Paying Attention: Two years ago, late at night, restless, I was diving through an LL Bean catalog. I am a big LL Bean fan. I have a duffle bag from them is that is about thirty years old and, of course, I also have their famous “Duck Boots”, along with hiking and climbing shells, and one of their canoes and a set of paddles, and at least one small backpack. Oh, and a flannel shirt (or 2), a down vest, and a bunch of kayaking stuff ( a kayaking vest, a couple of kayak personal flotation devices, and a long-sleeve, fast-wicking, kayak shirt ). The point: I’m moderately invested in LL Bean gear and sensibilities. I’ve been to Maine. I’ve been to their open 24/7/365 store in Maine. While I don’t have them on speed dial yet, their CRM(Customer Relationship Management) is so good that anytime I call, they can immediately pull up my last order, delivery address, account info, etc, and we can get right down to business. When you call LL Bean, they get to the phone in a hurry unlike some other mail order or internet order companies. I like that. I grew up with them as a mail order company, but now they’re a telephone order company or an internet order company. I still like getting the little physical “mail it in” order forms, though, as well as the big catalogs. I typically order by phone with the catalog in front of me. Like having people handle this stuff.
One thing caught my eye on that night: LL Bean’s new (to me) wrinkle free Oxford Cloth button down shirts. I am a heavy consumer of Oxford Cloth shirts—this comes with being raised in the South and having a college wardrobe that was heavy on Khaki pants (five pairs) and Oxford Cloth Button Down long sleeve shirts (5 in light or “French “ blue, five in white; one blue stripe). For the past twenty years or so, the choice of Oxford Cloth shirts has been narrowed to either the Ralph Lauren models or the Brooks Brothers line (The East Coast Standard). Both excellent brands, great shirts, good cloth but they have one flaw: high maintenance.
My existing stock of Oxford Cloth shirts required constant trips to the cleaners. They have to be washed, starched lightly, put on hangers (it’s an extra fifty cents to have them folded, which is good for storage or trips, but otherwise is not so great because folding leaves creases in the shirt when you unfold it to wear). My neighborhood cleaners is just a few blocks from my house, so I could walk there if I really needed to and it’s run by a Korean family that emigrated from Peru. They speak fluent—if halting—English along with Spanish and Korean. Their dry cleaning/laundry shop is pin neat, nothing fancy, and I can expect a calendar with their name on it every December. As a heavy user of their services, I received not one but two official laundry bags, into which I would deposit my Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren Oxford Cloth button downs, along with the occasional Turnbull & Asser (Jermyn Street, London) English Spread Collar striped shirt (magnificent material and for about $200 a shirt they should be….you don’t buy Oxford Cloth shirts from T&A…a rather unfortunate set of initials but that’s another story..but striped shirts, of which they have perhaps the world’s greatest variety…men on best-dressed lists all over the world shop there and so do I, even though I’m only on the acceptably well-dressed list). Of course, I also toss into the special laundry bag other items besides shirts; a suit once in a while, sweaters, dress slacks, and the latest tie to fail in dodging an errant spoonful of soup at lunch.
I’m a good client at the cleaners and certainly spend more money there in a year than at LL Bean. About $1500 last year, according to my accountant, who tracks such things with a gleam in his eye. That makes me , in my own small cleaning world, a big hitter, a rainmaker in the local dry cleaning industry and it’s a small but useful status.
I was thinking about that rather large cleaning bill while I was working my way through the LL Bean catalog, and also the associated personal time required to have an up-close-and-personal relationship with my cleaners (gather up the goods, drop them off, then return to pick everything up) and decided that, just as an experiment, I would “go off the reservation” and give the LL Bean wrinkle free shirts a try. I had owned some LL Bean Oxford Cloth shirts years ago—still own them in fact, as they have transitioned from daily business/social wear to casual, under-a-sweater use, to work-on-the-boat shirts.
Now, obviously at the later stages in their working career, these shirts were no longer sent regularly to the cleaners, rumpled and sometimes spotted with dip sauce only to return starched and shiny and hanging at attention on a wire hanger (which, recycling guy that I am, I always return to the cleaners because…I don’t need them anymore and they take up a lot of room). The older LL Bean Oxford Cloth shirts, while lacking the fancy branding of the Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers shirts, were just as serviceable and lasted just as long—maybe longer. It had, however, been a while since I was heavily invested in LL Bean Oxford Cloth shirts and so I decided to order a few of their new-to-me wrinkle free shirts, in the expectation that maybe they would remain somewhat crisp during the working day—no small consideration since my day job requires constant inside–outside activities in Houston’s often sweltering heat and humidity.
On the internet, I ordered up a test sample: one white and one French Blue LL Bean Oxford Cloth Button Down. I ordered each shirt in a slightly different size, ½ size increments to be exact, because different manufacturers size differently and in this shopping experiment the goal was to find the right size and how well they fit, not just how they held up under the daily grind.
The two shirts, one white, one blue, arrived about four days later. I pulled them from the packaging and hung them up. No wrinkles. Hmmmm. I wore them to work and, as with all my other Oxford Cloth shirts, after I was finished with a day at the office I tossed them into the laundry bag to go the cleaners.
They came back clean and perfectly pressed with just a little starch. Ooops. And then I looked at the care label on one of the shirts before I put it on. It said nothing about sending the shirt to the cleaners. It did say to just wash it, tumble dry, and hang it up. No trips to the cleaner involved, no need for starch, no need for pressing. Typically, I had totally circumvented the value of wrinkle free shirts, thinking that the wrinkle free part only applied to daily wear when, in actuality, it was built in, from wash cycle to wear. In short: these shirts should never need to see the inside of my cleaners again.
After another week or so of tests, I committed to the LL Bean Oxford Cloth wrinkle free shirts, ordering more in blue and another set in white. I was all-in now. It was showtime.
One year into the new wrinkle free era, I can report back that the shirts work like a charm and that the daily wear cycle has never been easier. Grab a suit, a white or blue button down, a tie, shoes, socks if you’re in the mood or seeing very stiff people, and you’re done. Instead of the dedicated cleaners laundry bag shuffle, I now just grab a handful of shirts, put them through the washer/dryer process, and then hang them back up (on wooden hangers—no more wire hangers ) and they’re ready for the next day or night. Couldn’t be easier.
Also economic. The LL Bean Oxford Cloth wrinkle shirts are about $29.00/shirt. They could have gone up since I wrote the first draft of this post. It costs $1.50 to have a shirt washed, starched, pressed, and placed on a hanger. After I’ve worn the shirt 19.3 times, it has paid for itself in saved laundry charges. The expense of owning one of LL Bean’s wrinkle free wonders is thus capped at $29.00.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, an Oxford Cloth shirt from Brooks Brothers is about $60.00. And it must go to the cleaners to be useful again after it’s worn. That part of the ownership cycle goes on and on and so the expense of owning a Brooks Brother or any other type of shirt that requires weekly trips to the cleaners is open ended, not capped. It’s a small thing but it adds up (in my case to $1500 a year). If our government thought like this, our taxes might be lower, but that’s another story.
All of the preceding is leading to this one point: I now feel guilty about my relationship with my cleaners. For years, I had been their go-to guy on a weekly basis, wracking up rather imposing cleaning bills, sometimes hitting triple digits. There’s a loyalty thing. Now, I hardly stop by—my new LL Bean Oxford Cloth wrinkle free shirts don’t need a visit but occasionally, the other items in my wardrobe do—and when I do visit, I get this comment from my cleaners; “Where have you been? We haven’t seen you in a while? “
My response, always the same, and shaded with a certain type of commercial guilt:”I’ve been traveling”. I always include one of my racing team shirts—or two—so the fiction that I’ve been traveling seems plausible, but I know, and maybe they do as well, that another shirt has come between us: an LL Bean Oxford Cloth wrinkle free shirt.
Guess I’ll have to look elsewhere for my 2016 handout calendar. Just hope I don’t get asked to return one (or both) of the laundry bags. Those are very useful.