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A Q&A with Filson‘s Chief Creative Officer Alex Carleton
There’s a certain struggle which comes with being an American heritage brand. Over the years customers have become extremely loyal because of reputations for quality and consistency. Though, with that loyalty comes the challenge to evolve and grow. When a company like Patagonia was preserved in the way that it was recently by founder Yvon Chouinard, it makes me wonder about other brands I love and what the future holds for them. What’s going to happen to Alden? Should it be placed into a trust which can carry the company forward in a way that saves the factory, the skill of the craftspeople and the quality of the product? I think about Filson and how it has evolved over the past decade. To some it has changed too much and to others it has been a natural evolution.
I’ve been around clothing brands and manufacturing companies my entire career and I know how difficult it is to make things here. As much as everyone says they want to buy stuff made in the U.S., the reality is consumers are extremely price sensitive. There’s only so much people are willing to spend to get something made in a certain place. This is the line, in my opinion, that Filson needs to walk. It needs to simultaneously evolve and remain the same. It’s a tough way to play, but the brand’s Chief Creative Officer Alex Carleton is the master of appreciating heritage while also driving an evolution in product and experience. Knowing him for years I have an appreciation for his taste level and attention to detail. He can create an incredible and compelling retail experience while also building product with wide ranging appeal. Some may think Filson has drifted too far, but I feel that Alex and the team there have taken the necessary steps to let Filson evolve in a way that allows for a long future.
Thinking about Filson I reached out to Alex to see if he would talk about what is happening at the company and check in on one of my favorite brands. We chatted on Zoom and our conversation (which has been lightly edited for clarity) is below.
ACL: Is it a good time to be a heritage brand?
Alex Carleton: It's an interesting time, it's actually our 125th year anniversary this year. So that's a pretty remarkable benchmark. You know, I was talking to a guy this morning and he was talking about Ralph as being an American heritage brand and we had a chuckle cause it was like, well, we're still making coats in Seattle and we've been doing it for 125 years. I think that qualifies for something (laughing).
We've juiced up the product assortment a bit. We've brought in some new folks into the design function. Things are getting a little bit more playful, but not to the point where I think it's going to compromise our product DNA. We're really starting to look into our archives more. We're looking at the 1970s, the 1980s, you know, sort of thinking about how we can widen the aperture a bit in terms of influences and concepts coming into the overall product line. So things are looking really good.
I understand Filson is expanding beyond being somewhat of a niche Pacific Northwest brand. How is that going?
We went through this partnership process with WP Lavori and we are really starting to think about who we are globally. And that is really interesting. We've got a pretty rock solid foundation as an American outdoor lifestyle company. Even more to the point, a Northwest American outdoor company, so I think the catalyst of working with WP has been to think about that narrative and that product offering in more through an international lens.
That's not limited just to Europe, it's also who are we around the world. The value proposal of connecting to the wild, connecting to the outdoors and our specific Pacific Northwest point of view. Is that unique to the United States? Is that global? So I think, you know, what we've been exploring a lot is, you know, how do we establish those stories internationally?
I think building a kind of kinship where you want to click into like-minded interests and values, but do it overseas and what does that look like? What does outdoor recreation look like in Italy? What does workwear mean in Italy? What are the fishermen doing? What is the climbing and mountain culture there? what is that like? So I think that there's a sort of a natural place to go when you are thinking about creating a common vernacular or those sort of shared interests.
That's the thing though, that Filson as a brand seems big, but it is actually a relatively small niche business in a lot of ways. Would you agree with that?
Oh, a hundred percent, Michael. I mean, even in Seattle only one out of five people know what Filson is. The awareness is really low. But the people that understand it love it. Our conversion rate is better than anywhere I've ever worked. So if you are introduced to Filson, you like it. You're inclined to want to engage with it and stay there. So it's really about that first introduction. And I think, you know, part of that is geographic, you know, our marketing team is based here. Our flagship stores here, our company is based in Seattle. And I joke with people who are like, how do you like living in Seattle? And I'm like, well, it's kind of like living in Portugal! It's a six hour flight from the East Coast. I can get to London from Boston faster than I can get from Boston to Seattle. So that's kind of a head trip — yet on the other hand the day before yesterday, I just flew back from Katmai National Park in Alaska and flew down from Anchorage and it's a three hour shuttle. I mean, I can get to Anchorage as quickly as I can get to Los Angeles. LA doesn't have wild bears eating salmon, trout fishing and you know, the cool lodge thing going on. So I think kind of trying to figure that out too, like how do we serve more as a conduit to get folks from the lower 48 into that remarkable territory which is our backyard and our inspiration and origin.
Everywhere you've been there's a certain atmospheric focus to create amazing retail, but I've also always felt that you really loved good product and that was a huge priority for you. I feel like with Filson you've gained the trust of like the customer and they're comfortable with you or you feel more comfortable with them. Do you think customers feel comfortable with the Filson brand at this point?
Everyone sort of says, all right, like we like the direction where you know that Filson is going and I think they're open to trust you to do these things. I mean it feels natural for me. We've gained the trust of our core consumer and we can be more flexible.
Trust is an interesting way to frame it. And I haven't really thought about it in terms of trust. Uh, but I guess that's an inherent value that probably clicks in very well seamlessly with my philosophy. You know if I had to personalize it, I would say I'm very much driven by my own personal philosophy in terms of understanding a brand and enabling an evolution that won't alienate the core customer.
And I also think not everybody wants to make a real statement. I think that there's a lot of subtlety that goes into how we evolve. It's nuanced. Time is definitely a factor of how you ease people along or ease the customer along. For example, this summer, we've always been very simple with color and we've always been very simple with pattern. It's always just been like checks and plaids and then pretty conservative color-ways. But we started to introduce more conversational prints. Those were the top selling items for summer. You don't want to go too heavy, too fast, but you're kind of weaning the customer along. And I do think there's a trust factor there that Filson has earned prior to me for a century of doing business and I'm very respectful of that and don't want to do anything too radical.
We are always looking at where within the world of Filson we could do things that are more surprising and potentially more artistic.
And it's not unlike Woolrich and Woolrich Woolen Mills. There's a space within our house where you can kind of go in for the can of spray paint and have the kids take over the room a little bit. And we ask ourselves what would that look like? So we live in a world where there's just a ton of combustion happening from brands, meeting brands and doing things, whether it's The North Face and Online Ceramics — there's a lot of that kind of alchemy that's going on. And that's interesting to think about.
Do you think that Filson is a little bit different than maybe some of the other places you've worked in terms of just the direct lineage to the past and the authenticity of the brand? Do you feel enabled because of the pureness of the brand? Do you feel like there's more potential or more freedom for you to do things differently because of the history of the brand?
It's funny because I think the history and tradition can be very liberating, but you can also be held hostage to it. I would be lying if I told you I have it all figured out. Like my relationship with Filson is really complex. I feel like I've been in a marriage, you know, it's like a lifelong marriage that I've been in (laughing). I think about the traditions within the house that I honor and wanna protect, but I also do think about what are the things that we need to do to sizzle up the marriage and put spark back in.
It's almost like a spectrum, Michael, where on one end of the spectrum, I think about what are the things that we should be doing to kind of like modernize the brand and make it more relevant to like urban folks or international folks. On the other side of the spectrum, I think about what are these things that we should be doing to reinforce the connection that we have to workwear, to hunt and fish and to the outdoors. All of that thought process happens at once on a daily basis.
I think the recent explosion of hyper specific niche brands has been interesting. Does that stuff influence what you do at Filson?
Right, yeah, we're like seeing that everywhere. And I think it's interesting because there's a lot of innovation that comes from that or new ideas or fresh takes. It's liberating in a sense. It can be difficult to change too much for us because there's a lot of different components to Filson as a brand. There's also a lot of people who see it as their brand as a very personal thing to them.
I've seen the various ownership groups in the last 15 years or so come through Filson and no one has managed to evolve the brand in the consistent way that you all have. It feels like you are really focused keeping the brand-core intact. Look at the Seattle flagship. Someone asked me the other day what's the one store you can't go into without like having to buy something and I told them Filson in Seattle. It's beautiful and there's just so much good stuff going on there - in terms of limited product or just the space as an experience. That speaks a lot to your vision and to Bedrock and just like the way that you all have approached the brand. In the past, it felt like the playbook was just to take the bags and like making 'em cheaper, getting more margin and blow it out, you know?
When I think about my brain and kind of how it's wired as a merchant, it's not binary. And I feel like I've got sort of an innate sense of good, better, best, or commodity to specialty. And it's just like how I'm wired. And it's very easy for me to see how it all kind of connects together. Like, I think of it like a Rubik's cube — you've got all these different parts and pieces, all these, but they mean different things on different planes, they represent different things.
I like the idea of having elements of your brand that are democratic. Sometimes that might mean simplicity and design, or a price that's easy to swallow.
So I think about what is basic Filson and then what is pinnacle Filson — how does that all kind of weave together into a net assortment? We're at a very interesting moment from a strategic merchandising perspective because we kind of have this like lightning in a bottle and we're really thinking about what is the pinnacle side of Filson? What is that basic side of Filson? Get a flannel on the back of every person in America kind of basic part of Filson. Then what is that original Alaska outfitter hunt, fish, and outdoorsman side of Filson that we never wanna leave behind? What is that workshop craft FRD part of Filson. Then we've got Filson women's, which we are reintroducing. And it's about reconciling all of these different parts and pieces into something that is holistically meaningful. It's really about proportion and focus and creating that harmony. Which is pretty interesting. And I would be lying if I told you it is easy. It's really fucking hard.
It must be intriguing for you because you've been there for a good amount of time. How long?
It’s 8 years this summer which is kind of crazy.
Good for you. You've really been committed to like trying to solve this thing and do it in a cool way. I've watched like the evolution of it and it's been really nice. You mentioned FRD and that's one of my favorite things that you guys have ever done. What's the shape of that in the future?
FRD is only really in the Seattle store where you can get something on a consistent basis — a refreshed assortment of hand crafted one of one. These are either restored pieces or newly made pieces from scraps. Every time I walk through the store I see a new bag from FRD that I want.
How does FRD work? Do you source it or does it use returns that are sent in to get fixed or whatever?
It's both, returns and things that are beyond a normal repair. It also sourced by rummaging through secondhand, etc. We basically have this apparatus for getting all this used Filson stuff into bins and then John and Will, will kind of rework it and re-craft it. The way we're kind of doing it on a larger scale is the FRD guys are coming up with original designs and then we engineer drops.
So we had an FRD drop about six weeks ago of a special duffle that the guys created and made here about 100 pieces. We had one September and I think another one for holiday. So that way it kind of puts some structure around it, but mostly the FRD product is really only available in Seattle.
I like that it's mostly available in the store in Seattle. In our globalized world there are so few opportunities to actually buy something that you can only get in one place. To me FRD is really compelling. So if you want a cool FRD bag you have to like go to the store in Seattle. It's a reason to actually do it.
I know. I love that. Sometimes I'll discover something somewhere and think it's really special. And then I might realize that can go online and buy it, but it sort of looks is a little bit of its luster.
Shifting gears. I've read that there is some concern about the Filson factories in Seattle staying open. Will we always be able to get a Filson briefcase that's made in Seattle?
So the Filson briefcase will be made in USA not necessarily in the Seattle shop. So what we've done is we've moved some manufacturing around internally. So there's really kind of three buckets made at Filson, made in USA and then there's product that's sourced internationally. We went through a process of due diligence a couple years ago where we did a deep dive in efficiencies to unstained margins and costs. We wanted to know Where are we from inefficiencies perspective? Because we hadn't updated that. We hadn't done that due diligence prior to when I came in, so literally like prior to 2012, we hadn't done a survey of where we were netting out and calibrating all of it from raw materials to labor. What we've identified is that we are most efficient in doing what we've done for over a hundred years, which is super fascinating. So the Cruiser, which was patented in 1914 is actually what we do best and most efficiently. So we basically identified that apparel is where we are able to realize our strengths best.
We moved into a more modern facility, a larger facility to accommodate the apparel production. That is 20 minutes away from our headquarters. It's a Filson owned factory. And then with the bags — we were having challenges with the bags because of construction and the equipment. And we continue to manufacture the bags domestically, but to say it's a one and done would not be accurate — we're constantly reviewing it.
We all agree that we will always manufacture at Filson. So we will continue to manufacture a lot of the icons here, but we also want to look at where around the world is the best place to make whatever. Trying to do seam sealed products in the United States is difficult for example.
I think made in USA is tricky. The reality is when you say we're only going to make certain things in a certain place then end up boxing yourself in. That's probably challenging for the long term health and stability of the company. No one wears clothes only made in one specific place. I personally prefer if iconic products are made in the traditional place where they originate, but after looking at the industry for however long I have it's a difficult thing to make things here and not lean on global manufacturing.
It's a blended strategy where some simplistically we wanna prioritize quality and we wanna be able to offer things at prices that make sense from a strategic pricing perspective. Every company that you know — I mean the LL Beans, the ORs, the Brooks Brothers, the Ralphs — everybody is the blended sourcing strategy. So we just reached a point where we had not done that due diligence in decades.
We asked ourselves if we are being efficient. Is this sensible? So we rearranged our facilities. A couple of years ago I did a tour of our retail stores and right before the holidays in the month of December, right after Thanksgiving in all of our stores we did not have core items. Our best selling items are our core items and we didn't have any Mackinaw Cruisers in size medium or large in any store. And that's a problem. So yeah, part of the challenge was that we were doing too many things and we wanted to really get some depth in our icons. So that's how we migrated some of our manufacturing.
And I can imagine you get letters with people complaining about every change.
You gotta be pretty thick skinned because you get a lot of people saying don't change it. And at the same time, there's a loud voice saying, why the hell aren't you changing? (laughing) Why aren't you updating? Why aren't you evolving? Why aren't you keeping up with the innovation? So you gotta be pretty thick-skinned and you have to have a pretty solid understanding of who you are.