Standing in sea of working industrial units in the SoDo district of Seattle, Washington, in the shadow of the city’s beloved American Football stadium and backing onto the postcard-perfect Elliot Bay, is the huge, black-brick and visibly brand-new flagship store of Filson, the heavyweight of the Pacific Northwest’s outwear heritage brands.
Heavyweight in reputation, sure, but also in the sense of the hardy, rugged and go-anywhere materials it’s become famous for and earned it the trust and respect of America’s huntsmen, woodsmen, fishermen, farmers, adventurers and, more recently, style-conscious sartorial set. And with a newly-launched webstore for the UK this year, its rugged reach continues to extend across the Atlantic, too.
A nine-hour flight and one very nearly completely lost Uber driver later, we’ve arrived at the flagship store in Seattle – a 6,000ft outdoorsman’s dream that’s also home to the buzz of century-old sewing machines making the bags that line the very shelves we’re leafing through – to meet Filson’s Head of Marketing Andreas Herr, and gain an insight into the DNA of the brand, how it’s evolved over its 120 years, what’s next, and to help us on a three-item, thirty-minute dash around their vast shop floor…
Andreas, take us back to where it all began for Filson.
The story started back in 1897. CC Filson set up shop here in Seattle to outfit the Gold Rush stampede that was heading North from Seattle into the Klondike region of the Ukon.
He would use the information he was receiving from the gentlemen that were coming back from their trips to design clothes – everything was very much based on the ability to know what the men of that time needed in order to survive that journey, and that’s how his reputation was built. One by one, each customer gave him the opportunity to discuss with him their needs for the journey they were making, and then he could outfit them with the necessary gear.
He did that until the Gold Rush died out – about for years later. The story then evolves, with the development of more gear with a functional purpose and design, made to endure the harshest environments in the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, within industries such as mining or logging or fishing or ranching or farming, or more nowadays, tugboat operation.
We still make product for those communities, and a lot of the time it’s the same product that we’ve always traditionally made. But we’ve also expanded into the more modern needs out there. It’s become this combination of rugged and refined. As you walk through the store here you get a sense of the refined bags, which can still be used in that rugged environment, but also have a refined look, which means they can be used by anyone from a farmer in Montana looking over his fields, to an architect in Manhattan.
It’s become this combination of rugged and refined
I think that although tastes have changed to an extent and that we’ve evolved with the customer, everything still harks back to the traditional look and feel of Filson. Now it works for everybody, but everything is still based on that same relationship of trust.
You make garments constructed from a variety of hardy materials. What three materials do you think are most synonymous with Filson?
First and foremost, I’d say the Rugged Twill. It’s a natural material that’s incredibly hardy. It was originally used in the forestry service to help them navigate the dense forest, and it was later adopted by hunters. It was one of the original materials that we used, and it still serves its purpose for us today.
Mackinaw Wool is another material that we’ve used for a really long time – we first used it in about 1924. It’s another natural material that’s incredibly hardy, incredibly thick, protective and, depending on how hard it’s raining, will keep you dry too. It’s inherently Filson in terms of look, aesthetic and feel. Last, I would say, is the ballistic nylon we’re now using. It’s taking us into the modern day with a new product that’s still based on that original aesthetic and principle of needing to be able to stand up to the tests we want to put it through and still function, but it’s a little lighter and a little bit more affordable as well.
It serves exactly the same purpose, but is essentially an update. And I think that was the idea behind using it – CC Filson passed away in 1919, and a lot of times we imagine, “If he was still alive today, what decisions would he be making?”. Our designers are really in tune with the story and the history, but it’s also about pushing it into the future. It’s not about resting on our laurels. We have the traditional pieces – we’ll always have our heritage pieces, they’re never going anywhere because our customers still demand them – but it’s about taking that forward whilst still telling the same story.
Where or what do your designers draw inspiration from?
Alex Carlton – our Creative Director – is very inspired by the book The Call Of The Wild, and in particular the main character, Buck the wolf. It’s a story of perseverance, set in the same time period that the brand started in. Part of the story takes place in Seattle, actually.
It’s a story of how the dogs were used during the Gold Rush, but it’s also a story of overcoming the odds, of perseverance, being prepared to survive in those rough conditions, and serving your purpose. Those dogs are really purposeful, and provide a lot of protection as well as comfort, so we think about that in terms of the way our product is designed. The dogs are badasses too, and as a brand we see ourselves as tough, smart, prepared. The wolf is definitely out spirit animal.
Talk me though the field tests your garments go through before they hit the rails.
We have a lot of people inside Filson that get out of here at the weekend, who love to fish, love to hunt, and work with their hands. So a lot of time the field test starts with individuals working within the brand. It’s all about testing it making sure that it works.
Even going back to our mission, “To outfit the bold and the adventurers”, we’re just concerned with you guys getting out into the field, out into the wild, y’know? What you do when you get there, whatever that adventure is, whatever floats your boat, we want to be there to support you with good product. If that’s fishing, if that’s hunting, if that’s camping, if that’s backpacking, stargazing, whatever it is we want to make product that stands up to your tests. And we’ll test it as much as we can, through as many people as we can, to make sure it holds up to our standards.
Each piece of Filson comes with a lifetime guarantee. You must have heard some incredible stories about certain pieces…
We get a lot of stories based around product that’s been handed down over the years from a grandfather, to a father, to a son, and that’s really great. But one I recently heard that stands out was a story about a husband and wife. He had a bag that was in need of a couple of minor repairs from years and years of use.
She really wanted to make sure we could bring that bag back to life because it had a huge amount of meaning – he was a businessman, and when he’d travel for work he’d take his bag, and when the bag was back in the house, because it was such a staple of his travelling, it became a symbol of him being home and safe. As such it became a symbolic piece in their relationship.
We get a lot of stories based around product that’s been handed down over the years
It represented travel, but also security and the notion that her loved one was home and safe. But by their very nature, these products have been taken to some extreme places and faced some extreme challenges, so through that we get a lot of stories too. And that’s great for us, because when the customer can tell the story for you, that’s far better than us telling it.
Who is in your head when you think of the Filson customer?
It’s somebody who appreciates quality, somebody who appreciates function and purpose, craftsmanship, and the story that comes along with a product. Somebody who’s not overly looking for pretty. They want something they can beat up and take out in the field and test and torture.
We’re the antithesis of fast fashion. It’s about getting back to the roots of it and understanding not only the story and the purpose, but where it’s made, the materials that are being used, and how everything is pointed and purposeful. That’s what attracts people to a brand like Filson. It’s what our customer admires about us and what we want to deliver to them time and time again.
We’re armed with one credit card, need three items, and have thirty minutes in this flagship store. Let’s go.
Right, we’re starting with a good bag, and I’m taking you to the 48-Hour Duffle. You can pick between the rugged twill and a ballistic nylon, but either way that’s the bag you’re going to put all your gear in and travel around the world with. It’ll last you a really long time too. Then I’d go to the Moleskin Shirt. It’s a personal favourite. You can travel in it, take it out fishing underneath your waders, and you can take it to the bar afterwards and celebrate your fish with a whiskey.
I’m a big fan of things that get better with age. I like to think I’m getting better with age. I also like my product to grow and get better with age with me. Lastly, the Tin Cruiser, because I’d like a nice classic piece. It’s a great fit, it’s a great look, it’s survived the test of time, and if it was good enough back then, it’s still good enough today. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of that little kit right there.
What do the next 12 months hold for Filson?
The story continues. The next chapter sees us introduce more synthetic pieces to meet the demand that’s coming from our customers, all the while going back to the idea of what CC Filson would be doing if he was alive today, and what materials would he be using to supply the more modern consumer. You’re going to see more of that from us. I can also leak that we’ll be launching a workwear collection, too.
It’ll form a sub-brand for us called CCF, and made using the same DNA found in our collection now, but geared a little more towards the modern worker. It’ll be basic purposeful product at a slightly lower price-point, but something that you can put through its paces, with the worker in mind, whilst still being inherently Filson and very much in line with the traditional tastes of our customer.
Finally, what one item in this flagship store best sums up Filson to you?
It’s a product that’s not actually something we directly make, it’s one of our locally-made third-party products produced for us, but when I think about Filson I think about the axe. If the wolf is our spirit animal the axe is our spirit tool. It’s a tool that has been used over the years for survival, for exploration, expedition.
It’s built fires, it’s put out fires. It’s that universal tool that has such a long history in terms of so many different applications of use, and yet remains a classic handcrafted design. Steel, wood. I look at the axe and that for me is the one item inside the store that really reflects me and what I do.
The Gentleman’s Journal flew from London Gatwick to Seattle with Norwegian. Premium fares start at £599.90. More info at Norwegian.com/uk