Filson: Built for the Great Outdoors
Filson: Built for the Great Outdoors
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date October 29, 2018
Few American heritage brands have a story as uniquely American as Filson. Serving outdoorsmen of all types for over a century, Filson’s high-end, durable products—backed by an ironclad guarantee—have appealed to America’s rugged side for generations and continue to attract new clientele to this day.
Founder C.C. Filson’s story is a classic right place, right time scenario, one that he took full advantage of. Though he started off as a Nebraskan homesteader and later became a train conductor, the defining moment of Filson’s life came when, at almost fifty years old, he found himself in the middle of the Great Klondike Gold Rush.
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At the dawn of the Gold Rush, Filson had a couple years of experience running a loggers outfitting store and he was able to transition from life as a conductor to providing clothing and goods for eager gold miners hoping to strike it rich. For many of the men who flooded Seattle on their way to the Great North—on of the most common stops en route to the Klondike—the last stop before beginning their expedition was Filson’s Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers.
The Gold Rush acted as a kind of incubator for Filson. Dozens of customers demanding the best in rugged, durable outdoor gear on a daily basis meant that the company was always trying to outdo themselves. Two important developments for the Filson brand occurred during this early period. An immediate fan of mackinaw wool due to its durability and water repellent properties, Filson set up his own mill ensuring himself access to high quality materials and streamlining his own supply chain—the material is now almost synonymous with the brand. Filson also developed a habit of speaking in great detail with his customers, knowing that meaningful customer communication was key to retaining customers and researching exactly what was missing in the market.
C.C. Filson’s obsession with creating dependable gear eventually resulted in the iconic Filson Cruiser jacket. Patented in March of 1914, The Cruiser Jacket put Filson on the map. Made from Filson’s preferred dense Mackinaw wool, the short coat was designed with a multitude of pockets to suit the needs of men laboring in the Pacific Northwest. Essentially a hybrid between a trucker and a deck coat, the Cruiser quickly became the jacket par excellence for anyone who worked long hours in the great outdoors. Within a year of releasing the wool model, Filson also released one cut from tin cloth, a tough fabric made of paraffin-coated cotton built to withstand the elements. Both incredibly successful, Filson still offers a version of each Cruiser as part of their core collection and regularly introduces new iterations in different materials. In fact, Cruiser Jackets are standard issue for US Forest Service personnel to this day.
As the retail revolution took hold, Filson held fast to their policy of tailoring their products to specific customer bases and as a result the company became a favorite of sportsmen, lumberjacks, fishermen and even geologists. Outdoorsmen of every stripe grew to depend on Filson and that enduring relationship between retailer and customer evolved into an ironclad guarantee on every Filson item.
While a number of heritage brands have moved away from their original guarantees as manufacturing realities have changed, Filson still “guarantee[s] every item made by Filson. No more, no less. We believe in our products and stand by the quality of workmanship, craftsmanship and materials in each one. We guarantee the lifetime of each item against failure or damage in its intended use.” While clearly boastful, the guarantee isn’t just for show. Customers still regularly report that their Filson merchandise can last an excess of fifity years.
After establishing a marquee inventory and its professional customer base, Filson plugged along steadily for decades. Still, the company was still moderate in size and relatively niche only catering to their niche customer base. By the late ‘60s, the brand was in need of rejuvenation and in 1970 the family owned company was purchased by Alaskan skiwear entrepreneur Stan Kohls. Kohls expanded the company from 35 products to over 250, introducing new categories and modernize both materials and approach.
Kohls led Filson through the next few decades, however at the turn the of century, Filson was once again in need of revamping. The company went through a half-dozen CEOs between 2000 and 2013, and saw a flurry of changes that never quite clicked. Despite bringing in former Ralph Lauren and Patagonia executives, Filson proved a tough brand to revitalize.
It wasn’t until Alan Kirk took over the company in 2013 and embraced Filson’s legacy that the company once again came into its own. Similar to many heritage brands, Kirk opted to steer heavy into Filson’s history, to resounding success. First, he opened a factory in Filson’s original home, Seattle, along with a revamped flagship store. The complex allows customers to peer past wrought iron beams to see the garment making process in action. Visitors still crowd the headquarters today hoping to get a glimpse of the action on the factory floor.
Kirk continued to embrace Filson’s heritage by revamping key products for a new generation, including a sleek version of the Cruiser jacket. The updated Cruiser jacket, dubbed the “Seattle Cut,” is a metaphor for Kirk’s approach—slimmer, modern but unmistakably Filson. Still, the original version of the Cruiser, the “Alaska Cut,” is still available, part of Krik’s attempt to strike a balance between the brand’s hallowed legacy and its promising future.
Inside the complex that houses Filson’s factory, flagship store, and headquarters, you will also find the company’s one-of-a-kind restoration department. In line with Filson’s lifetime guarantee, the department has an interesting task, to “creatively reuse the tattered oiled canvas and aged leather that lands on their tables.” Rather than retiring an old bag or jacket, the restoration team completely retools garments that are within an inch of their life. While some luggage that comes through the department only needs a repair job, other pieces are stripped down to their materials and built into a new product. One member of the restoration department said, “there’s no formula to what we do because every hole or sign of wear is a unique problem to solve, so we’re actively improvising eight hours a day, five days a week.”
Unlike traditional legacy brand strategies that attempt to solidify the business and get back to basics, Filson has actually expanded its production. The company has added luggage and accessories to their well known apparel lines. Filson now boasts an impressive list of wholesalers, including Nordstrom, Cabela’s, and Orvis.
Current Creative Director Alex Carleton and CEO Gray Madden both adhere and build on the newstanding commitment to Filson’s 119-year history . When considering their customer, the company advertises in unconventional places like National Geographic and seek out brand relationships that emphasize the company’s rugged tradition.
Speaking to Fast Company about how they approach their customers Carlton said, “We go to these wild places with friends of the brand, going to bush camps, going with geologists up to the glaciers in Alaska, meet the Iditarod folks, be out there with outdoorsmen, and...document it.”
In recent years, Filson has found that elusive balance that so many heritage brands try to strike. While maintaining the loyalty of longtime customers who admire Filson’s dependability, the company has established itself as the kind of authentic brand that can appeal to a new generation of customers. Whether the Filson team will see the same kind of success in the future remains to be seen, but it’s a safe bet that they will stick with their time tested strategy of doing what has served them well for over a century.