'Granddaddy of outerwear' joins the catalog camp

September 14, 1995|By Denise Cowie | Denise Cowie,Knight-Ridder News Service

Teddy Roosevelt went to them before he went on a year's safari to Africa.

Adm. Richard Byrd checked in before he made his exploratory flights over the poles. As did Charles Lindbergh before he flew solo across the Atlantic; and Edmund Hillary, before he climbed Mount Everest.

Amelia Earhart wore their gear. So did Ernest Hemingway and Gen. Douglas MacArthur and President Dwight Eisenhower.

They outfitted America's flyboys in World Wars I and II and Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers before Pearl Harbor.

And, of course, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly in the John Huston movie "Mogambo."

"They" are Willis & Geiger, the men behind the company that Town & Country magazine once called the "granddaddy of outerwear firms." The company, founded by adventurer Ben Willis in 1902, who later was joined by sportsmen Howard and Phil Geiger, had long outfitted those hardy souls who pushed the limits on a grand scale.

And now weekend outdoorsmen and armchair travelers can join the adventure. The first Willis & Geiger catalog has just been published -- which isn't surprising when you know the trademark was acquired last year by catalog giant Lands' End.

Although the company (now based in Reedsburg, Wis.) has had a variety of corporate owners in recent years, said Willis & Geiger spokesman Michele Casper, Burt S. Avedon has been president since 1979. And the "historic integrity" of the clothing line has been kept intact, said company consultant Joan Wadkins.

The new catalog aims for a chunk of that upscale market of travelers, sportsmen and adventure trippers who buy expensive, rugged apparel.

Not that you couldn't buy Willis & Geiger jackets and shirts and boots before this. They were sold under a variety of labels through such retailers as Brooks Brothers, Abercrombie & Fitch and Norm Thompson.

Although you may not know the Willis & Geiger name, odds are you're quite familiar with some of the products -- the misnamed "bomber jacket," for instance (it was worn by dogfighting pilots, not bombardiers), is a W&G design, as are the Hemingway jacket and the bush (safari) shirt.

All these classics are in the catalog, along with such new items as gusseted polo shirts and alpaca sweat shirts.

Even if you never journey off your porch, the catalog is fun to read. It is written in that Lake Woebegone-like style embraced by higher-end direct merchandisers.

Its spiel for the Skeleton Coast camera jacket/vest, for example, says: "Until National Geographic asked Des and Jen Bartlett to study desert elephants off Namibia's Skeleton Coast the world got along just fine without this jacket. Actually, no one knew desert elephants even existed. But after one too many missed shots, our friends came to us for help, and we all sat down and designed this jacket. We originally named it the 'Spend Ten Years in the Worst Place on Earth Filming Desert Elephants While Avoiding Beach Lions Jacket,' but we realized that would probably cut down considerably on sales."

For a free catalog, call (800) 223-1408.

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