The First 50 Years: Our First Customer

Like our founder, Dick Ainsworth loves boats, adventure and creativity. And for 35 years, one of the very first products to bear the Lands’ End label – a bag made from surplus sailcloth – has been his constant companion.


ainsworth-3In the summer of ’76, Dick Ainsworth walked into the Lands’ End® store on Elston Avenue in Chicago and saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Amongst the boat hardware and sailing supplies was a rack full of small, blue bags, each sporting a white zipper and label featuring a Lands’ End lighthouse logo — what sailors like Ainsworth call a “ditty bag” and landlubbers, less jauntily, a “toiletry bag.”

A creative director for an ad agency and an avid sailor, Ainsworth picked one up, noticing that it was made from the same nylon oxford fabric used to make sails and sail bags. It was the first item he remembers seeing in the Lands’ End store that wasn’t, strictly speaking, sailing equipment.

“So when are you getting the Bermuda shorts and T-shirts?” Ainsworth jokingly asked the store’s owner, Gary Comer, at the counter.

Since taking up sailing on Lake Michigan, Ainsworth had become one of Comer’s loyal customers. In fact, pretty much anyone in Chicago with a sailboat was, too.

According to Ainsworth, there were two types of customers in those days. The racing set sailed modern fiberglass and plastic-hulled yachts “like they were in the America’s Cup,” and depended on Comer for cutting-edge equipment and special paints that made hulls extra-sleek. “Gary was the Midwest distributor for everything you needed to make your boat go fast,” he recalls.

Ainsworth, however, was one of the more relaxed sailors. Preferring the simple pleasure of “getting there with some elegance” he owned a 30-foot, three-ton, wooden sailboat named the Sea Melody, built in 1934.

“It was a wonderful old boat. The vintage brass fit-tings were like jewelry,” he says.

Comer and Ainsworth saw eye to eye on the beauty and tradition of wooden boats.

“He had a love affair with old boats,” Ainsworth recalls, “We were the fun part of the business. I could depend on him to find any obscure part to keep my boat alive.”

ainsworth-1Ainsworth’s annual summer voyage around the Great Lakes required plenty of other supplies from the Lands’ End store, ranging from a portable stove to bib overalls.

“We didn’t consider them clothing,” he says, “they were equipment. The coldest I’ve ever been was the middle of Lake Michigan in June.”

They also came in handy when the crew of the Sea Melody was invited to dinner by the commodore of a yacht club whose expensive vessel they rescued from disaster. When its propeller stuck as it reversed into the dock, Ainsworth and his first mate managed to pull it back out of harm’s way. Showing up at the clubhouse in their rugged sailing clothes, they knew there was only one way around the club’s “no blue jeans” dress code … and so they dined in the bright yellow overalls they had purchased from Lands’ End.

Although Comer distributed some high-end sailing attire, he hadn’t yet tried his hand at making and merchandising his own Lands’ End brand. The “ditty bag” Ainsworth picked up was a small, but significant, step towards a new beginning for Comer’s business.

“We’re going to experiment with our own product,” Comer told Ainsworth.

Shortly thereafter, Ainsworth took a new direction too and moved to Ridgeway, Wisconsin, not far, as it would eventually turn out, from our headquarters in Dodgeville.

When he moved north, Ainsworth traded the Sea Melody in for a vintage kayak.

“Boats like that you don’t own,” he says. “You’re just the caretaker and you pass it on to the next person.”

In the decades since his sailing days, Ainsworth has spent many a summer day kayaking around Door County—always the Lands’ End ditty bag is stowed away inside. He’s also found a new career as a photographer, and his work runs the gamut from artistic impressions of southwestern Wisconsin to a high-tech, 3D photography technique he pioneered. It’s a vocation that’s taken him around the country and overseas. Most recently he was in Saudi Arabia, capturing archaeological sites in 3D. Right there, packed away in his gear, was a little blue bag he bought in Chicago 35 years ago.

Ainsworth has remained a Lands’ End customer through the years, but although his wardrobe contains plenty of our shirts, outerwear and tees, it’s that little blue bag that reminds him why he keeps coming back. It’s one of the little things you use all the time but don’t notice or think about—and when you do, it brings back some of your favorite memories.

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