Behind the scene at L.L. Bean

by Charmaine Daniels

James Gott '90 spends a lot of time looking at what people wear. He scrutinizes details, like a shirt's back yoke line, the size of a pocket, or the length of a placket. As the senior product developer for men's apparel at L.L. Bean, he launches new items in a product line that changes 20 to 30 percent each year. "I set the vision and keep everything in motion," he says of developing new men's clothing.

James Gott '90

James Gott ’90 started working at L. L. Bean 19 years ago and is now the senior product developer for men’s apparel. He is married to Charlene Spring Gott ’90. They live in Bowdoin, Maine, with their 12-year-old son, Matthew.

Motion proves an apt description of his fast-paced job guiding the work of 15 departments juggling 30 to 40 new or updated products over a period up to a year. He and his team work with the design team, the fitting team, the creative team, the testing team, the merchandising team, and the retail team, just to name a few. Months of creating samples takes an intense focus on fabric development, including trips to the Far East or Latin America to meet with vendors.

To do his job, he has to know how fabric is made in Portugal (where a craftsman still brushes flannel for the shirts by hand), how to position a product at the right price, and even how a shirt should ultimately be packaged. Throughout the process, Gott reports progress to upper management.

"I'm involved in every step of the way," he says. His favorite part of the job? The firefight. That's when department teams bombard him with thorny product questions and he has to calmly troubleshoot their concerns. He answers all their questions in stride, and takes full accountability for how he decides to address an obstacle.

"It's when I feel like I'm really contributing to L. L. Bean," he says. 

Gott started out folding clothes, stocking shelves and unloading trucks when he arrived at L. L. Bean 19 years ago. He had grown up in Topsham, just up the road from the Freeport flagship store, where he landed a summer job after graduating from Saint Joseph's. He liked the company, decided to stay and moved up quickly, first landing a permanent position as an inventory buyer. From there, he went on to other progressively responsible positions, switching to his current one three years ago.

It turns out that Gott is fiercely competitive. That helps him push his product ideas to the front of the line. "You have to sell to your own teams; you have to have passion." If he wasn't actively pushing "his" products, they would get moved aside or put on the back burner. "And in the corporate world, you need to have products that sell," he states.

On top of knowing how to make and debut a new product, Gott has to know the Bean customer better than anyone else. Who is that customer?

If the clothing isn't inclined to shout, it shouldn't be boring either, he says. "The balance is in keeping the core customer, but also staying relevant." Gott does that by regularly paying close attention to blogs, customer reviews and fashion trends.

Gott claims organization is one key to his success. Everything goes onto spreadsheets, so he can track multiple product samples and their stages of development. He also sets clear expectations up front and stays calm in the face of deadlines.

“The L.L. Bean customer doesn’t want to shout,” Gott says. “They don’t want to get noticed particularly, but they want to look good.”

Knowing the female customer helps, too.

Though he develops men's apparel, Gott needs to understand the female customer, since women often buy for men in their families and may often launder and care for the clothes. (He admits, with all his current knowledge of fabrics, he had never read a fabric care label until he got this job. "Men don't read labels," he says.)

When asked if everyone who works at L.L. Bean wears the company's clothes to work, Gott admits employees do tend to live the brand. "It's easier to sell products that you use. In the biz, it's called ‘wear testing,'" he says.

Proud to be part of a company he says is very dynamic, he has embraced its call to an active, outdoor lifestyle. He runs 5 or 6 days a week, for a total of 30 miles. "I like the solitude, the fitness, the competition (in races)."

"It keeps me sane," he says.