The Story of Willis & Geiger.

Papa Hemingway in his safari kit.

What every happened to the iconic American brand Willis & Geiger? Vice Publisher John Martin tracks down the one man who knows the really story and what transpires is a no bullshit interview and thoroughly amazing read.

Burt Avedon (cousin of the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon) revived the company two years after it went out of business in 1977 and helmed it until it was liquidated in 1999. Now 89 years old, Burt is one of the last remaining people to have hands-on experience with the brand. His bio reads like a Most Interesting Man in the World skit: He was a pilot by age 12, raced cars, played football for UCLA, fought at Iwo Jima, was awarded a Purple Heart in the Navy, went from Harvard Business School into cosmetics and fashion, married an Italian princess, and later led attempts to excavate downed World War II planes from Greenland ice. After a short search, I tracked him down at his home in Verona, Wisconsin, to find out what had happened to what many consider to be the greatest outdoor-clothing brand of all time.

There is a lot of that with the pace of media right now, where people are always looking to see who’s putting out the newest sneakers, but there are a few brands whose authenticity is paramount.

Yeah, but unfortunately good brands of heritage are a reflection of their original management; when they become professionally managed, they lose the spark that brought them to where they are today. I found that to be classic in the industry. Whenever they go into second- and third-generation management, they lose themselves. They no longer have the passion that was originally part of their DNA.

When did your involvement with Willis & Geiger begin?

Abercrombie & Fitch went out of business in 1977, leaving Willis & Geiger as its largest single creditor due to all the private-label business. Howard Geiger was asked to chair the bankruptcy committee and turned it down because he felt that his position wouldn’t be as objective as it should be due to his many financial interests in Abercrombie & Fitch.

Elmer Ward, my roommate at Harvard Business School, was then the chairman of Palm Beach Corporation. He was intrigued with getting in on Willis & Geiger, as the industry knew what the brand was from all the private-label work it had done over the years. People like Ralph Lauren knew Willis & Geiger and wanted it. Elmer knew what I had been doing with my life, and that I could understand the spirit of Willis & Geiger and wouldn’t ruin it.

The full story here.



Comments on “The Story of Willis & Geiger.

    Bill O'Dowd on March 19, 2013 11:28 AM:

    My wife bought me a number of Willis&Geiger items many years ago. I still have most of them, including the safari jacket(top right). The brand was all about excellence. I know that the clothing from W&G that I still own will be around long after I am gone. What quality!!!

    Jared Zaugg on March 25, 2013 12:42 PM:

    Thanks for this thread. It’s one of the most informative things I’ve read in a long time. Great history, great (tragic) story, great brand and great people.

    Corey Young on March 25, 2013 6:04 PM:

    While in high school, I sent away for their catalog and loved looking at the pictures because It was all about cigars, travel on the unbeaten path, and adventure!

    I bought my first (and only) Willis and Geiger shirt back in 1989 from Dillard’s department store for about $25 (on clearance). It was a brown plaid flannel with khaki colored collar and elbow patches. It was built tough as nails and was my go-to shirt in college, especially on cold days. I got rid of that shirt and donated it to Goodwills years ago after I graduated from college and got a job that required me to have a more professional wardrobe.

    In hindsight, I always wanted one of the gussetted oxford cloth shirts, despite them being rare and difficult to come by.

    Such a shame that a great company like this went away. They had a great product that was made to last.

    Burt Avedon’s life is incredible! This is the kind of guy every guy wishes they had for an uncle!

    Great story!

Comments are closed.