Born in 1899, Eddie Bauer grew up living off the land in the Pacific Northwest. After a childhood spent outdoors and six years of experience selling sporting goods at a local store in downtown Seattle, Bauer opened his own retail business at the age of 20. The first sign of his innate marketing talent was his offer of an unconditional money-back guarantee for any equipment he sold, which was well ahead of its time.
He also had a gift for advertising, and he built trust by personifying the brand itself. Bauer made a name for himself in Washington as an accomplished marksman. Along with his wife, Christine Heltborg, whom he wed in 1929, he won state competitions in the individual and couples categories for shooting clay pigeons, all while wearing patches prominently displaying the Eddie Bauer name. The duo’s victories were covered in the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, spreading his name as he came to inhabit ever-larger retail spaces.
But it wasn’t until a near-fatal outing in 1935 that Bauer began to design the jacket that would make his name known far outside of Seattle. Bauer was returning from a fishing trip in the Olympic Peninsula when freezing rain caught him far from shelter. His clothing soaked and icing over, Bauer began to feel drowsy, the early signs of hypothermia. He fired off three rifle shots to signal a friend hiking far in front of him and then fell asleep against a tree. He wrote later that he would’ve been “a goner if my partner hadn’t come along.”
Remembering a story his uncle told him, in which a down-lined coat saved him from the cold during the Russo-Japanese War, he set to work on a down jacket for the cold of the Pacific Northwest. In 1940, he patented his design for the first Skyliner jacket, which he claims was the first visibly quilted down insulated outdoor apparel garment in the US. According to the patent, for 14 years Bauer held the exclusive rights to produce the diamond pattern of the Skyliner, which he later expanded to 10 other design patterns for quilted clothing, effectively making him the exclusive seller of quilted down jackets until the 1960s. While the iconic pattern ensured that everyone knew it was from Eddie Bauer, the jacket became popular for being lightweight but extremely warm due to its revolutionary use of down.
The oldest surviving patented quilted down jacket produced in America is in the collection of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. It’s an Eddie Bauer Skyliner from 1936, the first year they went to production. The second oldest is housed on the fifth floor of Lincoln Square in Bellevue, Washington. Just out of the elevators and beside the lobby’s leather-clad waiting area is a glass wall patterned with the silhouettes of game birds. Oversized logs frame an entryway. This is Eddie Bauer’s historical archive: four hallways moving clockwise in time from the company’s founding in 1920, past the Skyliner on display, and onto the present day, framing an interior storage room. Along the back wall, Colin Berg, in white gloves, is unpacking Eddie Bauer mail-order catalogues from the 1940s.
Berg is the first full-time brand historian of Eddie Bauer. A copywriter for the company in the ’90s, he’s been with the company for a total of 17 years spread over close to three decades. During his tenure he became known as the resident expert on brand history and was given the keys to a rudimentary archive, tasked with packing it up for storage. He left the company in 2004, but three years later, after a new CEO took over, he was called back in. He was told to unpack the archive and expand it. It was the beginning of a new era.
Remembering a story his uncle told him in which a down-lined coat saved him from the cold during the Russo-Japanese War, he set to work on a down jacket for the cold of the Pacific Northwest. In 1940, he patented his design for the first Skyliner jacket.
Berg was brought back to showcase the heritage of Eddie Bauer, an iconic fishing and hunting outfitter that, most notably, outfitted Americans during the golden years of Himalayan ascents, when nations were racing to the top of Earth’s highest peaks. Following those golden years, the company slowly moved away from its roots as an “Expedition Outfitter,” dropping the famous tagline and refocusing on lifestyle products and what Berg refers to as “mall clothing.” Today, Berg gives his short, square walking tour through the company’s history to new hires and industry representatives. Inside the interior room he curates moveable racks filled with hundreds of vintage garments, each with an accompanying story. These garments are collected from past customers and used as a base of inspiration for Eddie Bauer’s current design department. It’s just one part of the brand’s strategy to reinvigorate its technical outdoor roots.
Berg’s dead set on putting substance on the “skeleton structure” of the company’s history, a history that has been forgotten by an entire generation. Adventuring millennials have grown up knowing Eddie Bauer only for comfortable clothing, special-edition Fords and house wares, but the company was at one point a legend in American outdoor outfitting. Most just don’t know the history.
In 1942, as part of the war effort, Bauer provided thousands of flying suits, and later sleeping bags, for servicemen stationed in Alaska and Europe. Business was booming, but Bauer’s use of expensive, specialized machinery for wartime production, along with re-negotiated contracts for his work, led to a low point for the company, and for Bauer personally. “He was running three shifts a day, seven days a week, so he was physically way over expended, as well as economically,” said Berg. “By the end of the war, even though he made all of these pieces and built a tremendous amount of reputation, the economics turned out that he wasn’t particularly profitable.”
However, these round-the-clock efforts eventually turned Eddie Bauer into a national brand, even if indirectly. GIs returning from the war had experienced firsthand the quality of Eddie Bauer’s products and knew exactly where they were made because of the tag sewn into every garment. The soldiers began writing to Bauer from all over the nation, helping to spur the huge mail-order catalogue business the company became known for. Unlike today’s catalogues, they included a personal, signed letter from Bauer, and the first few pages were written to educate consumers about the benefits of goose down and the ethos of the company.
A team of eight American mountaineers, three of them from Seattle, came to Eddie in the fall of 1952 with a request for a mountaineering down parka. The best in the world were made in France, and the group wanted an American-made parka for their first ascent of K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain.
Up until 1950s, Eddie Bauer was associated with hunters, fishermen and outdoorsmen, but it was time to become “Expedition Outfitters.” A team of eight American mountaineers, three of them from Seattle, came to Eddie in the fall of 1952 with a request for a mountaineering down parka. The best in the world were made in France, and the group wanted an American-made parka for their attempt at the first ascent of K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain. The resulting jacket was named the Kara Koram, after the mountain range, and became known for its life-saving quality after the team failed to reach the top due to disastrous weather but showed great heroism in saving all but one climber’s life, including a save infamously known as “The Belay.” The group and Bauer’s equipment became known worldwide.
The rest of the 1950s were characterized by continued attempts at first ascents, and the Kara Koram was used all over the world. It wasn’t until 1958 that an American team, clad in Eddie Bauer down, made the first ascent of one of the world’s fourteen 8000-meter peaks, Gasherbrum I, and they summited the peak wearing another Bauer innovation: down parkas with ripstop nylon. The material had been used in sleeping bags for 2-3 years and, at the suggestion of the climbing team, Bauer used it as the outer shell of his parka to keep the weight low but maintain durability. This material was then used in the most extreme parka ever made by Bauer, the Mt. Everest Parka, in 1963.
The year 1971 marked a drastic turning point for the company. The same year an Eddie Bauer team summited Everest for the third time, and three years after Eddie retired, the company was sold to General Mills, and it was the beginning of a three-decade-long redirection of the company’s legacy. “By the ’80s the leadership that came in had MBAs, they were trained merchants, not outdoorsmen,” said Berg. “Retail space was starting to move out of downtown shopping districts into suburban malls, where the style of retailer is more homogenous.”
Even consumer attitudes began to change. “The company wanted to use an old photograph of Eddie,” said Berg, referring to a photo released in the early 1980s in which Bauer posed in front of his Seattle storefront with a deer he had hunted. “They were nervous about dead animals and were starting to migrate into the lifestyle brand ethos, away from the rugged outdoors. So they airbrushed the deer out. This was before the days of photoshopping. Afterward, Eddie was just standing there by himself.”
Pictured Above: Eddie Bauer Mt. Everest Parka, Eddie Bauer Kara Koram, Eddie Bauer Skyliner
In 1988, Spiegel, Inc. acquired Eddie Bauer and continued the movement to focus on customers who remained indoors. Eddie Bauer no longer sold hunting or fishing equipment. It no longer outfitted mountaineering expeditions. Instead it developed the All Week Long and Eddie Bauer Home lines, abandoning tent sales and the Sports Shop to save retail space. A short bout of success was followed by a decline in sales, and Eddie Bauer was taken over by Eddie Bauer Holdings in 2005. For the first time in 35 years, Eddie Bauer was an independent company. This marked the dawn of a new era, one defined by a movement back to the roots, and a proud representation of the brand’s heritage.
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Under new CEO leadership in 2007, Eddie Bauer started a top-secret mission called Project Summit. The company assembled a guide team to help build gear that would be used by world-class climbers, along with novices. In May 2009, accompanied by a film crew, Eddie Bauer’s guide team climbed Mount Everest completely outfitted in the new series, First Ascent, the first public debut of Project Summit and a relaunch of the company as a world-class mountaineering outfitter.
If the response from the outdoor world is any indication, First Ascent proved to be more than just a well-executed marketing stunt. In its first five years, the new gear line won 13 industry best-in-class awards and completed 53 pioneering expeditions strapped onto the backs and hands of world-class guides and explorers. Last year, this magazine included Eddie Bauer’s Sorcerer Pack in our GP100 awards, while Men’s Journal also awarded the pack their 2014 Gear of the Year Award.
But the recent success hasn’t blinded the company to the lessons of the past. Rather than rest on the laurels of recent accomplishments, Eddie Bauer has been hard at work devising new ways of building on its role as a leader in the world of outdoor outfitting. We visited Eddie Bauer’s HQ in order to get a firsthand look at first iteration of its next game-changing project: EB Custom, in which adventuring consumers, either online and in select stores, are able to fully customize the award-winning MicroTherm jacket. We’ll be revealing more about the project soon, and even a little something of our own creation to keep GP diehards warm.