Unlike Tommy Bahama or Betty Crocker who were figments of marketers’ imaginations, Eddie Bauer was a real person. He was was born in 1899 in Orcas Island, Washington, and before he became famous for his sporting goods brand, he was known as an outdoorsman who spent many months of the year up in the mountains, enjoying the dramatic landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. He started to make clothing because he couldn’t find any products on the market that were rugged enough for his adventures in the wilderness.
Many people who buy products from Eddie Bauer aren’t fully aware of the brand’s storied history, but today, the company is launching a new collection called EB Originals that re-creates six pieces that Bauer himself developed in the 1920s. This is part of a broader effort to pay homage to the founder (who died in 1986) and explore the roots of the brand in the lead up to its centennial anniversary, in 2020.
Colin Berg, the company’s official historian, has spent the last few years digging into the Eddie Bauer archives of designs and advertisements to help create this collection. Today, the apparel industry is obsessed with creating performance fabrics; Bauer was among the first textile innovators in the U.S. After nearly dying of hypothermia on a winter fishing trip, he decided to create a new kind of outerwear that would insulate him in extreme conditions. “It would need to be warm, lightweight, but also breathable so that you could wear it while doing strenuous activity,” Berg says.
In 1936, he created the Skyliner, the first down jacket patented in this country. When he debuted it in Seattle, it became a hit among skiers, hunters, and fishermen, and was sold continuously for more than 50 years. (Bauer is wearing the coat in the image above.) Today, the company is releasing a version of that jacket that looks identical to the original one, but is updated with newer synthetic technical fabrics. It comes in colors that were popular at the time, including hunter green, burgundy, and taupe. “The Skyliner jacket was an early invention that gave him all the advantages of being first to market,” Berg says.
In the 1950s, he had another breakthrough. After World War II was over, there was a great deal of interest in scaling the Himalayas, and Bauer saw an opportunity to create gear that was up to that challenge. “All the geopolitics after World War II had changed, and the borders of Nepal and Tibet became open for travel,” Berg says. “Western mountaineers began to try climbing these big Himalayan mountains that had never been climbed before.”
In 1953, an expedition of eight Americans set out to climb a mountain range on the China-Pakistan border. Three of the climbers were from Seattle and were familiar with Bauer’s products. They asked him to develop a jacket for them. He created the Kara Koram Parka, which became the best-in-class expedition coat for the next three decades, used by most Americans who went to the Himalayas, Antarctica, or the poles. Today, Eddie Bauer is releasing a new version of the Kara Koram.
Like the Skyliner, the Kara Koram and all the other pieces in the new collection are aesthetically similar to the original versions, but have been updated with new materials. When Bauer was designing, he primarily used high thread count cotton because it was harder to find synthetic fibers that make garments stronger and help with temperature regulation. As Berg says, “The Eddie Bauer Original collection is incorporating both new developments and technologies that the company has been working on, with the original design principles of the individual pieces.”