Having been around since the late 17th century, Filson is one of the best known and largest outdoor enthusiast companies in the US. Read on for a complete history of the brand.
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Filson is a brand richly steeped in history aligning with that of their home country - America. Starting out in a, then gold rich, country the founder C.C Filson harnessed the spending power of the times and the insatiable need for durable, quality workwear.
Now having been around well over 100 years, Filson has seen a transition from solely kitting out gold miners to lumberjacks, adventure hunters, travellers then finally the premium menswear markets; showcasing the brand's versatility and capability of adapting to the times. Want to know a little more about the brand's history?
Read on for a complete history of Filson.
The History of Filson
1850 - 1950
As with most heritage brands, Filson has a rich generational history of interest in the pursuits of what the brand would eventually come to represent, in this case - a love of all things outdoors. Born in 1850, C.C. Filson originally started out as a self-sufficient settler in Nebraska, eventually leaving to travel the US as a railroad conductor - continuing his father's love of adventure pursuits and a general fondness of nature.
By the 1890s, he'd moved to Seattle (then a small city), and his time of arrival couldn't have been better suited. By 1897, the gold rush had struck and Seattle became a hub of trade for miners passing up north. Harnessing the increased trade, Filson decided to set up shop along the waterfront. Having spent several years running his own small loggers outfit store he was more than capable of working through the logistics of starting a business and, as such, Filson got off to an impressive start.
In 1897, he opened 'C.C. Filson's Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers', providing all the goods that a man would need for the Klondike Gold Rush. By 1914, business was doing incredibly well; by looking at a quote from their catalog at the time, it's evident what market they were attempting to harness:
To our customers: if a man is going North, he should come to us for his outfit, because we have obtained our ideas of what is best to wear in that country from the experience of the man from the North -- not merely one -- but hundreds of them. Our materials are the very best obtainable, for we know that the best is none too good and that quality is of vital importance. You can depend absolutely upon our goods both as to material and workmanship.
- Filson Catalogue, 1914
With tales of the bitter piercing cold in the gold rush region of Yukon reaching far south, men became more and more dependent on pit stops such as Seattle to kit up for the journey north. Being a smart businessman, Filson exploited this desire and further catered his wares to the needs of the robust traveler.
By this time, he owned his own mill which manufactured mackinaw wool - providing the perfect material for warm, durable clothing, blankets, knitted goods as well as sturdy boots and footwear. Knowing the importance of keeping his customer happy, Filson often would speak in depth to those purchasing his wares in hopes of being better able to provide for their needs.
This communication between manufacturer and buyer at Filson carried on for years. Becoming a renowned quality of the burgeoning brand, even after the gold rush came to an end, the men who'd become familiar with Filson continued to loyally shop in the Seattle store along with an abundance of new outdoor pursuit customers in the shape of huntsmen, fishermen, and lumberjacks.
Even though the lucrative gold rush passing trade had come to an end in 1899, Filson continued to see relative success until the creation of the Filson Cruiser. Although the brand was producing outfits for lumberjacks and those in the timber industry, it was the Filson Cruiser that really put the brand on the map. To this day, it continues to be one of Filson's biggest sellers.
1950 - 2000
The Filson store continued to see success over the years. Maintaining his method of using the best materials sourceable along with guaranteeing every product sold, he quickly gained a name for reliability, quality products, and a responsible business model. It's often said that if he didn't stock a product required he'd have it custom made - a service you'd pay up to hundreds of thousands for these days.
By the time the swinging sixties came about Filson had a global reputation as one of the finest outfitters for outdoor working men and adventure seekers, alongside being stocked in many of the leading stores across the globe. Interestingly, his reputation was well justified with many of his 100-year-old pieces still wearable today.
Right up until the 1970s the Filson family remained in control of the company until they sold their shares to a former independent distributor in Alaska, Stan Kohls - a skiwear entrepreneur. Drawing inspiration from Filson's archive, Kohls took the company to the next level. Taking their product line from a meager 35 to 250 pieces, he modernised the techniques and materials used while preserving the companies' aesthetic.
The goods, we quote, must not be confounded with the cheap and vastly inferior grade with which the market is over-run. Such goods are not only useless for the purpose for which they are intended, but the person wearing them would be better off without them.
- Clinton C. Filson, Founder
2000 - Present
In January 2005, Brentwood Associates and Doug Williams (formerly of Ralph Lauren) acquired a minority share in C.C. Filson, with the previous buyer Stan Kohls maintaining minority ownership. Renaming the company Filson Holdings, Doug Williams was named CEO for what ended up being a short-lived career.
Williams intended to increase the brand's reach by designing casual wear, working off Filson's rugged, yet stylised aesthetic. This proved to be unsuccessful and by 2006 he'd been replaced by Bill Kulczycki, formally of Patagonia, four years later the role had changed again, this time landing in the hands of Mark Korros.
In 2012 the company saw a change of hands once again, this time ending up with the Dallas-based 'Bedrock Manufacturing Co.' As such, Alan Kirk was appointed the new CEO of Filson in 2013. Later in the same year, experiencing unprecedented growth, Filson opened a new manufacturing factory in Seattle's industrial district which doubled their production capabilities and created over 100 new jobs.
By this time, the company had expanded from their usual production to include luggage, accessories alongside their extensive apparel lines. As well as this, Filson began to modernise it's aesthetic, introducing an updated version of its cruiser jacket in a cleaner, slimmer fit and named it the 'Seattle fit.'
This, along with the gifting along with the select gifting of Filson pieces to musicians and influencers, saw the brand began to take its brand positioning a lot more seriously. By associating themselves with both their traditional customer alongside reaching out to designers, artists, indie bands and musicians such as Umble and Mumford & Sons.
In the modern day, Filson stick to their guns when it comes to the marriage of heritage and fashion. In their opinion, the two are intrinsically connected:
Filson has never gone down the road of fashion, our products are built for purpose. Heritage is an asset we have, but it’s not our strategy.
- Alan Kirk, Filson CEO
These days, while maintaining their unique aesthetic steeped in heritage, Filson now produce waxed canvas coats, wool shirts, leather accessories, underwear, waders and hunting vests. While their prices are now comparable to other high-end, quality brands, they maintain the idea that their pieces are built for longevity with a lifetime guarantee on most pieces. Hoping that you'll buy fewer things and keep them forever.
Maintaining the aesthetic roots of the company, the Filson store in Seattle preserves the rugged charm of the brand with dark wood trimmings and dark, subtle lighting to give off the same feeling as the light of a forest in autumn. On the exterior, they've gone for a similar approach, however, you'd never guess that there's a luggage factory in the building at the same time.
We’re seeing this search for authenticity, something that has genuine value, that has a history, something that was made locally.
With most of their bags being made in the company headquarters, they use this as a unique feature as opposed to tucking it away in a corner. The production line is fully visible from the office's lobby, with workers and machinery fully visible behind a glass panel. This rustic look carries throughout the company with their warehouses being renovated to reflect company values after being acquired by Bedrock; their wood is salvaged, floors covered in steel panels and all bolts, trusses, fasteners, and beams all exposed - further perpetuating the mood.
Nowadays, Filson looks forward as Alex Carleton fills the role of creative director and Gray Madden (formally of Burberry Watches) stands as the brand's president. Speaking of the changes he wants to make within the company, Alex elaborates;
Filson has been in business for more than 100 years, but we’re just starting to really tell the brand’s story, my job isn’t to make things up, it’s about creatively showing and telling the stories that exist here.
- Alex Carleton, Filson Creative Director
The next step under the duos remit is increased brand awareness. They've nailed the production of quality products, they've accumulated a loyal following, but now they want to scream it from the rooftops about what they've created. While they're positioned as a premium menswear brand, they don't take the typical route of blanket advertising across fashion publications. Understanding that they speak to a niche audience, Filson will advertise with publications such as Nat Geo alongside a comprehensive social and digital strategy.
Interestingly, the brand still produces many of their goods within the U.S, particularly Seattle and Idaho. While this may not be the most cost-effective choice, Alex and Gray understand that this is key to maintaining the careful, considerate reputation Filson built over the last century.
We’re not looking to be a fashion brand, We don’t need to think about what someone in Paris might want. Or how someone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan relates to the brand. It doesn’t matter where you live and work, there’s a reason Call of the Wild sold millions and millions of copies.
- Alex Carleton, Filson Creative Director
Here at the Idle Man we have nothing but praise for the Filson brand and their unique, yet admirable, take on business. The modern day corporate model may see more focus on marketing and 'influencer' endorsement, but Filson are concrete proof that a company can hold strong moral values, maintain its unique vision as well as do well in an incredibly competitive market. Kudos to them!
Your Quick Guide to The History of Filson
- Born in 1850, C.C. Filson originally started out as a self-sufficient settler in Nebraska, eventually leaving to travel the US as a railroad conductor before founding the brand we all know today.
- By 1897, the gold rush had struck and Seattle became a hub of trade for miners passing up north. Harnessing the increased trade, Filson decided to set up shop along the waterfront.
- Knowing the importance of keeping his customer happy, Filson often would speak in depth to those purchasing his wares in hopes of being better able to provide for their needs.
- By the time the swinging 1960s came about Filson had a global reputation as one of the finest outfitters for outdoor working men and adventure seekers, alongside being stocked in many of the leading stores across the globe.
- Right up until the 1970s the Filson family remained in control of the company until they sold their shares to a former independent distributor in Alaska, Stan Kohls - a skiwear entrepreneur.
- Although the company has changed hands numerous times, Dallas-based 'Bedrock Manufacturing Co.' bought them out in 2012 and have remained the majority owners since.
That's your lot! From humble beginnings with the 'last great gold rush'; Filson's careful, thoughtful and morally upstanding approach to business alongside the importance they place on keeping their customer happy has seen them transcend centuries with minimal advertising.
Let's face it, Filson are in a position that most other brands could only dream of emulating being a global brand that's probably spent a meagre fraction on advertising compared to other brands. Well, as they say, the nice guy always finishes last!