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Designer Alex Carleton has been handed a tall order: give Maine-based L.L. Bean some edge.

Alex Carleton The clothes Alex Carleton (in his Manhattan studio) designed for L.L. Bean Signature are more fashion forward than traditional Bean offerings. (Jennifer S. Altman for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / October 29, 2009

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NEW YORK - The invitation said the party was for L.L. Bean, but the gathering at a fashionable Hell’s Kitchen art gallery two weeks ago felt light-years from the Freeport, Maine, retailer and its woodsy world of fleece, comfort mocs, and wrinkle-free chinos. Waiters in crisp shirts circled the room with trays of wine while some of the country’s top fashion editors eyed the two-dozen models who stood on a raised platform attired in preppy-chic designs. Oh, look over there, it’s Anderson Cooper.

Despite the disconnect between the name on the invite and the party itself, this was very much an L.L. Bean affair. The models wore the Maine retailer’s new specialty line, L.L. Bean Signature - an attempt to reach a younger, more trend-conscious audience - which arrives in stores and online in March. Instead of relaxed mom jeans, there are flirty denim skirts. Men’s shirts are body-conscious and fitted. The hunting jackets look more appropriate for hunting down a good bottle of Prosecco in Back Bay than tracking moose. The new Signature canvas tote bags lack those quintessential Bean details: contrasting handles and monograms.

This is an L.L. Bean line to compete with the more fashion-forward likes of J.Crew and Ralph Lauren’s Rugby line, and it follows a path taken by historic American brands Woolrich and Pendleton, both of which recently upped their style profiles with new specialty lines.

The more fashionable take on L.L. Bean comes courtesy of Cape Cod native Alex Carleton, whose Portland, Maine-based clothing line Rogues Gallery has, in a few short years, become a favorite among stylish gents. Carleton, 40, who grew up in East Orleans and went to the Cambridge School in Weston, was tapped by L.L. Bean last year to help create the Signature Collection, and has since been installed as the line’s creative director.

“The idea is that this is the next generation of L.L. Bean customer,’’ Carleton explains the day after the party. After a late night of gallivanting, he’s digging into a giant slab of chocolate cake at a cafe near his New York studio. “It’s targeted to a younger demographic. There are a few pieces in the line that anyone would be able to relate to - the current Bean consumer as well as younger folks who are in college.’’

Unlike designer collaborations that regularly fill racks at Target and H&M, L.L. Bean Signature is not a one-off project. According to Chris Vickers, vice president of L.L. Bean Signature, the clothes will become a permanent fixture in L.L. Bean stores - which have expanded in recent years, pushing as far west as the Chicago area. The Signature Collection will have its own real estate within stores, and if the line does well, Signature stores are a possibility.

“We’re eventually hoping to open free-standing stores,’’ Vickers said the morning after the party as he sifted through blog posts about the new collection. “Ideally, we would like to open locations in places like the Prudential Center. It’s a full line, so this would be a full store.’’

Carleton and his team of designers have created about 200 pieces for the new collection, but this month’s unveiling was just a tease to get fashion editors excited for the full offering in March. The models wore looks that ranged from updates on plaid shirts to day and evening dresses that hint at their Maine roots with subtle, almost abstract patterns of sailboats or buoys. The pieces are more expensive than Bean’s standard issue clothing, but none of it is more than $150.

“I always love getting the L.L. Bean catalog, but I never wind up finding anything in there that appeals to me beyond the slipper socks or the dog beds,’’ says Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com. “I think there’s a whole generation of fashion shoppers who they haven’t tapped into lately, but who are interested in the heritage of the label.’’

Carleton’s arrival comes at a time when the privately-held retailer could benefit from an infusion of new customers. Company president and chief executive Chris McCormick announced earlier this year that L.L. Bean’s revenues were down nearly 8 percent; the company eliminated more than 100 jobs as a result. It was only the third time since 1960 that the company saw a decline in revenues.

While Maine-based retail analyst Tom Yake of Yake & Associates said that dip was not as dire as many retailers experienced, the addition of a new, higher-end collection could help the company, which has never been as strong on clothes as it is with sporting and outdoor goods.

“If they can make some of that square footage in their stores productive - if this designer can hit on the right model - they might be on to something,’’ Yake says. “Up here, we all hope that they come out of it, and there are not that many industries up here that are faring that well. But L.L. Bean is just one of those legendary companies.’’

There’s another reason for optimism. American heritage sportswear is experiencing a major renaissance, not just in the US, but in Europe and Japan, and companies are trying to capitalize with more fashion-forward offerings. Woolrich has teamed with New York-based Japanese designer Daiki Suzuki, while Pendleton has teamed with Open Ceremony.

In many ways, Carleton is just the person to bring some edge to Bean. Since moving to Maine 10 years ago, he’s used the historic New England nautical motifs as the inspiration for Rogues Gallery graphic T-shirts. He was soon designing a whole men’s line that includes knit sweaters, heavyweight plaid shirts, and wool outerwear.

With his thick beard and tattooed forearms, Carleton almost looks as if he could have emerged from a 100-year-old sepia tone photo of a Maine seafarer, just the type of photo you might see hanging in his eclectic Portland store.

He spent the 1990s working in design at Ralph Lauren and at Abercrombie & Fitch in Manhattan, but when Carleton moved to Maine to escape his hectic Manhattan life, one of the first places he worked was L.L. Bean. He bounced around the company, designing menswear and children’s clothes, while moonlighting on what would eventually become Rogues Gallery.

“It’s a very different narrative,’’ he says, explaining the distinction between L.L. Bean Signature and Rogues Gallery. “Stanley Kubrick did ‘Barry Lyndon.’ And Stanley Kubrick did ‘The Shining.’ They’re two very different stories. But that’s something that interested me about this project. I was able to channel another voice and create another story.’’

Not only is he designing clothes that are more upbeat and preppy than his own line, he’s also making a big leap by designing women’s wear for the first time in his career. The 97-year-old company is putting a lot of faith in his talents.

“I realized this is a good fit because I haven’t been feeling a lot of pressure,’’ he says. “Not to say that this hasn’t been a lot of hard work, but I’ve felt pretty confident in just understanding the brand. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve lived the brand.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Thursday's "g" section about fashion designer Alex Carleton misspelled the title of the 1975 Stanley Kubrick film "Barry Lyndon."