In 1902, a geologist named Benjamin Willis set off to the subartic in search of a mineral cache. When he couldn’t find clothing acceptable to withstand the journey, Willis decided to design and manufacture his own.
Using materials such as leather, shearling and alpaca, Willis created a line of foul weather clothing that performed splendidly through the harshest of conditions. (He also found the minerals.)
Through the early 1900s, Willis sold the items he designed and manufactured through venerable outdoor retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. Word of Willis’ designs spread quickly through the exploration community and in 1906, Teddy Roosevelt wore Willis’ wares (that he had purchased from Abercrombie & Fitch in NYC) on his trip across Alaska. Roosevelt was pleased enough with their performance that he again wore Willis’ clothing in 1908 when he journeyed to Africa.
In 1928, Willis took on a business partner named Howard W. Geiger, and the company was re-christened Willis & Geiger Outfitters. Willis handled the technical and design aspects while Geiger focused on marketing.
Willis & Geiger operated under a simple dictum:
“Don’t tell us how to make it cheaper, tell us how to make it better.”
In 1931, the U.S. Government approached Willis & Geiger in need of a new jacket for its pilots; the result was the now famous A-2 Intermediate Flight Jacket. From there, the list of adventurers who wore Willis & Geiger reads like a veritable Who’s Who of exploration marvels: Lindbergh. Amundson. Earhart. Hillary. And the list went on.
For more than 50 years, the “Make It Better” philosophy served the company well. However, in 1977, Abercrombie & Fitch went bankrupt with its single largest debt owed to Willis & Geiger. W&G didn’t survive.
In 1979, a former Abercrombie & Fitch employee named Burt Avedon led a group of investors that revived the Willis & Geiger brand. Avedon, who played football and baseball at UCLA in the 1940s, was a former Naval fighter pilot in World War II and later an African bush pilot and professional hunter. Naturally, Avedon had a deep appreciation of the company’s outfitter heritage. He did a masterful job resurrecting the brand, creating the company’s first mail order catalog and developing it into a strong multi-channel specialty retailer.
Avedon led the sale Willis & Geiger to VF Corp. in the early 90s, and VF later sold it to Laura Ashley. In 1995, W&G was purchased by Lands’ End. Though Lands’ End no longer actively markets the brand, LE/Sears still controls it and occasionally attaches its name to new product offerings. Each of these much larger parent-company-owners never seemed to understand why the Willis & Geiger concept couldn’t successfully be taken mainstream. They didn’t comprehend the notion that bigger isn’t always necessarily better, and for a niche purveyor like Willis & Geiger, that was certainly the case.
More than 100 years after it began, the most lasting testament to Willis & Geiger’s “Make it Better” formula can be seen on eBay. Though its been nearly 20 years since the company last made products independently, it’s well-worn clothing and accessories frequently change hands on the auction website for several times their original retail price.
Don’t make it cheaper; make it better. We can’t think of better words for a retailer to live by.