Burt Avedon poses with his Navy pilot's helmet at his home in Verona, Wisconsin. Portrait by Narayan Mahon.
Until the early 1900s, there was no such thing as “expedition” clothing, much less an outdoor-clothing industry. Explorers would simply find the most rugged gear they could get their hands on and hope it would suffice. In 1903, during an Arctic mineral-hunting expedition, an American geologist by the name of Ben Willis discovered that most clothing doesn’t hold up in 100 mph winds and -60 °F temperatures. Ben returned to New York and started designing garments that could withstand conditions in the frozen tundra from which he had just escaped.
A few years earlier, in 1897, C.C. Filson had begun making his eponymous clothing for gold miners looking to strike it rich in Alaska, and thus, with the two manufacturers and the nascent Manhattan retailer Abercrombie Co., the outdoor-clothing industry was born. In 1928, Willis took on Howard Geiger as a partner, and Willis & Geiger set to work outfitting the era’s most famous explorers: Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Roald Amundsen, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay, to name a few. They manufactured private label gear to outdoor brands like L.L. Bean, Abercrombie & Fitch (the “Fitch” was added after one of Abercrombie’s regular customers invested in the company in 1904), and Eddie Bauer. Despite the brand’s deep heritage in the clothing industry, Willis & Geiger—which Town & Country magazine once called the “granddaddy of outerwear”—is widely unknown today. So what happened? It was bought and sold over and over, by a variety of corporations, and the brand only lives on via eBay auctions and a few pieces of clothing from Lands’ End that appropriate Willis & Geiger in name only.
Burt Avedon (cousin of the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon) revived the company two years after it went out of business in 1977 and helmed it until it was liquidated in 1999. Now 89 years old, Burt is one of the last remaining people to have hands-on experience with the brand. His bio reads like a Most Interesting Man in the World skit: He was a pilot by age 12, raced cars, played football for UCLA, fought at Iwo Jima, was awarded a Purple Heart in the Navy, went from Harvard Business School into cosmetics and fashion, married an Italian princess, and later led attempts to excavate downed World War II planes from Greenland ice. After a short search, I tracked him down at his home in Verona, Wisconsin, to find out what had happened to what many consider to be the greatest outdoor-clothing brand of all time.
Burt Avedon: Let me just ask you a question: Having done some research on your publication, your audience is the antithesis of our company and our lives. Because it’s young, 18 to 35, as they say, and countercultural—are we anathema, or are we the contrast vehicle?
Neither. I think that young people right now are very interested in anything related to American heritage, especially in regard to fashion.
We haven’t found that to be the case. We find that the youth are not at all interested in things that have long histories and heritage and integrity and all that. They are interested in reading predominately what’s new and what’s contemporary.
There is a lot of that with the pace of media right now, where people are always looking to see who’s putting out the newest sneakers, but there are a few brands whose authenticity is paramount.
Yeah, but unfortunately good brands of heritage are a reflection of their original management; when they become professionally managed, they lose the spark that brought them to where they are today. I found that to be classic in the industry. Whenever they go into second- and third-generation management, they lose themselves. They no longer have the passion that was originally part of their DNA.
Were you familiar with the brand before 1977 due to your Navy-pilot experience?
No. I was not. I never looked inside my flight suit to see who the hell made it. That wasn’t the object of my curiosity at that stage. I wasn’t attuned to the cosmetics or the apparel business. So I had no idea who the hell Willis & Geiger was. But there was a very strong military influence. I actually went back and looked at some of my flight gear, and it was made by Willis & Geiger.
So how did you become interested in the world of fashion?
In the early 70s, I had left the Navy and come back from Italy and my stint [as president of cosmetics company] Eve of Roma. I was married to Princess Luciana Pignatelli—she was sort of the queen of the jet set. And the designers of the day, the Valentinos, the Palazzis, all of them were friends. So I was back in the States, and Carlo Palazzi came to me and said, “Burt! You have to establish my brand in the United States.” And I said, “Carlo, I don’t know anything about the clothing business.” He said, “No, no, no. That’s not important. What you got is the taste, and that’s all you need.” I said, “Well, I’ll do my best.” He said, “No, you will do well.” So running the Carlo Palazzi brand in the US was my introduction to the fashion industry.
Willis & Geiger catalogs were famous for featuring photos and stories of the world's most renowned outdoorsmen and adventurers, including Ernest Hemingway, Teddy Roosevelt, and Frederick Selous. The catalogs are now collector's items.
When did your involvement with Willis & Geiger begin?
Abercrombie & Fitch went out of business in 1977, leaving Willis & Geiger as its largest single creditor due to all the private-label business. Howard Geiger was asked to chair the bankruptcy committee and turned it down because he felt that his position wouldn’t be as objective as it should be due to his many financial interests in Abercrombie & Fitch.
Elmer Ward, my roommate at Harvard Business School, was then the chairman of Palm Beach Corporation. He was intrigued with getting in on Willis & Geiger, as the industry knew what the brand was from all the private-label work it had done over the years. People like Ralph Lauren knew Willis & Geiger and wanted it. Elmer knew what I had been doing with my life, and that I could understand the spirit of Willis & Geiger and wouldn’t ruin it.
In the 60s and 70s, Palm Beach was huge, bigger than what VF Corporation [parent of JanSport, Timberland, The North Face, Vans, and more] is today, with 6,000 nonunion workers. At closing, a lawyer asked if Howard Geiger had a union contract. I’d told him not to get one and to let me know if the union pressured him so we could muster our forces to protect him. So I called Howard and asked, “Howard, you didn’t sign a union contract, did you?” And he said, “Yes, I did.” I dropped right to the floor and said, “Howard, you just blew the deal.” So Palm Beach pulled out. I bought Willis & Geiger six months later. It had only $30,000 in orders and one employee who taught me the manufacturing side of the business, which was crucial. We had to start all over and build the company again.
Ben Willis had died in the late 40s, but was Howard Geiger still involved after you acquired the company?
He was not involved and didn’t want anything to do with it. When his brother Phil died, who was also his partner, he lost interest in the company. His sons didn’t want it. One son was a lawyer for Citibank, and the other one had a great career at Macy’s and didn’t want to give it up. But they didn’t have any interest in the outdoors; they didn’t have any interest in Willis & Geiger. From their perspective, it was their father and uncle’s business.
You could be considered the second wave of management at Willis & Geiger. How do you see that fitting into the way you view brands and companies?
Well, first of all and most importantly, there has to be a cultural fit. You can’t take a professional manager and stick him into a company that is an expedition-outfitting company that has a rich history and say “that’s the perfect fit.” There has to be an alignment; a sympathetic vibration has to exist between the company and its culture and the individual management. When I was asked to run Willis & Geiger, it was a whole different ball game. It was not management groups that came in; it was still entrepreneurs.
What I found interesting is that you carried on making heritage wholesale pieces while establishing the brand for the consumer market, correct?
Yes. For example, the A-2 jacket was first issued in 1936, and the average pilot at that time was 5' 6" and weighed 136 pounds. [By the time I bought the company] the current pilot was 5' 11" and weighed 185 pounds. It was a whole different ball game. If you look at the original Department of Commerce bidding specs, it says, “as per Willis & Geiger’s A-2.” It was a requirement that it be made in the United States because it was military-issued. In ’86, one of the biggest things hitting the industry was flight jackets. It made Averix [a military-apparel brand] happen. Then it was the Top Gun movie. The Pentagon called because the Air Force wanted to get some of that hurrah back, and they asked if we would redo the specs on the A-2 and submit it so that the government could go out and get bids on rebuilding the A-2 based on the revised pattern by Willis & Geiger. I remember meeting Major Driggers, who was in charge of the Wright-Patterson base northeast of Dayton, Ohio, and he said, “Burt, we want you guys to bid.” I said, “We do a completely different thing as far as materials. We only use the top-of-the-line leather, real wool, and all that, and we’re not going to bring stuff that’s from a lower level to make this jacket.” They went out and rebid it, and, of course, we did one just to give them a benchmark, so we were pretty high, but they went with somebody else. I knew from the beginning that if it would always go to the lowest bidder then we weren’t going to make it. But I did manage to get my hands on one of those jackets. It was a piece of crap!
Willis & Geiger clothing was as detailed as it was rugged. Sketches here include the Selous jacket, the Shooting Vest, and the Professional Hunter models.
When did the takeovers of Willis & Geiger begin? Were you forcibly ousted?
No, we stayed on. VF Corporation took us over in February 1986, when everything was still made in the States. Flight jackets were always made in the US because that’s where the authenticity was, that’s what the military required contractually, and that’s the way we made it. During that period and up until 1994, we had licensee Willis & Geiger stores in Charlotte, Norfolk, Dallas, and space in a big outlet in Reading, Pennsylvania, where we installed a taxidermied eight-foot male lion in full stride, testicles hanging down. We had a little sign that said, you know, “Don’t feed the lion.” But within nine months of VF buying us, our US factory was shut down. Then, in 1987, Laura Ashley bought the company, and the lion had to go into storage. I was upset that it was in a warehouse. So I put it into our office space in New Jersey, which was part of Laura Ashley. And that didn’t prove to be too good because we were on the second floor and had delivery guys coming up the stairs to be met by a lion at full stride.
But we still had a gorgeous office in New York, in the Bar Building on 44th, right across from the Algonquin and the New York Yacht Club and the Harvard Club. We brought in everything that you would imagine Willis & Geiger was. It looked like a museum. There was billiard carpeting, partner desks, an eagle in full flight. There were brass, three-layer bedroll chandeliers. There was a fireplace with matching leather winged chairs with hammered knobs.
Sounds like the Explorers Club.
It was a club, and it is where the lion finally ended up. But Laura Ashley turned around and sold us to a Japanese group called D’URBAN the same year. Then, by 1990, the Japanese economy was going down, and we knew that our days were numbered again. So I began calling friends, one of whom, Bill End, was the CMO of L.L. Bean until he became the president of Lands’ End in 1990. He was instrumental in getting that company to look seriously at Willis & Geiger, which they bought in 1994. It was an amazing deal because it brought us to Wisconsin; it was almost the right place, in a way. And we had our lion.
And so you became a catalog-only business. Is that why you had to close the stores?
We had to. We had stores when we were wholesale, but once we became a catalog, we couldn’t own anything in any state other than Wisconsin because it would subject Lands’ End to sales tax throughout the Midwest. We wanted to have a catalog business. I wanted to get the hell out of wholesale because I thought its days were numbered. And Lands’ End, of course, was the master of direct marketing to customers. A $200 million company!
What kind of stories were you trying to tell with the catalogs, and where did you get all that archival imagery?
A lot of the MacArthur, Eisenhower, and Hemingway stuff was in the Willis & Geiger archives. That was the underlying reason I wanted to go direct: We could never tell the story through third-party retail. The only way we could do it was through the catalog, where we had printed media like a magazine. As a matter of fact, the catalogs are worth 40 or 50 bucks a piece today!
How long were you under the thumb of Lands’ End before they shut it down?
About four and a half years, 1995 to 2000 basically.
Was the company still turning a profit when Lands’ End shut it down?
Here’s the history, financially. We had no customers—zero—when we started with Lands’ End. By the second year, we were doing $22 million in sales, and we were profitable. We were forecasting $33 million, and we had a plan to do it when they shut us down. Let me reiterate the closing conversation that I had with Gary Comer, the chairman at Lands’ End. He said, “Burt, what are you gonna be when you grow up?” I said, “Well, I’ll probably be between $80 and $100 million and extremely profitable.” He said, “I could do that with one of my brands in one year.” I said, “Yeah, you probably can. But how many times can you duplicate yourself? And how much can you fluctuate the market? And isn’t profitability the key element in your mix?” He said, “Yeah, I don’t know if it’s worth our time.” I said, “If it’s in your time, we pay our way.” He said, “Yeah, it’s the best product we make.” And I said, “You make? Lands’ End has nothing to do with this product.” He said, “Well, we finance it.” I said, “To an extent, but did you ever look at what we pay you to do our shipping and pay you for warehousing and pay for your management fees and so on? You charge us a disproportionate fare compared to any other division.” He said, “That’s because you don’t have our name.” Anyway, that conversation was going nowhere. Next thing I knew, we were out.
What happened to all the Willis & Geiger archives?
I decided to bring some of the rest of the clothing and photography from the archive down to the Smithsonian, the National Air & Space Museum. All the rest went to Lands’ End. This was priceless stuff. They had a fortune in the archives, and they didn’t even realize it. Every summer they have this sale; they open everything up. They sold it all, they didn’t have a clue. The lion, actually, from what I know, was for a long time in the treasurer’s office at Lands’ End.
I take it the split wasn’t exactly amicable.
No exits can ever be amicable. I tried to buy it back. The way they put it on the market was very amateurish. They wouldn’t go to any professional mergers-and-acquisitions firms or allow any banks to market the product with a slick presentation. Instead they produced a loose-leaf notebook and circulated its availability in the Wall Street Journal. What scared the hell out of them is that more than 48 major quality companies requested the book, so they took it off the market. Then they put it back on the market the day after Christmas and requested bids by January 1. Well, nobody got a bid in. And nobody believed the whole thing was real. We wound up closing it down. I helped them with a liquidation plan and so forth. The board decided, and it was in motion. It was explained to us that the company would never be sold as long as I was alive; they would mothball it and wouldn’t entertain any bids. But to this day, I hear rumors…
Why did they go to all of this trouble? It seems counterintuitive to normal business practices, at least ones that make money.
It’s all speculation, but they were afraid that we would get it back and embarrass them by making it into a phenomenon. Which it well could be. They recognized that, and I said to Gary at an Explorers Club dinner: “In the case of Willis & Geiger, I think you made a mistake.” And Gary said, “Well, I know you probably hate me.” And I said, “I don’t hate you, just the decision you made, which I think was erroneous.” And he said, “I guess you might be right, but that’s the way it’s gonna be.” And then Lands’ End ended up getting acquired by Sears.
Any idea where the fabled lion resides now?
He’s probably been exiled.
This interview was conducted in December 2012 with Burt Avedon and his business partner Susan Colby. All quotes have been attributed to Burt in the interest of clarity.
Archival photos courtesy of Burt Avedon and Susan Colby.
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