During a 1953 attempt to be the first to summit K2, mountaineer Pete Schoening and five other climbers nearly died after being trapped in a storm at 25,000 feet for 10 days. At one point in the climb, Schoening hung from a pickax while supporting a sick member of the team and the rest of the team at the end of his rope. Schoening’s heroism earned him many mountaineering accolades, including the honor of having his parka put on display at the company that outfitted the expedition: Eddie Bauer.
To anyone who has grown up in the shopping-mall culture of the past 30 years, this is almost unbelievable. Eddie Bauer, downmarket purveyor of pleated chinos, used to outfit mountaineering expeditions? Yet that is precisely the history that Eddie Bauer is trying to reclaim. “To ignore that part of the history is turning a blind eye to something we’ve done for many years,” says Colin Berg, the company’s historian. “It’s a reminder of where we’ve been and what we’ve done well — and not so well.” In 2009, the company introduced a line of mountaineering gear, First Ascent, and this summer it will debut Sport Shop, a sub-brand devoted to hunting and fishing.
At the heart of this effort has been the development of a comprehensive company archive. A bright, 400-square-foot space off the lobby of the company’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, the archive is arranged roughly by decade. The collections of gear — fishing rods from the 1920s, bright goose-down jackets from the 1950s and ’60s, cabinets lined with a nearly full run of catalogs — tell the story of the company, which is really the story of Eddie Bauer himself.
Bauer, an outdoorsman, started selling expedition gear from a Seattle shop when he was in his twenties. “If I didn’t trust equipment, it wasn’t stocked,” he once said. “If I needed equipment that wasn’t available elsewhere, I developed it myself.” In 1936, after a bout of hypothermia on a fishing trip, Bauer began looking at alternatives to wool, creating the first American quilted goose-down jacket, known as the Skyliner.
“That jacket really marks the beginning of Eddie Bauer as a brand,” says Berg, a soft-spoken man who started as a copywriter at Eddie Bauer and was tasked with overseeing the creation of the archive in 2007. The company didn’t save everything it produced, so Berg scoured eBay ($10 could net a pair of vintage pants) and had designers contact vintage collectors in Tokyo (where a 1940 Skyliner was found). Many of the collected items were unsolicited donations from long-ago customers: In 2000, a former Army lieutenant returned the sleeping bag that had kept him warm in World War II. He’d stowed it in his garage for 55 years, reluctant to part with what he called his “old friend.”
Even now, the original tan Skyliner — adopted by the U.S. Army and popularized by outdoor explorers — looks like a totally modern garment. Now that Eddie Bauer has decided to relaunch it, the only real difference is the leather and coyote trim on the hood.
The archive isn’t just a record of success. Beginning in the late 1960s, the business went through a series of acquisitions by large companies, abandoning serious outdoor gear for the mass market. By 2003, Eddie Bauer, outclassed by North Face and Patagonia, outsexed by Abercrombie & Fitch, was in Chapter 11. Following another bankruptcy in 2009, the private-equity firm Golden Gate Capital acquired the company.
Since the takeover, Eddie Bauer has been using the archive as a source of memory and inspiration, trying to re-establish the company’s credibility in the areas it once dominated. First Ascent and Sport Shop are described as “guide-built,” and people like 53-year-old Peter Whittaker, who has led expeditions from Mount Rainier to Kilimanjaro, have been brought on to help with design. “A lot of the improvement came in simplifying,” says Whittaker, who works on the First Ascent line. “We had a rule: If you couldn’t get your zipper attached and zipped in three seconds, it wasn’t good enough. Those three seconds up above 20,000 feet take 20 seconds. You won’t see flaps on a lot of our jackets because they get caught.”
Sport Shop, the hunting line, is a different beast, in part because, according to guide-designer John Burrell (whose Atlanta-based High Adventure Company runs hunting trips on three continents), the sport’s technology changes slowly. What Burrell’s team created looks like it’s from the archives, particularly the Sport Shop down jacket (and vest). “While it’s still very classic,” Burrell said, “I think some of the functionality with our garment just makes it easier to mount your gun.” Bauer himself surely would have approved.