BRUNSWICK, Maine — A nearly century-old hunting boot is catching on with a younger generation that sees the utilitarian footwear as hip.
L.L Bean's familiar duck boot with leather uppers and rubber soles — designed for slogging through mud and snow — has become something of a fashion statement owing to its newfound popularity on college campuses, the company says. Another reason is new styles, including something Leon Leonwood Bean surely never envisioned in 1912: bright blue and pink leather, new for spring.
Part of the success of the boot is its versatility, in barnyards or in cities, in snow or rain.
At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Zina Huxley-Reicher, of New York, wears her dark brown, shearling-lined boots nearly every day, with a skirt or jeans. She has only one pair, but some classmates have several.
"They are very practical, but they've also become a fashion trend," she said. "They're simple and kind of have that rugged look that has been adopted as a fashionable thing."
Sales have grown from 150,000 pairs four years ago to about 400,000 this year, said Jack Samson, L.L. Bean senior manager for manufacturing in Brunswick. Next year, demand is projected to reach 500,000.
Defying a trend toward offshore production, the outdoors retailer is adding 125 full-time employees to its Maine-based manufacturing operation to keep pace with orders.
The well-known boot appears to be benefiting from a retro trend, whether it's penny loafers or the Gap's 1969 series blue jeans, said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York.
"It's sort of like the Coca-Cola bottle or the sleek silver lines of Apple. It's iconic. And when you have that kind of icon, you leverage it," Corlett said. "The good news is that L.L. Bean's icon from decades ago is striking an emotional chord with people who're yearning for the good old days."
Another factor that could be helping Bean: There's been little that's new and exciting in footwear in recent years beyond UGG boots and Crocs, said Alexander Geyman, editor of Focus on Fashion Retail, outside Los Angeles. Trendy UGG boots and the Timberland brand outstrip Bean's in sales, he said.
The original hunting shoe is not revered just at L.L. Bean. It's become something of an unofficial symbol of Maine, like the rocky coast and lobsters. There's a giant L.L. Bean boot outside the 24-hour retail store, near the company's headquarters in Freeport. Tourists regularly snap photos.
This holiday season, L.L. Bean featured one of its factory workers in a national television advertising campaign that capitalized on the boot's popularity.
The boots carry the "Made in the USA" label, something that's hard to find these days in footwear. Nationwide, the number of shoe-manufacturing jobs dropped from more than 200,000 in the 1970s to 12,500 this year, according to the U.S. Labor Department. In Maine, shoe-manufacturing jobs peaked at more than 25,000 in the 1960s, and last year there were 1,300 jobs, according to the Maine Department of Labor.
Well-known Maine brands like G.H. Bass, Cole Haan, Sebago and Dexter are now made abroad. But L.L. Bean has resisted the notion of making its Bean boots overseas.
"We've made a commitment since it's our signature product, and because of our heritage, that they'll always be made in Maine," spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said.
As the story goes, L.L. Bean created the hunting boot for himself after his feet got wet and cold on a hunting trip, and it was not an instant success. Ninety of the first 100 pairs sold in 1912 were returned after the leather separated; Bean had a satisfaction guarantee, so he returned customers' money.
These days, the original L.L. Bean Hunting Shoe is available unlined or with various linings, including Gore-Tex, Thinsulate and shearling. There are plenty of other variations, including quilted, canvas and plaid, and even bright blue and pink leather. There are low-cut versions as well.
The hunting version has a softer rubber compound that allows a hunter to tread lightly, while the "Bean Boot" has a steel shank and tougher rubber compound that holds up better on asphalt.
All of them are still made by hand. The rubber soles are made by L.L. Bean workers in Lewiston, and they're sewn to the leather uppers at an L.L. Bean plant in Brunswick. All told, there are currently 320 workers at L.L. Bean's factory in Brunswick, making boots, dog beds, canvas totes other products.
Each Gore-Tex liner is inflated and dunked in a tank to make sure it's watertight before being dried and put in the boot.
"If you're hunting in Alaska and your feet get wet, you appreciate that," Samson said. "I don't think it's overkill. It's who we are."
Near the back of the factory floor are bins of timeworn L.L Bean boots that have been mailed in by their owners to be refurbished. People become attached to their boots, and they'd rather spend $40 to $45 to have the rubber soles replaced than buy new boots.
The boots come in rough shape, sometimes caked in dirt or, worse, chicken or cow manure.
Joked Samson: "We keep telling ourselves it's mud."