Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
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One-of-a-kind experience: Students revitalize iconic heritage brand through consulting project

6 people stand in a line smiling. Order from left to right: Ian Vailliencourt, Maia Rauh, Andrew McLean, Soyeon Shim, Kiran Shenoi, Stella Koondel. Ian, Maia, Kiran, and Stella hold up Lands' End tote bags.

Story by Sofia More x’26, UW–Madison student studying Community & Nonprofit Leadership.

Four School of Human Ecology students had an unprecedented learning opportunity: Teaming up with Lands’ End to help revitalize its heritage brand Willis & Geiger.

The one-of-a-kind project consisted of a business strategy pitch that included market research, tech flats (drawings that include information about the garment’s construction) and a visit to the Lands’ End archives. In May 2024, after more than three months of focused work, the student project team presented their proposal to Lands’ End executives with recommendations for moving the brand forward. Select pieces from the Willis & Geiger archives will be available to the public through a gallery exhibition in Nancy Nicholas Hall starting fall 2024.

How did we get here? The Willis & Geiger origin story

Popular among adventurers, explorers and outdoor enthusiasts, the historic brand Willis & Geiger is known for its high-quality materials and timeless designs. The company outfitted several legends of the 20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart and President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1902, explorer Ben Willis — one of the brand’s namesakes — developed clothing for his Arctic explorations, eventually selling them through the expedition retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. In 1928, Willis brought in marketer Howard W. Geiger, and Willis & Geiger Outfitters was born.

A few years later, the company began to produce and supply military uniforms and gear to the U.S. Army through World War II. Afterwards, Willis & Geiger transitioned to producing outdoor apparel for civilians.

When Abercrombie & Fitch declared bankruptcy in 1977, Willis & Geiger was its largest unpaid creditor. Fortunately, the company was independently revived by former Abercrombie & Fitch employee Burt Avedon. Nearly two decades later, Willis & Geiger was sold to Lands’ End, and its offices were moved from New York City to Wisconsin. Lands’ End currently offers a Willis & Geiger bomber jacket for sale and the legacy continues to live on, with vintage Willis & Geiger clothing items being sought after by collectors.

"The Legend of Willis & Geiger" reads at the top of a green presentation slide with a number of pictures and dates from the brand's history. This includes a photo of Amelia Earhart from 1908 and a jacket label with the brand's story on it in bullet points from an unspecified time.
As a part of their brand pitch, the students discussed the history of Willis & Geiger through its most legendary moments.

In October 2023, Laura Hensen, executive director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing Excellence, struck up a conversation with Lands’ End CEO Andrew McLean at a UW–Madison football game. He described Willis & Geiger to her, the extensive archive at Lands’ End and how he would love to work with Human Ecology students on where to take the brand next. Despite being only two months into her current role at the School of Human Ecology, Hensen was inspired to take action.

“I believed we could pull together a student team and make it happen before the academic year was over,” Hensen said.

“Knowing the archival nature of the brand, I thought, what if we could showcase the unique talents of our students and school by ending the project with a window exhibit of Willis & Geiger products? We could celebrate the project, the Center for Design and Material Culture (CDMC) and establish a new way to partner with industry leaders.”

Hensen quickly compiled a brief of the project scope and stakeholders involved among the school and Lands’ End, created a student application and built a project timeline. Within a month, Hensen and the project coordinators received more than 30 compelling applications for four spots on the student team.

Within a couple of weeks, they selected the four students: Textiles & Fashion Design (TFD) majors Ian Vailliencourt ’24 and Maia Rauh ’24, and Consumer Behavior & Marketplace Studies (CBMS) majors Stella Koondel ’24 and Kiran Shenoi x’25.

Each of the students were drawn to the opportunity not only because of the scope of the project or the ability for resume-building, but also due to the allure of the brand itself.

“Willis & Geiger has such a rich and intriguing heritage that not only speaks to the history of fashion and textiles, but also to the history of our country,” Koondel said. “The Willis & Geiger project allowed us to interpret the brand in our own way and rewrite a new story. I was interested in having the opportunity to take the past of a brand, and repurpose it for today’s market.”

Visiting the Lands’ End archives

The student team kicked off the research process by visiting the Willis & Geiger archives. The four students and Hensen, along with Emma Brandenburg (assistant director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing Excellence), J Henley (TFD lecturer) and Laura Sims Peck (CDMC operations manager) excitedly traveled to the Lands’ End headquarters in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

“Lands’ End welcomed our student team and UW stakeholders to their archive to understand the brand,” Hensen said. “We all left inspired and motivated to determine how to bring this brand to today’s consumer.”

The collection of old Willis & Geiger clothing in the Lands’ End archives was a treasure trove of artistry, from aviator jackets to zebra-print belts. Retro paper catalogs, tech flats and negatives of photos featuring Amelia Earhart were preserved throughout the expansive space.

“I enjoyed touching the garments, reading the catalogs and seeing the uniqueness of Willis & Geiger designs up close and personal,” Rauh said.

four students sit on a blue couch in front of a wall with plants and photos of models wearing Lands' End.
Along with visiting the archives, the students also got to tour the Lands’ End headquarters. Pictured from left to right: Stella Koondel, Ian Vailliencourt, Maia Rauh and Kiran Shenoi.

Creating a compelling brand pitch

Each team member’s work was different, playing on their specific strengths and interests. Rauh and Vailliencourt revamped the brand narrative for new audiences, developed product assortment and created tech flats. Koondel and Shenoi pieced together the brand history, market research, customer profiles, distribution strategy and pricing targets.

“The School of Human Ecology has helped develop both the academic knowledge and personal confidence that I needed to succeed in this project,” Shenoi said. “Classes like Consumer Behavior with Patty Sigler (teaching faculty for Consumer Science) and Consumer Analytics with Yiwei Zhang (assistant professor of Consumer Science) set me up with the research and conceptual skills that I needed for this project.”

Coming into this project with different skills and interests, the student team understood the importance of collaboration and developing partnerships within different majors. This assignment provided a place for students to have an in-depth consulting experience, giving them a taste of what it is like to work at a brand in merchandising, design and brand management. Through this project, all participants were guaranteed an interview with Lands’ End. One student has already accepted a job offer from participating in this project.

“The best experience from this project was working with my fellow student team members to build the brand pitch,” Koondel said. “It was amazing to build off of each other’s ideas and opinions to create this collection and brand.”

Working with an established company like Lands’ End brought many learning opportunities. For one, Shenoi partnered with Circana, the leading advisor on the complexity of consumer behavior, to conduct specified market research and target customer identification. This partnership was made possible through the Kohl’s Center for Retailing Excellence.

“I grew my skills in project management, customer segmentation and professional presentations,” Shenoi said. “Receiving direct feedback from relevant stakeholders was extremely impactful in shaping my outlook on how corporate retail functions.”

Hensen and the student team met weekly to check in on progress. As the group finalized their presentation, they brought in stakeholders who provided research expertise and feedback.

A quintessential Human Ecology experience

Immersive, experiential learning opportunities that seamlessly integrate coursework — like the Willis & Geiger consulting project — are a cornerstone of the Human Ecology student experience.

“Human Ecology does an excellent job of utilizing its connections to the largest retailers in Wisconsin, and in other states as well,” Vailliencourt said.

“These connections help students experience working with companies before even graduating. I truly feel that I would not have received this level of in-depth, personal care at another school.”

In May, Koondel, Rauh, Shenoi and Vailliencourt presented their brand pitch at a special presentation hosted in Nancy Nicholas Hall. In attendance was McLean (Lands’ End CEO), along with a number of Lands’ End and Human Ecology stakeholders, including Soyeon Shim (Elizabeth Holloway Schar Dean of the School of Human Ecology and the Ted Kellner Bascom Professor of Consumer Science), Sarah Anne Carter (executive director of the CDMC and associate professor of Design Studies) and Lands’ End lead menswear and womenswear designers.

 two people stand to the right of a television which has a slide on it that reads "press" and "collaborations".
Shenoi and Koondel presented a number of their recommendations, including possible future collaborations and press releases.

The Lands’ End team was blown away by the presentation.

“[The students] inspired us with their plan for the brand,” said Adrienne Bestul, senior manager and talent development/internship coordinator at Lands’ End. “They understood the assignment — included innovation, speed and customer-focus.”

Starting in fall 2024, select items from the Lands’ End archives will be shown at one of the galleries in Nancy Nicholas Hall. The window exhibition will be curated by the students, the CDMC and Lands’ End as a way to celebrate the project.

“To provide students with an opportunity to complete a brand pitch and create a museum-quality window exhibition — that is something only the School of Human Ecology can do,” Hensen said.

“This shows the power of our school; to thoughtfully put people at the center of the work we do and create something exceptional, compelling and creative. The ability to take a concept to completion as efficiently and effectively illustrates the spirit of innovation at the School of Human Ecology.”