This week Eddie Bauer sent out a press release entitled “Eddie Bauer Invented Down.” We’re willing to bet a few geese will take issue with that notion, but the message is still pretty clear: Eddie Bauer wants the world to know it’s been a serious outfitter in the annals of gear since the 1930s. And yes, it’s having to claw itself back from the decades-long mistake of outfitting geriatric mall walkers rather than Everest and K2 expeditions. That’s why the company bet the farm on its First Ascent line of guide-designed apparel, and now, with First Ascent well-established, is mining its deepest past — and venturing into an entirely new category.
In the 1930s, when Eddie Bauer the man ran a sporting goods store in Seattle, he first started making down clothing for selfish reasons — he couldn’t find clothing that could keep him warm while hunting. From there he pioneered making down flight suits for B-17 pilots during WWII, which built his reputation in military circles. When soldiers returned home from war and wanted quality gear for the backcountry, they naturally came to Bauer. Later, in 1963, his Northwest roots led to outfitting Seattle natives Lou and Jim Whittaker, who spearheaded the first successful American assaults on Everest.
Bauer sold the company in the early 1970s and that began a long, steady fall. For one thing, the brand stopped sponsoring serious athletes, learning from what expedition leaders knew, and building clothing for the pursuit of real adventure.
In the last few years, though, the product has turned around. First Ascent is the real deal. Climbers and guides like Ed Viesturs and Peter Whittaker are intimately involved in the design, and what they’ve developed works. Now EB, like so many brands that have survived long enough to have heritage, is reaching back to its glory days. At the company’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, there’s an archive of clothing dating to 1936, when Bauer invented the Skyliner, the nation’s first down jacket. Designers can check out pieces, study them, and incorporate some of the design language of that old stuff in what they’re producing now. One result is a new series of Skyliners introduced this fall to commemorate the jacket’s 75th anniversary, including the piece in the photo at top.
Beyond that, though, Bauer is moving into workwear. (Yes, workwear is hot, as the current Burton-Carhartt collab suggests.)
The Nail Driver pant ($149; left) was inspired by Alaskan dockworkers who wore Carhartts rather than more expedition-focused clothing because they were shredding their Gore-Tex bibs with kneeling, standing, bending, working forklifts, and so on. The fleece-lined Nail Driver is triple-stitched and bar-tacked throughout, with four oversized tool/cargo pockets and secondary knee panels that will accept foam inserts for extra protection. EB designers also purposely didn’t make it a waterproof/breathable pant because they wanted to keep it relatively affordable for lifties — and also pointed out that these might need to withstand lots of washings, which will destroy DWRs and other treatments.
The Emperor Parka ($399), in that same vein, was built in conjunction with a firm called Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, which handles getting explorers into and out of Antarctica. The parka weighs nearly five pounds — it’s about as far from being a wispy puffy down as Antarctica is from Maui. The 500-denier nylon face fabric (think luggage-grade canvas) is seriously rugged, and it gets a DWR finish. Since it’s meant as exceedingly cold weather work wear, the Emperor has overlapping baffles of 700-fill down and comes to below the hip.