HOW MANY screens are in your bedroom-turned-office? We’re bombarded by blue light from our laptops and phones as we scroll through emails, Slack chats, Instagram,
or whatever e-comm site that creepily tailored-to-you pop-up ad recommends. Sure, you could get up and take a walk, but here’s a less expected antidote to digital overload: Thumb through the catalogs that clog your (actual) mailbox.
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Alex Carleton, outdoor brand Filson’s chief creative officer, suggested that Covid has left us craving the pleasures of simpler times. “We are physically disconnected…[but] you have an emotional connection to the physical quality of the mail coming into your home,” he said. Filson’s catalog, which has been shipped to subscribers for over 100 years, reads like a magazine packed with escapist photos, profiles of history’s greatest mountain men and stuff you’d actually want to wear. Along with mailers from earthy California label Jenni Kayne and better-basics disrupter Ayr, Filson is one of many brands rehabilitating catalogs’ reputation for being fusty, outdated and woefully cheesy.
Catalogs have “a chronological order, a beginning and an end…and that seems to be hard-wired into us still,” said Guillermo Sanchez, CEO of Publitas, a company that helps brands bring their catalogs online. That finite, predictable, quiet quality is comforting in a hectic digital age.
Here, a brief guide to catalog shopping, the best buys, and all the analog pleasures this throwback diversion brings.
Why Should I Care About Catalogs Now?
From the late 1800s, when Sears, Roebuck and Co. started the catalog craze, through the 1990s, when now-bankrupt J.Crew was the preppy catalog king, these mailers were a key tool for connecting with customers. The internet, of course, has since largely taken their place. That said, the affordable, comfortable, function-first clothes from traditional catalog brands like Lands’ End and L.L. Bean are resonating in the Covid era. “Our precious clothes aren’t coming out right now,” said New York fashion consultant Josh Peskowitz. He argues that today’s clothing purchases need to tick at least one of two boxes: “Is it soft and comfy for me to sit cross-legged on my couch for the next 14 hours, or can I wipe my hands on it?” So whether you’re cozying up in your home office or you’ve traded your city apartment for a higher-maintenance country abode (that gutter won’t clean itself), you can rely on catalog brands for appropriate clothes. New York City high-school math teacher Eric Scott, 39, applauds the quality of the Lands’ End Donegal tweed trousers he’s been wearing while Zoom schooling. “You’ll have this pair of pants for 15 years,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about them fraying at the bottom or the dye wearing thin.”
Can I Assemble an Actually Stylish Outfit?
Creating a balanced outfit without looking like you’re wearing the entirety of page 22 requires strategy—namely, knowing your wardrobe well and purchasing catalog pieces that might complement it. Katie Sturino, a Palm Beach entrepreneur and advocate for size inclusivity, favors that approach. Since many fashion labels restrict their offerings to sizes 0 through 12, she has long looked to catalog brands to fill the holes in her stylish wardrobe. “I like cherry-picking cool stuff out of the less fashion-forward selection,” said Ms. Sturino, 39. That means wading through the ergonomically clunky shoes, frighteningly toothy smiles and aggressively cheerful color combos and filtering out single pieces that meet your standards. Ms. Sturino’s latest gems include sportily striped rugby shirts and shearling-lined loafers from L.L. Bean (pictured below).
How Do I Navigate the Overwhelming Array?
First, ruthlessly consider which pieces of your existing wardrobe you actually wear to establish what works for you in terms of fabric and cut. Second, have a firm grasp of the fashion lingo—something Mr. Scott learned from leafing through his father’s Spiegel catalog as a child. Understanding what, say, “Prince of Wales plaid,” “inseam” or “rise” mean has helped him navigate the options. Most catalog clothing is “very plain,” said Mr. Scott, who runs an Instagram page documenting his frugal finds, “but then all of a sudden, boom, this amazing piece is there.”
Dr. Julie Marshall, 64, a retired dermatologist from Chicago, studies her Talbots catalogs when they come in the mail. She quickly zeroes in on suitable options by hunting for her preferred hues. “I look for good colors first,” she explained. Then she only pays attention to designs in materials likely to feel good. Lands’ End and Talbots “both have a ton of cotton, linen and natural fibers versus synthetic fabrics.” She swears by the jewel-toned cashmere cardigans from both brands.
Do I Send in an Order Form?
The famous catalog retailer J. Peterman will still take your order form, but most catalogs have transitioned into a new role as browsing companions. “We aren’t getting faxes anymore,” said Lands’ End CEO
“Over 95% of the business is online.” So, no. Head on over to the website and click “buy.”
A Guide to Smart (and Stylish) Catalog Dressing
1. Stay in Neutral
Earthy hues are a catalog specialty, as are blessedly basic graphic prints, like the stripes on this brown and blue polo. $50, llbean.com
2. No Name? No Problem.
Catalogs are great places to find logo-free accessories like this leather belt with a tastefully subdued buckle. $89, orvis.com
3. Cozy Cords
Corduroy pants are quintessentially “catalog.” Try this classic khaki pair from L.L. Bean. $65, llbean.com
4. Can You Kick It?
These Lands’ End loafers are simultaneously low-key and polished. $100, landsend.com
5. Hat Trick
Designer brands like Gucci and Dior have lately been endorsing the bucket hat, but why splurge when Lands’ End’s ultrasoft topper comes in both black and tan? $25, landsend.com
6. A Good Sport
Thanks to ‘The Crown,’ dressing like you’re going stalking in the Scottish Highlands is trending. This Orvis shooting shirt will make a statement in the backwoods and the crosswalk. $89, orvis.com
7. Let Loose
With pants, avoid skinny styles. Roomy fits like boot-cut and pleat-front are what catalog brands do best. $80, landsend.com
What Our Catalog Curators Picked
We tasked four sophisticated fashion insiders with finding covetable clothing in classic mailers. Here, their surprisingly stylish discoveries—and how to wear them.
Photographer and creative director, Brooklyn, N.Y.
THE FILSON CATALOG
“Right now, I’m gravitating toward things I’ll really wear. I’ve learned from past mistakes of buying ‘of the moment’ stuff. I want things that are life-proof. I love this Swiftwater Rain Pullover because it’s so functional. I can walk my dog or get groceries in it. I can wear it shooting [street style] at the fashion shows. But it would also look nice layered under a coat.” $225, filson.com
Beauty entrepreneur and inclusive-sizing influencer, Palm Beach
THE L.L. BEAN CATALOG
“Catalog brands are something I’m very familiar with, mostly because they’ve been size-inclusive for so long. I am obsessed with the Wicked Good Camp Moccasins in this catalog. They have a Barbour look to them, like you’re in the English countryside. They also have a bit of a romantic vibe and they are just so warm and comfortable.” $79, llbean.com
Food, prop and wardrobe stylist, San Francisco
THE LANDS’ END CATALOG
“I’m really into the coat section. The windowpane Hooded Waterproof Long Raincoat is super cute. It would be great with jeans and a T-shirt for running around. But it could also be really fun with the sleeves rolled up, layered with a crop top or leotard and a bright colored pant. It can be belted if you’re a little curvy. Try swapping the belt it comes with for a leather one. And pile on some jewelry.” $180, landsend.com
Fashion consultant, New York City
THE ORVIS CATALOG
“I love outdoor gear. I grew up wearing stuff from the Army surplus store. Orvis is similar, but for a gentleman. I’m into the Missouri Breaks Field Pants. They’re like bramble pants, which you’d wear if you had to walk through a hedge. I’m a sidewalk dude but they feel really practical right now. I like that they’re two-toned, like a 1980s Cadillac. I’d wear them with Wallabees and an overcoat.” $129, orvis.com
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