019, L.L. Bean reported annual net revenue of $1.6 billion, an increase of 1 percent over the previous year. The company’s board of directors then approved a performance bonus of 5 percent of annual pay for its approximately 5,400 employees.

Still the temptation was great, as Mr. Kelly said, “to put Bean in front of a different set of eyes,” although not in a way that would result in something resembling gold lamé Top-Siders.

Of all the successes among heritage brands, few have exceeded that of the traditional boat shoe with white soles incised in a pattern of chevron grooves. Designed in 1935 by Paul A. Sperry (he got the idea for nonslip boat soles from the grooves in his dog’s paws), the Top-Sider was patented in 1940 and changed little across the ensuing decades until, in 2009, Band of Outsiders collaborated with the Sperry label on novel fabrications.

Almost instantaneously, the shoe became regulation footwear for urban consumers (subset: gay, male), people who likely could not tell a jib from a boom.

Sperry went on to collaborate with labels including Jack Spade, Noah and, most recently, the neo-prep brand Rowing Blazers on fashionable iterations of its utilitarian nautical footwear.

And, perhaps inevitably, these collaborations resulted in the appearance last year of Top-Siders with metallic leather uppers, a style that would have gotten you tossed out of the Hyannis Port Yacht Club back when John F. Kennedy (a Top-Sider aficionado) was racing across Nantucket Sound.

“We get offers all the time to work on collaborations,” Mr. Kelly said. “High fashion and luxury brands approached us, but we’ve never really dipped our toe in the water before.”

So, what changed for L.L. Bean, the quintessential Yankee brand, founded in Freeport, Maine, by Leon Leonwood Bean, in 1912? “Todd shares our values and our mission of getting people outdoors and into an active American lifestyle,” Mr. Kelly said.

For Mr. Snyder, the brief was simple. “Don’t insult them, and at the same time take them to a new place,” the designer said of the three-year run-up to this week’s show, and a collaborative process begun in the extensive L.L. Bean archive in Maine.

The results were culled from meticulously organized collections of old catalogs, blankets, hunting gear and garments from most decades of the past century (including some belonging to the founder, L.L. Bean, a notably natty dresser) using a method Mr. Snyder characterized as “forage, find, elevate.”

As in past collaborations with heritage labels like Champion, Mr. Snyder worked shrewd changes on the familiar by toying with proportion, patterns and context. “We did a suit in plaid, added plaid to the overcoats, took all these traditional men’s wear silhouettes and used the hunter camo and duck camo prints throughout,” he said.

He also supersized to Bibendum-scale the puffer vests that were a staple of every college campus in the heyday of preppy dressing. And that style, Mr. Snyder maintains, is due for imminent return.

His L.L. Bean partners and many others in the industry seem to agree. “We’re just at the beginning of a real preppy revival,” said Jim Moore, the creative director at large for GQ and a sometime consultant to Mr. Snyder.

“We joke around the GQ office that we’re not quite there yet,” Mr. Moore added. “It has to be just the right preppy, but you can feel it coming. You can feel that fog rolling in.”

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