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How social media helped L.L. Bean tote bags become a thing

Adding a little irony to the classic bags led to a sales boom and a limited-time collaboration with a 20-something influencer

Social media influencer Gracie Wiener got the attention of L.L. Bean with her posts of ironic Boat and Tote bags and now has a collaboration with the company.L.L. Bean

TikTok and Instagram have turned a very old New England product into a full-blown trend. I’m talking about the classic, sturdy canvas L.L. Bean Boat and Tote customized not with the traditional monograms of yore, but with ironic sentiments, e.g., “Highstrung,” “CTRL Freak” “anxious,” “Waystar Royco,” “LOL NO.”

Gracie Wiener ordered her first ironic tote (monogram: “psycho”) in 2021, posting it to TikTok. A few of her friends ordered their own “psycho” bags.

“One got ‘egomaniac.’ They started sending me photos. I was like, ‘This is so funny. I’m going to make an Instagram account for my own documentation,’” Wiener said. “It was very much an inside joke.”

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This summer, Wiener “randomly” posted a TikTok of one of the bags. It quickly blew up to half a million views, she says.

Today, her Instagram @IronicBoatAndTote has 46,000 followers.

Now, L.L.Bean x @IronicBoatAndTote have launched a limited-edition official Ironic Monogram Collection online, timed for the holidays.

“I guess I was loud enough online, where it got the attention of the L.L. Bean team,” Wiener said with a laugh. “I got really lucky.”

“It was kind of an underground thing where if-you-knew-you-knew,” Wiener says. “I was just the first person to be loud about it online.”

According to L.L. Bean, the trend contributed to the Maine company’s strongest Boat and Tote sales in nearly a decade, and was the company’s number one contributor to new-customer growth in 2022.

So the New England legacy brand tapped Wiener, a North Carolina native now living in New York, to come up with monogrammed phrases for apparel, accessories, and home goods — from a robe reading “business casual,” to pajamas quipping: “out of commission,” a Christmas stocking reading “pretty one,” and yes, totes, among other options. The line debuted in mid-October. As of this writing, the “not not designer” tote is already sold out.

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Of course, you can just make up your own, like the cool kids have done for years.

“My cousin, who’s 13 years older than I am, went to Bowdoin College in Maine. She and her friends would drive to Freeport to the L.L. Bean Store to customize whatever they could get the [staff] to customize — they’d get the craziest phrases. That was in 2000. So it’s definitely nothing new,” says Wiener.

But Gen Zers and #llbeantok have evidently boosted sales.

People love “having a product that can show off your personality and be cheeky,” said Wiener. Also “right now, a lot of people are returning to classics — J. Crew, Banana Republic — these old brands that are tried-and-true staples, these pillars that worked for our parents, grandparents.”

Leon Leonwood Bean created the Maine Hunting Shoe in 1911. Boat and Totes were created in 1944 as ice carriers.

“It’s a little bit of nostalgia,” Wiener said, and a bit of It bag mystique.

“There’s this fascination with people like Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Anna Wintour, with L.L. Bean tote bags. It’s taking a thing that’s so iconic and make it a little irreverent,” Wiener said.

Actual monograms “are a little outdated,” adds Boston-based TikTok content creator Sarah Thompson, 26. “While they are literally personal, they don’t say anything about you as a person. I like that you could find a word or phrase that added some humor or personality to a bag.”

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Thompson has posted her own two ironic totes: “FAT & HOT,” and “dump him.

On her Christmas list? A tote reading “money plz.” Fans of the TV comedy “Parks and Rec” will remember it as the character Mona-Lisa Saperstein’s catch phrase. (“I also work in Finance and Investment Management. So it’s like a double entendre,” said Thompson.)

While Bean bags in general are “pretty common in New England,” said Thompson (she got her first monogrammed L.L. Bean backpack in first-grade) this trend is bringing them “outside of New England — it’s reaching a little bit further than it used to.”

Gen Z loves “the personality factor,” Thompson said. “Also, the fact that they’re sustainable — tote bags are better than plastic.”

Wiener owns some 20 totes; her favorites include “STFU,” “fake heiress” (her laundry bag), and “Wiener” — “which is just my last name, but I think it’s hilarious,” she said.

She gets plenty of @ironicboatandtote submissions — and posts “whatever is making me laugh at that moment.”

“I love ones like ‘unenthused,’ where you read it and it just makes you laugh. One of my favorites is ‘cult leader,’” she said. “I love seeing people’s personalities. I love seeing people’s creativity. This sounds so corny, but getting feedback from my audience of how much joy [the account] brings them makes me want to keep going.”

The totes themselves, she says, are staples that will never go out of style. “It’s such a classic. It will ebb and flow, but it will never not be something people use.”

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Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.