Filsons New Owner Honors a Rich Heritage

September 9, 2014

Ali Brownrigg

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The Filson flagship store sits on Fourth Avenue South near Safeco Field, at the base of an off-ramp taking motorists away from the tangle of elevated roadways leading to the interstate. Most people drive past with nary a glance at the store or a clue about the retail wonderland inside or the legacy of the outdoor gear brand that has been manufactured in Seattle since 1897. In a town where REI and Eddie Bauer are household names, even among the non-outdoorsy types, Filsons lack of local name recognition is a question that begs an answer.

Best known today to a core demographic of serious outdoorsmen hunters, fishers, sport shooters and travelers the Filson brand has been synonymous with quality and durability since it debuted as an outfitter of men streaming into town on their way up to the Klondike. The first garments manufactured by Clinton C. Filson, an intrepid pioneer who came west from Nebraska in 1890 to open a dry goods store in Kirkland, were made from thick, water-repellent Mackinaw wool. They were so effective in cutting the frigid northern chill and so reliable that they quickly became the brand of choice among gold miners.

The classic Filson Cruiser with an assortment of accessories.

In 1914, with the Gold Rush fading into history, Filson debuted a new jacket, the Cruiser, also made of dense wool but with a multitude of pockets strategically placed with the needs of the Northwests loggers and timber workers in mind. Filson patented the Cruiser that year and eventually also began producing it in tin cloth, a tough fabric made of paraffin-coated cotton that can withstand rain, wind, brush and abrasion.

C.C. Filson died in 1919 and his widow, Winnifred, allowed the Cruiser patent to expire shortly after that, opening the door to a flood of copycat designs. Regardless, Filson continues to manufacture the Cruiser (and many of its original designs), which is still standard issue for U.S. Forest Service personnel.

Despite the fact that much of Filsons inventory is still manufactured in Seattle, in its Fourth Avenue South and year-old First Avenue South factories theres also an Idaho factory, and some items are produced overseas the brand is surprisingly less well known locally than it is elsewhere. Thats in large part because, in 1949, the company closed its Seattle retail store to focus on manufacturing, wholesale and government contracts. Filson opened to the public again with small stores in the 1980s and early 90s before opening its current flagship on Fourth Avenue South in 1993.

The product mix has also shortened Filsons reach. The outfitter determinedly makes garments for serious outdoorsmen hunters and fishers and workwear customers, never straying into the more mainstream skier and hiker markets. Perhaps even more critically, it hasnt gone after the female customer with much fervor. In 2008, then-CEO William B.K. Kulczycki launched a womens line, which sputtered and disappeared. At its core, Filson has been about outfitting men possibly missing out on a huge market of consumers who are more likely to spread the word about products they love.

A showroom at Filson headquarters in Seattle.

But the pace of growth and brand recognition may be picking up. In 2012, Filson was acquired by Bedrock Manufacturing, a Texas-based development group that buys and manages iconic American brands, including the newly resuscitated Shinola, a long-dead brand that went from making shoeshine during World War I to manufacturing watches and bikes in Detroit under Bedrocks management. Alan Kirk, a veteran of Lands End and Eddie Bauer, came on board as Filson CEO in 2013 to guide the companys expansion, focusing on steady growth.

Bedrock is not out to reinvent Filson or alienate its core demographic, says Kirk, on the principle that once you lose them, theyre hard to get back. Rather, the plan is to continue to cater to loyal customers by retaining the brands most popular styles, classic sizing (such as the Alaska fit, which is larger and boxier to allow for layering) and remaining sticklers for uncompromising goods made in the United States with a lifetime guarantee. And, while doing so, it will concurrently woo an emerging customer, whom Kirk calls the urban hunter but most people would recognize as the hip millennial male.

These new customers are savvy and want to be associated with real brands that have an established history, Kirk says. Not those that are created to woo them through nostalgia, but those that are made for a greater purpose, he explains. Millennials, as a generation, like to discover something that has been there forever and smacks of authenticity.

One of the brands responses to this new audience was to introduce the Seattle fit, which, while not a fashion fit, is cut closer to the body for the customer who likes better range of movement.

Filsons retail strategy is another nod to this growing consumer base, one that tends to respond positively to lifestyle brands that reflect the way its members want to live, almost like a Pinterest board come to life. All Filson stores in Seattle, Portland, New York, Aspen, Minneapolis and London, plus factory outlets in Burlington, Washington, and Eagan, Minnesota are designed with a distinctly nostalgic aesthetic but in a completely modern way. The recently opened New York store has a wall of succulents, including some mounted like trophy antlers. While sibling brand Shinola sells a select inventory of Americana-inspired goods, such as bandannas, pennants and real leather basketballs, Filson sells a curated inventory of vintage outdoor gear, including fishing poles, compasses, axes and knives.

American Made. Artwork in the lobby of Filsons Seattle headquarters reminds visitors where much of the companys inventory comes from.

Not every twist for this new market has the expected results. This year, found Filson exploring the world of photography. We asked ourselves what C.C. Filson would be interested in if he were alive today. Whats the new gun? Kirk says. And we realized that its the lens. Out of that realization came a strategic partnership with renowned photographic cooperative Magnum Photos and photographers David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry, both of whom shoot for National Geographic and helped Filson redevelop its messenger bags and totes with padded dividers and cushioned inserts. Filson debuted the photo bags in May at its New York store, which was stocked with items the company thought a more urban shopper would buy tote bags, weekend travel bags and apparel from the spring collection. It turns out that shoppers were demanding the classic, more iconic Mackinaw wool and tin cloth products.
A fall collaboration promises more items in the classic vein. Kirk, a Scotsman, facilitated a partnership with Nigel Cabourn, a United Kingdom-based designer whose love of vintage British uniforms is rivaled only by his love of vintage Filson. The collaboration will produce a limited-edition fall 2014 C.C. Filson Collection, featuring outerwear for men inspired by historical Filson design elements.

Nigel was inspired by his 1930 vintage Filson Cruiser and the real heroes from the turn of the century, the true pioneers that relied on the integrity of their garments and equipment to stay alive, Kirk says. This combination made for a natural collaboration.

Filson will probably never have the wide popularity of, say, Levi Strauss & Co., an even older American heritage brand that would be unrecognizable today to its founder. Bedrock and Kirk are focused on careful, thoughtful growth over the next five to 10 years, hinting at, but not confirming plans for new international stores.

In February, Kirk told the owners of Apolis, a Los Angeles-based menswear retailer and Filson partner, that he sees Filson at five or six times its current size in the next five years, and that in 10 years it will be a global, multichannel brand that is respected and trusted.

Kirk adds, Were staying true to our course and our DNA while building the business and brand awareness, but doing it in a way that is authentic to the Filson brand.