August 9, 2022

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Filson and the Future of Outerwear

Imagine a car manufacturer defining performance based on how a motor looks rather than how it runs. That’s how most of the world’s clothing is made.

Of course, a jacket may not have to perform the same way an engine does, but if you’re Clinton C. Filson setting up shop during the Alaska gold rush in the late 1890s, you darn well make sure your wares work.

gear patrol issue 16

A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today

Today, what started as Filson’s Pioneer Alaska and Blanket Manufacturers is the C.C. Filson Company. Like it did 124 years ago, Filson still thinks about performance first, and it still manufactures its wares locally, just south of Seattle.

The turn of the 20th century saw an astonishing boom in Seattle, with immigrants (especially from Nordic countries) forming its industrial backbone. The city blew up, growing an astonishing 6,600 percent in just 20 years. One failed gold-miner-turned-entrepreneur was John W. Nordstrom — a name you might recognize.

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Alex Carleton, Filson’s Chief Creative Officer

Tanya Goehring

More than 120 years later, Alex Carleton, Filson’s Chief Creative Officer, is another transplant. He hails from Maine and carries a background in design at brands like Timberland and L.L. Bean. Carleton’s patterns of speech and visceral Marlboro-man graveled voice is so non-brotastic Seattle chill, you wonder what the baristas think taking his order when he asks for a latte with actual cow’s milk — not oat or coconut.

Not that he’s scary. He’s just sharply, directly, intensely focused on Filson’s heritage, like a history professor lecturing on company archeology. Carelton loves to use the Cruiser jacket as a template when discussing all things past and present about the brand. This particular garment has been produced in various iterations since 1914, and even as Filson endeavors in new directions — like selvedge denim, motorcycle garb and goose down for this fall — Carleton holds up the Cruiser as a beacon.

“It’s not that we think of a ‘look’ and wonder where we should put a pocket. It’s not ‘an idea of a pocket,’” Carleton says, making air quotes with his voice. “We’re actually thinking about the guy’s hands; about the fact that he might be wearing gloves. That he might shove sharp tools into there, or he might have an Otterbox on his phone so he’s got a big-ass bulky phone.”

Filson, under Carleton’s direction since 2016, studies use cases constantly, looking at ranchers and farmers or anyone who works outdoors or hunts. “Outdoorsmen realize that space is really important; yield is really important. Being adaptable, to shed or add layers is really the keystone of survival.” He adds that the styling of Filson is appealing because you can look at anything the company makes and see it almost as a tool, with coherent pragmatism bleeding through.

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An original Filson Cruiser for the US Forrest Service

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Filson’s latest Lined Denim Cruiser ($475). It’s cut longer, like a work coat rather than a short-waisted Levi’s 501 jacket, and the lining has its own backstory, which is drawn from the late 1940s when canteens and the original Thermos brand containers had their own cozies

“Being adaptable, to shed or add layer, is really the keystone of survival.”

Review some of the newest lines with Carleton and he’ll say that there’s a Filson philosophy underlying where they’re heading. Take the Down Cruiser, a new 650-fill down coat finished with paraffin for classic waxed-cotton waterproofing. The visuals immediately say Filson because the jacket borrows directly from the four-pocket Cruiser style, with massive gusseted lower pockets held fast with snaps, not zippers, that are easier to operate with one hand.

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Filson’s Down Cruiser Jacket ($495)

Clinton C. Filson never used down when designing his outwear, but no matter. The fact that the Down Cruiser isn’t a legacy piece but something new is a challenge Carleton embraces. It looks like Clinton C. Filson could have made it, he seems to suggest. “It’s a little bit of a test; does this feel connected to the core?” Carelton asks, rhetorically.

Again, he points to the brand’s utilitarian nature, noting that another new piece, the Lightweight Down Jac Shirt, served him well this past winter on an Arctic camping trip in northern Alaska. “I needed something that would reduce and stuff into a compact area because I had other equipment that I had to bring with me. But then I also needed something that would be remarkably warm, and all I wore was wool and down.”

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Filson’s Lightweight Down Jac-Shirt ($250)

Pointing back to the down Jac Shirt, the name highlights its versatility: it can be worn as a jacket or a shirt because it’s made in a 60/40 poly blend. It’s also believably historic, and to his point, eminently utilitarian. “Wear our wool Guide Sweater under it, and you have this super warm, lightweight, packable outerwear combination that you can stuff into your bag. It solves problems that our customers might have.”

According to Carleton, Clinton.C. Filson wasn’t afraid of new technology, and down was hardly foreign to outfitters of the era (right across town, Seattle-born Eddie Bauer and REI were using goose feathers from WWII onward). Down is a material that was somehow left out of the company’s lineup, like an oversight on the part of Clinton C. Filson, but denim is the medium that’s even harder to fathom Filson having neglected during its history. Carleton explains that while “woodworkers or bush pilots” often wear a Filson jacket or shirt, “they’re also wearing jeans. And it was glaringly obvious that our fans, our users, were missing a really core element in their wardrobe,” Carleton says. Even in their archival research, “you’d see someone climbing Mt. Hood in the 1930s wearing a Cruiser jacket but then wearing denim.” Filson designers are constantly studying a library of previous styles they retain as well as thousands of photos going back over a century.

Jeans debuted softly for the company about a year ago, and that line is slowly expanding. You can get the Rail Splitter five-pocket jean, sewn in the US but using Japanese denim from the famed Nihon Menpu mill. (They supply US labels like Taylor Stitch and also denim-head indie brands like Edwin, too). Or the Mule Splitter in a slim straight, which is by no means skinny but is slimmer in the thigh. As with everything Filson, there’s a purpose to its denim innovation. “Next year we’re going to be introducing a husky fit,” says Carleton. “We’re kind of covering off on a variety of body types. That’s the democracy of Filson.”

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Filson’s new denim is sewn in the US but using Japanese denim from the famed Nihon Menpu mill. (They supply US labels like Taylor Stitch and also denim-head indie brands like Edwin, too)

And as you’d expect, given Cruiser-as-Excalibur for Filson, they’re debuting the Lined Denim Cruiser this fall. It’s cut longer, like a work coat rather than a short-waisted Levi’s 501 jacket, and the lining has its own backstory, which is drawn from the late 1940s when canteens and the original Thermos brand containers had their own cozies — a classier precursor to the current cruddy neoprene beer-can-chilling equivalent. The pattern on Thermoses was typically striped, and some companies like Lee even made chore coats lined with it like Filson’s version. But Filson’s interpretation is typically Cruiser-esque, with slots for pens on the breast, a small EDC outer pocket in the lower left, oversized, lined hand-warmer pockets at the waist, and of course snaps rather than something that’ll quit on you (like hook-and-loop closures).

Canteen patterns aren’t the only ones Filson’s is resurrecting. The supplier is also revisiting plaids; after all, Filson began life as a blanket company (prospectors needed to stay warm and sleeping bags hadn’t been invented yet). Today, as part of their research, designers at their Seattle HQ happened upon patterns used in the early 1900s by a Cleveland firm called Northern Ohio Blanket Mills.

While Filson traditionally didn’t stitch as much cotton as wool, a double-cotton-fronted coat like the new Beartooth Camp Jacket is a modern interpretation of the kind of piece Filson might have made contemporaneously with the popularity of these plaids. With something as casually comfortable as the Camp Jacket, Carlton explains, it’s important that such a new product never look like a commodity. “It has to seem obviously Filson,” which is why the company goes to such lengths to research blanket patterns from a company that went belly-up in 1932 before reinterpreting it on a coat for sale in the fall of 2021.

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The Alcan motorcycle clothing and gear capsule collection was launched this past summer with a focus on outfitting riders of Washington State’s Backcountry Discovery Route, a 575-mile ride that hugs the eastern shoulder of the Cascades and is considered a burly test by most serious ADV riders.

“It’s important that a product never looks like a commodity.”

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On the Alcan Double Front Pants, for example, Filson combines its classic Tin Cloth with Cordura ballistic nylon, which the brand has used on luggage for decades but not much in clothing.

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If anything is a stretch for Filson, it’s the Alcan motorcycle clothing and gear capsule collection. It was launched this past summer with a focus on outfitting riders of Washington State’s Backcountry Discovery Route, a 575-mile ride that hugs the eastern shoulder of the Cascades and is considered a burly test by most serious ADV riders.

Just like with denim, hitting the right note for brand-obsessed motorheads could be hazardous. On the Alcan Double Front Pants, for example, Filson combines its classic Tin Cloth with Cordura ballistic nylon, which the brand has used on luggage for decades but not much in clothing. The decision to use a synthetic wasn’t made lightly.

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“We certainly did our market research.” Carleton says. “We looked at what we do for tree fellers, but moto is also a high-endurance, hostile kind of environment.” At the end of the day, the company had to ensure slide protection and abrasion resistance.

As for the larger question of why outfit riders at all, Carelton leans on Filson’s history of adapting with the times. “We’re principled, but we’re entrepreneurs. C. C. Filson didn’t shy away from innovation. It just gets balanced with our tradition,” he says.

“C. C. Filson didn’t shy away from innovation. It just gets balanced with our tradition.”

Filson’s done well for itself. Over the last 124 years, the company has expanded — it now operates 10 stores in the USA and three abroad (two in Canada and one in Japan) — but it still calls its flagship in downtown Seattle “home.”

Venture there and you might wonder if you took a wrong turn. Just inside the entrance, you pass by some display cases showcasing vintage patches. And then, on the second story, you find yourself inside what was once an old 1920s machine shop. Underneath your feet is a rolled steel floor that feels as solid as stone, and above, a giant, exposed A-frame that opens to skylights.

retail, seattle, flagship

Over the last 124 years, the company has expanded — it now operates 10 stores in the USA and three abroad (two in Canada and one in Japan) — but it still calls its flagship in downtown Seattle “home.”

retail, seattle, flagship

The sheer heft of anything you might touch, the actual weight, and yes, even the stiffness that requires breaking in, is why Filson believes retail is so important to the brand. “Humans are social creatures. And Filson is a tactile brand,” Carleton says.

Deeper inside there’s a wood-burning fireplace with some overstuffed leather chairs and a sofa. Walking around, the experience feels as if you’ve stumbled into a Northwest lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps rather than a retailer. Humming one floor beneath your boots, they’re making the stuff you can reach out and grab.

The sheer heft of anything you might touch, the actual weight, and yes, even the stiffness that requires breaking in, is why Filson believes retail is so important to the brand. “Humans are social creatures. And Filson is a tactile brand,” Carleton says. “There’s quality to the fabrics. It has a smell.”

Carelton says that unlike anywhere else he’s worked, “everything has a dotted line, from a WPA lodge to the experience of our architecture, to our heritage. Filson is not a concept. It’s experiential. That’s why, when you walk in the door, or wear something, it’s honest. It’s all about coming from the premise of use and utility.”