In case you haven’t noticed Lands’ End has been getting a lot of things right lately. Or rather make that the previous winter, when not two but three of this editor’s sharpest looking pals were already sporting the outdoor lifestyle company’s streamlined, surprisingly warm and functional jackets with selvedge denim and then-ubiquitous moccasin boots. The truth is Dodgeville, Wisconsin-based Lands’ End has never ceased making well-crafted outerwear in its 51-year history, but over the last several years became overshadowed by stories of its-then parent company’s troubling bottom line. This past April Lands’ End spun off from Sears Holdings to become a publicly traded company again. In anticipation of that change, Lands’ End design director J. Henley (above) spearheaded a quietly radical update of its menswear, from expanded shirt fits to edgy, dark-rinsed denim. To us, the story seemed too good to ignore, so we recently set out to meet the design director himself to talk about the new Lands’ End and heritage story in the making.
Hey J, let’s start by going over your background, how long you’ve been there, where you started and what your role today as design director of one of America’s most iconic lifestyle brands entails.
I’ve been fortunate to have been with the brand for over a decade. I’ve seen it evolve over the years from the days our founder Gary Comer roamed the hallways to now being a publicly traded company again. Growing up in the south, I cut my teeth on seersucker, white bucks, blue oxfords and navy blazers, but I had eyes on another South—Southern California. I loved the laidback style and quickly adopted a heavy rotation of Vans, Levi’s and skateboards. Moving on to NYC really helped develop my personal style. However, it wasn’t until moving to Wisconsin that I was able to leverage this influence at Lands’ End. We’re a classic American brand that’s easy to celebrate. Our rich sailing heritage provides an endless resource to build modern pieces that fit any guy’s lifestyle.
We’re taking some big steps forward focusing on raw materials, fit, and styling all through our founding principles of quality, value and service. We just launched a denim collection to compliment our established casual sportswear and tailored collections. We continue to challenge ourselves on what’s next.
Indeed, you have a great jeans wear offering now. Tell us more.
This was two years in the making. We labored over this collection. We sweated the details from fabric to fit to finish. Each element was thoughtfully selected to build a jean that would be important to our brand and our customer. I’ve got a really talented team that understands how to build great product.
And we’re impressed! Non-iron Supima cotton dress shirts, for example, are genius. What’s been the response like?
Our quality message has always guided our raw materials selection and our endless innovation pursuits. Our No Iron Supima Cotton collection is an example of this. We sought out some of the world’s finest cotton combining it with a no iron finish that allows for really low maintenance, yet looks and feels amazing. Our No Iron Supima Pinpoint Oxford shirt is the workhorse of our dress shirt collection. We offer it in multiple fits, colors, patterns, collars, and neck and sleeve sizes, making it as close to a custom dress shirt as you can get. Monogramming it offers a personal touch allowing you to proudly wear your own brand. It’s a really popular item for us and one we’re quite proud of.
I think a lot of guys are going to be pleasantly surprised by the fall collection—there are contrast-collared dress shirts, printed henleys, French terry trousers/joggers, to cool chambray shirts, wool cashmere knit caps, even a M-65 jacket and Donegal knit sweater-blazer. Tell us what you had in mind when designing these key pieces and who’s the guy who inspired you and are designing for?
Most of us wear what we make or make for those around us—friends, family, spouses, partners. We want to look and feel good and we want those around us to look and feel good as well. We have a fun game when we complete the collection where we line up all the outfits and either select the look we’ll be wearing or the ones we see our friends and family wearing. We often find ourselves calling dibs on certain items.
Accordingly, what kind of signature touches make these garments uniquely Lands’ End and different from what’s available at retail?
The best idea one of our designers had when we were developing our jeans was to create a leather patch you could monogram. Brilliant! And unique!
Menswear and “athleisure” wear is having a moment for sure, and in some ways Lands’ End has always understood that. So what’s the secret to building a successful lifestyle brand?
We really have to consider what’s happening around us. To be aware of what social or media influences are impacting society, then making them relevant for our customer. There’s a balance of evolving the collection while honoring our heritage. It’s a delicate process and takes a great deal of focus and hard work.
We’ve got an amazing holiday sweater collection coming up which combines our sailing heritage with modern details.
How about retail? Can we expect to see stores, even a menswear retail store, in the near future?
Lands’ End currently has a large retail presence in 247 Sears stores across the country that offer men’s apparel and accessories. As well, we have five Lands’ End full-price, stand-alone stores. For the opportunity to shop the full men’s collection, I recommend visiting our web site.
What’s one destination that you admire or are inspired by?
Frank Lloyd Wright’s homestead, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It’s an amazing place that blends timeless modern architecture with surrounding natural beauty. I’ve gotten to know one of the gardeners which has afforded me access to some of the spaces which aren’t on the tour.
Finally, can you name one style rule guys can break in 2014?
Any of them as long as you know them. Confidence is your license to do so.
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