Eddie Bauer, inventor of the down parka, made his name synonymous with high-quality outdoor clothing and sporting goods. An avid outdoorsman, Bauer opened a small sporting goods store in downtown Seattle in 1920. His own brush with hypothermia while on a fishing trip a few years later led to his experiments with down-filled clothing. By the time he retired, in 1968, he had turned an initial investment of $25 for goose down into a multimillion-dollar business.
Bauer sold the company to a group of Seattle investors who, in turn, sold it to General Mills. In the hands of General Mills, and later Spiegel Inc., Eddie Bauer Inc. expanded from one store and a catalog division in Seattle to more than 600 stores in the United States, Germany, and Japan. By 2004, however, its parent company was bankrupt and the future of the Eddie Bauer chain uncertain.
An Outdoor Life
Eddie Bauer was born October 19, 1899, on Orcas Island in Puget Sound. He developed a deep love for the outdoors at an early age. He turned his avocation into a vocation in 1920, opening a sporting goods store called Eddie Bauer’s Sport Shop. Initially specializing in tennis rackets, he soon expanded his line of merchandise to include his own hand-made golf clubs and fishing tackle. Later, he developed and patented a regulation badminton shuttlecock. The Bauer Shuttlecock popularized the game of badminton in the United States and remains the standard for the sport today.
Early on, he offered customers an unconditional, lifetime guarantee: Any product that failed to perform as required would be returned, no questions asked.
In 1923, Bauer was on a winter fishing trip in Washington when he developed hypothermia. “I was climbing a very steep hill when I started to get sleepy,” he recalled in a 1981 interview. “I reached to touch my back and it was ice. I realized I was freezing to death” (The New York Times). He made it back to Seattle, where he began trying to develop alternatives to the heavy wool outer garments that he and most other sportsmen used at the time.
Bauer had heard stories about the goose down clothing worn by his uncles in Russia during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). He bought $25 worth of down and began experimenting with various designs. The down was insulating and light weight, but bulky. Bauer tamed the bulkiness by adding quilting. He made several jackets with down insulation for himself and a few friends. In 1936, he introduced the “Skyliner,” a quilted, down-filled jacket that soon became standard gear for outdoorsmen. James W. (“Jim”) Whittaker of Seattle wore one when he became the first American to climb Mount Everest in 1963.
Bauer’s chief field tester was his wife Christine (“Stine”) Heltborg, an accomplished sportswoman whose skill with rifle and fishing rod equaled his. The two were married in 1929, in a union that would last 56 years. He affectionately called her “my wilderness companion.”
Between 1934 and 1937, Bauer took out more than 20 patents for a wide range of outdoor clothing and sporting equipment, including the down parka.
During World War II, production at Bauer’s factory in Seattle was diverted to military needs. The U.S. Army Air Corps commissioned more than 50,000 “Eddie Bauer B-9 Flight Parkas,” designed to help keep pilots warm during high altitude flights. Bauer also produced a quarter of a million sleeping bags and countless other items to meet military orders. Of all government suppliers, he alone was granted permission to affix his label to his products, a move that raised product awareness and built a market for his merchandise after the war ended.
Bauer began selling products through a mail-order catalog in 1945. By 1949, he was employing 125 seamstresses to meet customer demand. Mail orders were so strong that he soon closed his downtown store and got out of retailing, except for showroom sales at his Seattle factory.
In 1968, Bauer retired and sold the company to a business partner, William Niemi, and a few other investors. They opened a retail store in San Francisco, but soon sold the entire business to General Mills.
From Parkas to Tablewear
When General Mills bought the Eddie Bauer company, in 1971, it consisted of one retail store and a mail order business. General Mills turned it into a major retailer, with 61 outlets by 1988. The new Eddie Bauer was aimed not just at hunters, fishermen, and hikers but at the carriage trade -- men and women who were “comfortable in tailored suits during the week and chino pants on weekends” (The New York Times, 1981). The company’s focus shifted from making expedition gear to selling what it called “casual lifestyle apparel,” with new emphasis on women’s clothing and accessories.
The aggressive expansion continued after General Mills sold the company to Spiegel, originally an Illinois-based catalog company, in 1988. More than 300 Eddie Bauer stores were opened during the next eight years. Some of these stores sold not only clothing but home furnishings, including wood and upholstered furniture, tableware, and linens for bedroom and bath. By 1993, Eddie Bauer stores and catalog distribution centers were being opened in Germany and Japan. In 1997, the company marked the opening of its 500th store in the United States. One year later, it was operating 556 stores in the U.S. and Canada, along with 32 stores in Japan and nine in Germany.
As a result of dozens of licensing agreements in the 1990s, the Eddie Bauer brand was applied to everything from furniture to bicycles to eyeglasses to car seats for infants and children, and even to automobiles. Consumers could buy Eddie Bauer Edition Mountain Bikes, Eddie Bauer Eyewear for Men and Women, “Baby by Eddie Bauer” merchandise for infants, Eddie Bauer bedding for juveniles, and even the Eddie Bauer Bronco II, manufactured by the Ford Motor Company. They could no longer buy the Skyliner parka, however; it was discontinued in 1995.
In 2001, Eddie Bauer Inc. entered into a licensing agreement with American Recreation Products to launch yet another new line -- of camping equipment.
Two years later, Eddie Bauer’s parent company, Spiegel, filed for bankruptcy. It sold its flagship catalog business and its Newport News women’s apparel unit and announced that Eddie Bauer Inc. also was for sale. Meanwhile, more than 200 Eddie Bauer stores were closed. The company’s corporate headquarters, in Redmond, Washington, was sold to one of its neighbors, the Microsoft Corporation.
Eddie Bauer himself continued to live in the Northwest (in Bellevue) and to enjoy the outdoor life after he retired from the company he had founded. He died at Bellevue’s Overlake Hospital on April 18, 1986, of a heart attack, at age 85. His wife, Christine, had died of pancreatic cancer two weeks earlier. They were survived by a son, Eddie C. Bauer, of Redmond.