Finding FilsonThe PNW Influence
Filson has eschewed models and traditional fashion sets in exchange for something closer to documentary style photography. They have captured Alaskan bush pilots, fishermen on the Bering Sea, and farmers on the island of Vashon going to work, using their products how they were originally intended.
SoDo – South of The Dome for the uninitiated – is an industrial area situated in the shadow of CenturyLink Field. It was to here that the Seahawks brought a Super Bowl to this corner of the country in 2013. In the distance, a tower emblazoned with Lady Starbuck, the matron saint of Seattle, marks the global headquarters of the coffee giant. On a quiet stretch of street just north of here another World HQ is half finished, buzzing behind scaffolding and contractor patrolled hallways. Filson, champion of tincloth outerwear and indestructible travel bags, is hoping to re-energise its presence in the city they’ve supplied with trustworthy gear since 1897.
Traditionally a catalogue brand for enthusiasts, Filson – much like L.L. Bean, Barbour and other niche suppliers – was launched into the public sphere in the late 2000s through a post recession artisan movement, and the popularity of heritage clothing in mainstream menswear. It was this same burst that saw Filson bags become bestsellers at malls across America through retailers like J.Crew. Filson had its fashion moment, and, as a slew of wayward associations ensued, admittedly lost its way. After all, this was a brand built to protect explorers, sportsmen, and Klondike Gold Rushers, not shield the laptops of shuffling Manhattanites.
Enter creative director Alex Carleton, and a team dedicated to restoring what Carleton calls “the authenticity factor” to Filson. Every decision they have made has been geared towards regaining the hardworking cachet that defines the brand’s origins, from the relocation of the new headquarters and store in an area reserved mostly for warehouses and parking garages, to the vertically integrated manufacturing process. Many of Filson’s popular styles of bags and accessories will now be made onsite, where input from customers, brand ambassadors, and staffers can be put to direct use.
It’s a Friday morning, and high above the ordered chaos of construction are quiet offices, where chambray wearing employees shuffle between cubicles, chatting softly about weekend plans. At street level, visible through the partially taped windows, is the factory floor. Carleton meets us on the roof of the building, grinning widely, and wearing the unofficial company uniform of beard, selvedge denim, and work shirt. He, as he explains it, experienced his own return to his roots while working in New York at Ralph Lauren in 1998. “I was staring at a moodboard of a guy riding a motorcycle through the countryside and kind of had a freak out,” the designer says. “I thought, man, I need to get out of here and live that.” Carleton, a New Englander, moved back to the region, settling in Portland, Maine where he founded Rogues Gallery, a nautically inspired collection of men’s sportswear he ran from 2003 to 2010. He went on to help create L.L. Bean’s history-inspired Signature line.
Much like Maine, where Carleton still keeps a home, the state of Washington contains about as raw a wilderness as occurs in the continental U.S.; the ideal proving ground for the next generation of Filson products. “It’s really cool to live in a place that has so much dynamism,” Alex says. “It’s very action oriented and rugged. And there’s so much different terrain – from the dense coastal wilderness, and the kind of mystic quality of the Olympic Peninsula, to the arid fields of Yakima and Walla Walla where they grow most of the world’s hops. We have people testing our products in all these places, so you can really start to see the DNA come out in the product and how it relates to the region.”
Filson has eschewed models and traditional fashion sets in exchange for something closer to documentary style photography. They have captured Alaskan bush pilots – CC Filson’s first store was aimed at Alaskan explorers who stopped over in Seattle before going for gold in the Yukon – fishermen on the Bering Sea, and farmers on the island of Vashon going to work, using their products how they were originally intended. This is not an entirely new concept, but one that plays into Filson’s adventurous spirit. “Everything we are doing is the wrong way to do it within the industry norm,” Carleton laughs. “We’re completely going off the trail. But it’s starting to differentiate us from the other guys … Because we do have these deep stories. We talk a lot about Jack London here, and in many ways, Filson is the ultimate Jack London brand, but we like to ask, ‘How would that look today?’ What’s the connection between what we’re doing right now, and the Alaskan Outfitter narrative that has always been the keystone of the company?”
The connection, undoubtedly, is the product. Filson classics like the wool, ample-pocketed Cruiser Jacket haven’t changed much in 100 years. It’s Carleton’s and his team’s task to champion these heirloom products, but also to introduce new pieces that will be just as loved. “People know us for our jackets and our bags,” Carleton says as he leads us down to the factory floor. “How do you expand in a credible way from that core? That’s what we’re hoping to figure out as we reveal more of the truth of what this brand is about.” And reveal they will. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Filson’s new headquarters is a glass wall in the flagship store that allows customers to peer through at Carleton and his team at work. “That’s the hallmark to us, a certain truth,” Carleton says and smiles. “It all becomes a part of the story.”