Eddie Bauer: Falling Stock, Climbing Everest

The retailer’s CEO enlists mountain men to remake its image.

When branding and turnaround specialist Neil Fiske was hired away from Bath & Body Works--maker, as Fiske puts it, of "the world's best candle"--to run ailing Northwest chain retailer Eddie Bauer two years ago, he told The New York Times his goal for the company was to build "a premium active outdoor lifestyle brand that combines a sense of adventure with style."For a long time, the company hasn't combined much of either. Founded by the real, eponymous Seattle sportsman in 1920, the company was bought by cereal-maker General Mills in the 1970s, whereupon it abandoned the high-quality gear on which it made its name and embarked on a nationwide expansion selling "casual lifestyle apparel." Almost 20 years later, when Chicago-based retailer Spiegel acquired the company, Eddie Bauer's transformation into a suburban-mall stalwart was complete, the brand name associated less with fishing tackle and more with flannel bedsheets, house paint, Ford Expeditions, and chinos cut for middle-aged spread. Even before Spiegel's 2003 bankruptcy, no serious outdoors lover—let alone mountain climber—would be caught dead wearing its clothing.So once Eddie Bauer re-emerged as a stand-alone, publicly traded company a few years later, CEO Fiske decided to take his brand back upmarket. (In fact, he co-authored a book called Trading Up, which relates how Godiva chocolate became an affordable luxury.) Way upmarket.This week, the company's new product line, First Ascent, is headed 29,000 feet up to the summit of Everest. Led by guides from Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., owned by the famous Whittaker family, the expedition party includes Peter Whittaker—the son of Lou and nephew of Jim (the first American to climb Everest in 1963, when he wore an Eddie Bauer down parka). Even more prominent is Bainbridge Island resident—and six-time Everest veteran—Ed Viesturs, who in 2005 became the first American to reach all of the world's 14 8,000-meter peaks without bottled oxygen."They're all on long-term contracts, five years," says Fiske in an interview. "And their role is to spend 20 to 30 days a year with us building the product, testing it, putting it through its paces, helping us market, being the face of the brand. We really wanted to be true to the credo that it's guide-built, guide-trusted. There's no better place to launch a product line than on Mount Everest."Climbing Everest, as you may know from Into Thin Air, isn't cheap. Commercial services like RMI typically charge their clients around $60,000 each to attempt the peak. (There's only one paying client on this trip, a 17-year-old from Phoenix who's trying to become the youngest American woman to complete the climb.) The cost of the First Ascent expedition "could approach a half-million bucks," says Gordon Janow of rival Seattle guide service Alpine Ascents. "Very high-tier guys [such as Viesturs and Dave Hahn, another Everest veteran leading the promotional climb] get 40 to 70 grand" to guide an ordinary expedition, Janow says.Fiske declined to specify the expedition costs, which include a videographer and other Webcasting technology—plus three younger RMI guides, sherpas, and support staff.While reading the climbers' daily dispatches on the First Ascent Web site (blog.firstascent.com), you can click through to shop for the "expedition outfitting" they wear—such as the Bat Hang Hoodie and the Rainier Storm Shell. This high-tech marketing in the Death Zone will continue on video displays in dedicated sales areas when First Ascent clothing makes its sea-level appearance in selected stores in October. Fiske says Whittaker and Viesturs will also be "featured prominently on the hang tags. It's not just athlete endorsement.""We want to make sure that our brand comes across as the real deal, authentic in every way," says Fiske. The company even sells a full-body down suit, the Peak XV (currently available online only), for the truly hardcore. "At $999, we know that we're not going to sell too many," Fiske concedes.Still, don't expect to fully outfit yourself for Everest in First Ascent gear. The Web site steers consumers to Whittaker Mountaineering (another family company) for technical hardware such as ice axes and crampons. "I had the good fortune of climbing Mount Rainier with [Peter Whittaker] six weeks into the [CEO] job," says Fiske. "And we started talking about how we could bring back the Eddie Bauer-Whittaker relationship."The effort to remake Eddie Bauer is somewhat urgent. Its stock has fallen to about 33 cents a share from $4 a year ago, a collapse of more than 90 percent. The company suffered a loss of $127 million in the fourth quarter of last year (i.e., the holiday season). That contributed to the bulk of the company's total 2008 loss of $165 million on $1 billion in sales. The company cut $50 million from its budget last year and announced plans for a further $15 million reduction this year. It shed nearly 200 workers in late January (of more than 8,000 nationwide, including many part-time retail staff), and renegotiated loans with creditors last month. Past efforts to take the company private failed; then Fiske came on board. (Update: Bloomberg News reports the company may now be up for sale again.)Now the company is banking on high-altitude street cred to revive its results. As Fiske told the Times when he joined: "Just as much as we've lost the identity of the Eddie Bauer brand, we've really lost the identity of the Eddie Bauer guy. The brand just became more and more women-focused and walked away from the men's business, the gear business. It became a less interesting brand for men. So our challenge is to bring it back."He's not going too far in the gearhead direction, however. Eddie Bauer also recently introduced a line of yoga clothing for women. No word yet on whether an Eddie Bauer expedition is planned for hot, scantily clad yoga chicks in Cancún. Now there's a Webcast that would bring "the Eddie Bauer guys" back in a heartbeat.bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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