Anyone leafing through early Lands’ End apparel catalogs might be struck by a couple things:
The overly generous use of exclamation points. (New Surfsider Rugbys! The beefiest Oiled Wool Sweater we’ve ever sold!) And the wholesome, next-door-neighborly look of the men, women and kids modeling our clothes.
They sure didn’t look like professional models.
Bernie Roer did his photo shoots on a shoestring back then, as the original Lands’ End creative director. Initially when most of the clothing was hard-core sailing stuff, the modus operandi was pretty simple: grab a few Lands’ End employees and sailing buddies, hop on a boat at Belmont Harbor, and head out into Lake Michigan. Bernie and founder Gary Comer took turns with the camera. A good time was had by all.
But in the late 1970’s, it got a little more complicated. It wasn’t just foul weather gear and sailing sweaters anymore. Lands’ End now carried Oxford shirts, khaki pants, rugbys and other casual clothing, in a multitude of colors, for both men and women. The stuff had to fit right and look good.
Bernie hired Dick Boyer, a Chicago photographer he knew. He was good, and affordable. He also had a place down in Naples, Florida – a perfect locale to shoot breezy Lands’ End clothing.
But what to do about models? Bernie didn’t have the budget to hire the kind of pros used by other catalog companies. So he and Dick scouted up a cast of friends, acquaintances and lucky finds.
There was Greg the tennis pro and his wife Nancy. The leggy Bonnie, who inspired mash notes from customers. Tall blonde Karen and red-haired Sandy, always an engaging couple. And hey – was that Bernie himself, with the Captain’s Wardrobe slung over his shoulder?
Sure, maybe the photos were a little on the posed side. But the people looked happy, confident, relaxed. They had an unmistakable spirit that our customers responded to. And in most of the photos, they proudly displayed “Bernie’s thumb.”
One or both hands in the pockets of their shorts or pants, but with one thumb out, at Bernie’s insistence. We asked Bernie about it.
“I liked it because it was a strong, positive visual,” he said, “and distinctive.
I remember my Dad putting his hand in his pocket that way, when I was a kid.”
When it came time to shoot winter gear, Bernie and his small crew headed out to Jackson Hole or Taos, where they’d put an ad in the paper calling on the locals to come on out to the Holiday Inn or Travelodge, Saturday morning from 9 to noon, and try out for the Lands’ End photo shoot. All the clothing was driven out West by a willing employee in a burgundy Chevy van bought used from the Duofold turtleneck sales rep.
“Some of the people we’d seen the night before in the bar didn’t look quite as good in the morning,” says Bernie. “Could have been the lighting, could have been the cocktails.”
But when it came time to shoot pictures, the winter people looked just as fresh and spirited as the summer ones. They had a natural style that set Lands’ End apart. And even in a parka, they’d keep one thumb out.
Bernie made many contributions to Lands’ End. But we don’t think any of them was as important as the casual, comfortable feel he captured at those photo shoots, which were really what Lands’ End was, is and always will be all about. We use professional models nowadays (we’ve got the invoices to prove it!) but hopefully the same spirit still comes shining through.
You just won’t see any thumbs sticking out.