LEWISTON — In a grocery store line wearing one of his two pairs of L.L.Bean boots, hunter Tom Dow of Lewiston smiled when he heard how his Maine footwear is in vogue with brides, fashion editors, talk show hosts, top athletes and city slickers in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
“The yuppies have discovered Bean boots,” Dow said. “They’re a good product.”
Editors of Glamour magazine dubbed Maine’s L.L.Bean boot as the best in snow, or “the No. 1 snow boot of choice” at the Feb. 6-13 New York Fashion Week.
After winning the World Series, Red Sox stars Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino strutted their specially made red Bean boots on Conan O’Brien’s show. Bean boots are the chosen footwear at college campuses across the country, even worn by brides, grooms and entire wedding parties.
All that attention — plus relentless winter storms across the nation, interest in funky new Bean boot colors (red, green, navy and, this fall, all white and wool plaid) and a growing number of consumers who want products made in the United States — is fueling sales.
Customers who try to order a pair are told none are available; they’re sold out. The order will be placed on back order, available in late April.
Sales of the boot designed 101 years ago for hunting by Leon Leonwood Bean have grown in recent years. But orders of 143,000 pairs in December broke records, Bean manufacturing manager Rick Bohan said, adding that the company has never had so many — 25,000 pairs — on back order.
The price of the boots range from $79 for the short rubber mocs to $179 for the tall, Gore-Tex, Thinsulate-lined boots.
Recent sales history shows that Bean sold about 70,000 pairs in 2007, which was the norm.
By 2010 sales rose to 209,000 pairs; in 2012, 353,000 pairs were sold, which cleaned out the inventory. In 2013, 248,000 pairs were sold, including 143,000 in December, plus 25,000 pairs on back order.
“We could have sold more if we had them,” Bohan said. Having such a large back order is new, he said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Based on orders that haven’t slowed in January and February, the company expects to sell 400,000 pairs in 2014.
Making the sole
Meanwhile, L.L.Bean is adding to its workforce to make more boots. This week, nine new workers started making boot bottoms at Bean’s Lewiston plant; another 40 workers are being hired at the company’s Brunswick factory, according to Bohan.
Unlike most merchandise sold by retailers — L.L.Bean included — the iconic boots are not only made in the United States, they’re made in Maine by full-time workers who average $15.15 an hour in pay and get benefits.
The sole and boot bottoms are made by 30 workers at the Westminster Street plant in Lewiston. The upper parts are hand-sewn by 300 workers in Brunswick.
At Bean’s Lewiston plant on Wednesday, Jonica Winn of Durham was at work trimming. Holding a boot bottom after it came out of a molding machine, she trimmed excess rubber-like material.
Chris Bean of Lewiston (no relation to L.L. Bean) was working in the cutting room. “We cut material for hammock pillows, outdoor furniture. We also do dog bed liners and footwear liners for boots,” he said.
Demand for boots “blew up since I’ve been here,” he said, adding he started in 2011. “The Red Sox made the red boots very popular. Now we’re trying to keep up with demand. It’s good the boots have become popular,” he said. “It’s good to have work.”
Bean workers have always stitched the uppers in Maine, but the company used to have the boot bottoms made in Arkansas or Massachusetts. That changed in 2007, when the company opened the small Lewiston plant.
“We had too many supply chain issues and delays,” Bohan said. “It was affecting our heritage product. The office of the president made the commitment to purchase a $1 million molding machine from Italy. That was quite an investment.”
The molding machine has a 10-station carousel, which kicks out another pair every few minutes. The machine makes 39 different sizes, from size 5 to 14, in medium, narrow or wide.
Stitching requires skill
The bottoms are trucked to Brunswick, Bean’s large factory taken up mostly by skilled stitchers sewing different pieces of the boot together by hand. They work on sewing machines that look similar to those in homes.
On Thursday, Abdulrahmed Mohamed of Lewiston was at work sewing the “back stay,” a back piece of the boot. At a different station, one worker glued boot bottoms to the tops, then passed them on to stitcher Eric Rego of East Boothbay, who was sewing the bottoms to the tops.
Sewing boot pieces takes takes months of training. “The handling is very high skill. It’s a tough job,” Bohan said. If a sewing mistake is made on fabric, it can be undone and sewn again. But once leather is sewn the leather has needle holes. “There’s no redo.”
In another section of the factory, workers make boat and tote bags, cushions for outdoor furniture and liners for dog beds.
“When the orders come in, we get them premade, fill the liner and ship them out,” Bohan said of the dog beds. Workers “are truly filling customers’ orders.”
In another section of the factory was a bucket of old boots sent in by customers who want new boot bottoms, a job done for $39.
Tags on the worn boots showed their owners lived in Chicago, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Vermont and New Jersey.
“Each pair has a story,” senior public relations representative Mac McKeever said.
When customers call to order boots, some are surprised to find out they have to wait. “We say, ‘We’ll take your order; they’re worth the wait,” McKeever said. “Once you get them, they’re going to last a very long time and are backed by a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.”
The boots have changed little since they were created by L.L. Bean in 1912. At that time, hunting boots were made of heavy leather that stayed wet when the boots got wet. Bean’s design made durable boots that kept feet comfortable and dry.
“He was ahead of his time,” McKeever said. The fact that the boot has become popular not only also with outdoorsmen, loggers and farmers, but also in cities and the fashion world, “is a remarkable testament to the overall design.”
L.L.Bean: Would like to sell more ‘Made in USA’ merchandise
BRUNSWICK — While most of its merchandise is not made in the United States, L.L.Bean sells more USA-made products than most retailers in the country, a company representative said.
And L.L.Bean is always on the lookout for more, senior public relations representative Mac McKeever said. “It means a lot to us.
“We also have a penchant for made-in-Maine products,” McKeever said. “If you go to our home store, you’re going to see dozens and dozens of examples of made-in-Maine products, everything from artwork, crafts, pottery, books and food items.”
Customers react positively to Maine-made products, McKeever said. “When you think of Maine and New England, you think of Yankee ingenuity, but you also think of craftsmanship, hard work and pride in work.”
In the retailer’s fall catalogue, the majority of clothing, including flannel shirts, the popular Rugged Ridge Parkas, flannel nightgowns, coats, jackets, footwear and home items, are imported from countries like China and Turkey.
Selling imported clothing and merchandise is necessary to offer customers choice in style and price, McKeever said.
Items made in the United States include braided wool rugs, Waterhog doormats, fleece blankets, kayaks, comforters, mission-styled furniture, wool throws, Adirondack chairs. Pima cotton clothes are made from cotton grown in California and the southwestern United States.
Maine-made products, including the Bean boots, include work boots, dog beds, outdoor cushions and tote bags.
The big push in the past two decades to have products made overseas to get lower prices has eroded this country’s manufacturing infrastructure, McKeever said.
“We were one of the last retailers to move some of our manufacturing overseas,” he said. “The reality is even if we wanted to do more in the USA, we wouldn’t be able to because of a lack of infrastructure.”
— Bonnie Washuk