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July 5, 2018

Outdoor startup Flowfold gets a big break in partnership with L.L.Bean

Courtesy / Flowfold From left: Founder Charley Friedman, co-founder Devin McNeill and team member Nick Power

With only eight full-time employees and yearly sales “in the low seven figures,” Flowfold COO James Morin acknowledges the Scarborough-based manufacturer of lightweight minimalist outdoor gear hasn’t quite cut loose from the status of being a startup company.

That may be about to change, though, thanks to a unique collaboration with L.L.Bean that launched on June 19 a new collection of backpacks, totes and gear bags under the Freeport retailer’s “Be an Outsider” brand. L.L.Bean gives a significant nod to its junior partner by calling that new line the “Flowfold Collection.”

“It comes from having a successful business partnership with them,” Morin said, explaining that L.L.Bean had been carrying Flowfold’s products online and in its retail stores since 2016. About a year ago, he says, Flowfold pitched the idea to L.L.Bean of working together on developing a new line of U.S.-made minimalist outdoor gear.

Making a pitch to L.L.Bean

Charles Friedman — who co-founded the company with Devin McNeill in 2010, initially making billfold wallets out of racing sail cloths in a basement workspace on Peaks Island but eventually moving into manufacturing lightweight outdoor gear — picks up the story from Morin.

“We wanted to create something special with L.L.Bean, and we believe we’ve done that with this co-lab collection,” Friedman said. “Making our products here in the USA allows a speed and agility in bringing these designs to market. Twelve months ago, we had sketches on napkins and now we have a growing collection that’d I’d put up against any other assortment in the industry. We’re darn proud of that.”

Morin said Flowfold’s pitch wasn’t simply about a new line of products.

“You need a story to sell the product,” he said, explaining that both companies have great stories to tell.

L.L.Bean’s is well known: A Maine startup that began in 1912 with Leon Leonwood Bean selling a single innovative product, the Maine Hunting Shoe, now known as the L.L.Bean Boot and still made in Maine.

But Flowfold’s story is also compelling: Friedman sold his car for seed money, teamed up with McNeill and fellow surfer Nick Power in making wallets and within five years the Flowfold expanding product line included duffle bags, zipper totes and backpacks.

The common ground of both company’s stories, Morin said, involves using innovation involving new methods and ideas to create outdoor gear products that people will want to use.

In Flowfold’s case, a key innovative element is its use of strong, lightweight and resilient fabrics engineered to withstand years of abrasion and abuse from the elements. That dovetails with L.L.Bean’s commitment to selling products that are “durable, not disposable,” as noted on the company’s website under the “product sustainability” tab. 

“No collaboration will work unless there are some shared values and a common mission,” Morin said.

An expert's take on the collaboration

Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry advisor for the NPD Group, covers the sports, outdoor, and recreation marketplace for the New York-based company, which helps businesses around the world “get the right products in the right places for the right people.” In a written statement provided to Mainebiz, Powell said the L.L.Bean-Flowfold collaboration is special in the way that it represents “a simultaneous homage to the past and a tip of the cap to the future.”

“This co-lab represents the very best of both companies while also offering a potential look into the future of the outdoor industry,” he wrote.

It’s an emerging trend, he added, that cuts across the retail landscape, from food to fashion, as companies with their own unique brands come together to create new and innovative products. “Collaborations are win-win for emerging brands and retailers.” he said.. “Emerging brands get broader exposure for their brand and products while retailers enhance this fashion credibility and push the envelope on their brand.”

The collaborative Flowfold collection being sold by L.L.Bean online and at its retails stores includes a center-zip backpack, a crossbody tote bag, utility organizer, and wrist pouch, each in three colors, all made from ultralight, water-resistant X-Pac fabric. Prices range from $39 for the wrist pouch to $149 for the backpack.

Morin said the design of those products was “100% collaborative,” with both companies bringing to the table their unique perspectives. “We pushed the envelope with that center-zip backpack,” he said, noting that L.L.Bean’s design team pushed right back with the kind of product-testing and quality-control analyses to not only make sure customers would embrace that innovation but also that it would work.

“L.L.Bean sets the bar extremely high,” he said, adding that for Flowfold’s team the collaborative design effort was an incredibly learning experience at every turn. “We’re talking about a million-dollar company here that had to have the standards of a billion-dollar company. Our biggest takeaway? At L.L.Bean they always think about the customer first. They always were asking us, ‘How will the user benefit?’”

Tom Armstrong, chief merchandising officer for L.L.Bean, said the flip side for Bean’s team was having the opportunity to work with a rising young company that puts a high value on innovation and creativity.

“We’re excited to launch this unique and innovative collaboration,” Armstrong said. “Our product teams have had such fun bringing together our expertise and our shared love of the outdoors, and it shows in the detail, design and performance of these bags.”

“We created this line of products together,” added Curt Nichols, corporate merchandise manager for L.L.Bean. “We want our customers to see both our labels on the products and know that they are getting the very best of both brands.”

What's next?

Morin said Flowfold is making all the products for L.L.Bean in the collection that launched on June 19. That “Made in USA” element, as well as Flowfold’s lifetime warranty for its products, are important elements of the collection’s brand for both companies.

“The initial sales results are very positive,” he said. “We had a great first week of sales.”

Having products being sold through L.L.Bean’s global e-commerce and retail stores, obviously, is a huge opportunity for Flowfold, which Morin said has seen its sales “nearly double year over year” for the past three years.

“We’re growing to the point where we may need larger space pretty soon,” he said. “We’re at that stage as a company where you have to take that leap of faith and scale up.”

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