A member of the local band Cumulus and a guitar technician for other touring bands, Lance Umble owns several Filson jackets, purchased over the years or received as gifts. It wasn’t long ago that someone like Umble may never have heard of the 120-year-old Seattle clothier and luggage maker.
“Their outerwear has such classic lines,” he explained. “What brings me back, the romance, is the way these designs have stood the test of time. They’re what my dad and my uncles might have worn … Its design and aesthetic directly reflect our environment, the weather, the work, the pace of life.”
One of, if not the oldest surviving local brands, Filson has always been respected but never, until now, sexy. Long ago falling out of family hands, the brand nevertheless survived, and, perhaps thanks to a lack of destructive imagination, has not changed significantly. Despite many owners over the years, it remained what it had always been, a bit stuck in time — and that is a large part of its appeal.
However, under its new owners, Dallas-based private-equity firm Bedrock Manufacturing, the company is showing signs of budging, introducing a modern version of its storied cruiser jacket, a slimmer cut called the “Seattle fit.” The Seattle cut reflects the company’s attempt to gently toe that fine line between honoring its history and the need to adapt to the marketplace.
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The brand has long been a go-to choice for hunters, ranchers, fishermen and bush pilots, but has lately become the outfitter of a new generation of cultural players — like Umble — designers, artists and indie bands.
As they have embraced hog butchery, single-gear bicycles, backyard chicken coops, Mumford & Sons, and Appalachian beards, so have they embraced brands like Filson that trade on a sense of shared heritage. This is a demographic that covets Filson garments the way they might value raw, selvedge denim jeans, another early 20th-century product recently rediscovered.
In retail, though, heritage and fashion are often in opposition. Filson is banking that, right now at least, the two are aligned. Filson hopes that will change, without compromising its identity too much. (They will still offer the traditional, “Alaska fit” cruiser, for instance.) Carhartt, Red Wing Shoes, Levi Strauss & Co. and other pedigreed brands have faced the same dilemma.
“Filson has never gone down the road of fashion,” said CEO Alan Kirk, installed when Bedrock bought Filson in 2012. “Our products are built for purpose … our brand awareness has been pretty tiny.”
Though at times the re-imagined approach can seem paradoxical. “Heritage is an asset we have, but it’s not our strategy,” Kirk said.
Like many companies emblematic of our place, Filson was started by an outsider, a former train conductor named Clinton Filson whose name has been on a sign somewhere in Seattle for more than a century, its meaning essentially unchanged.
Filson left Nebraska and arrived in the area in 1891 at the age of 41, opening a general store in Kirkland. By 1897 he had set up shop on the Seattle waterfront outfitting prospectors headed to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush. He was one of Seattle’s first bubble entrepreneurs, a 19th-century Naveen Jain or Jeff Bezos back when profits and products were analog.
For a few years, from various sites on First Avenue in what is today Pioneer Square, Filson’s store did a brisk business selling blankets, boots and coats. After the gold rush ended, Filson sold his stuff to miners and timber workers.
In 1914, five years before he died, he patented his “cruiser” jacket made for use in the logging industry, an heirloom-quality garment the store still sells from its only Seattle store on Fourth Avenue South, just south of Safeco Field.
Today, the company’s line includes waxed canvas coats, wool shirts, wide-brimmed hats, long underwear, waders, hunting vests and cloth bags trimmed with leather. Its products are not inexpensive. Jackets are in the $300 to $500 range, and bags, which are guaranteed for life, can climb as high $900.
Despite those price tags, though, they are more popular than ever with the young, creative set.
“It’s a response to fast fashion, which changes on a dime, and isn’t intended to last,” said Susan Kaiser, a professor of textiles and gender studies at the University of California, Davis.
“Companies like Forever 21, H&M, and other large transnational companies that really crank out new styles on a regular basis.”
Technology has accelerated fashion cycles and encouraged disposability, said Kaiser, who published the book “Fashion and Cultural Studies” in 2012.
Filson is the antidote for this retailing approach. It makes products that need no upgrades or updates. It expects you to buy a few things and keep them forever. In a high-volume, low-margin world, Filson is the opposite.
“We’re seeing this search for authenticity,” Kaiser said, “something that has genuine value, that has a history, something that was made locally.”
In Seattle, the group that seems most responsible for Filson’s underground cachet is musicians. As a rule, they travel a lot, tend to be arbiters of style and attract attention.
“The thing I love the most is that all of their products are made to actually look better as they wear in,” said Brent Rusinow, a bass player for the soul singer Allen Stone.
“The leather starts to develop a nice patina, the canvas starts to fade a bit. My rucksack won’t look like anyone else’s,” Rusinow said, “because of where I’ve traveled and what I’ve done during my time in these places.”
John Roderick, the lead singer and guitarist of the group The Long Winters, owns an assortment of Filson jackets and bags out of a desire to buy American-made or local products.
Once, on his podcast, called “Roderick on the Line,” he talked about his Filson devotion, and “now fans come up to me at shows to parade their Filson gear,” he said.
“So far I’ve signed a couple of bags and more than a few jackets. It’s funny, but they’re really proud of their Filson stuff and wear it with pride … A Filson jacket isn’t cheap, but over your lifetime it’s worth 10 flimsy modern coats. Our modern economy is based on cheap goods shipped around the world, and people are starting to reject that model. Filson is well-made stuff, made right here. It’s a no-brainer.”
The Seattle Filson store (it has others in Portland, New York City, Minneapolis and London) is trimmed in dark wood and dimly lit, suggesting the low, filtered light of a forest in autumn.
The store is also a factory and looks like one from the outside if not for the green awnings. Its products are cut and assembled in this building and in its new corporate headquarters on First Avenue South, which also houses a smaller 10,000-square-foot factory. (Filson recently acquired a third factory in Idaho.)
Almost all of Filson’s bags are made at the company headquarters. The factory floor is the featured attraction in the office lobby, its workers and machinery on full view behind glass panel walls. Displayed on an adjacent wall is a giant American flag mounted and framed under glass.
Bedrock purchased the former warehouse when it acquired Filson, renovating it to reflect the values it wanted to project. The structure is thematically transparent with bolts, trusses, fasteners and exposed beams. The lumber is salvaged. Floors are covered in steel panels.
Filson’s backstory of working-class, immigrant Americans earning a living wage, making sturdy, unpretentious gear by hand in a factory in Seattle also made it a natural acquisition for Bedrock. One of its other properties, Shinola, manufactures high-end wristwatches and bicycles in Detroit.
“We loved the brand because it’s authentic,” said Heath Carr, CEO of Bedrock. “It’s a real story. When we first went up and looked at it, we thought how come no one knows about it? It’s a gem we have to expose to rest of the world.”
Hugo Kugiya is a writer living in Seattle.