Filson Stays True to its Authentic Brand DNA (2024)

One of Seattle’s oldest retailers finds new life among authenticity-seeking millennials

By Ali Brownrigg September 18, 2014

The Filson flagship store sits near Safeco Field, at the base of an off-ramp from the tangle of elevated roadways that lead to the freeways. Most people drive past the unassuming building on Fourth Avenue South with nary a glance, let alone a clue as to the retail wonderland that lives inside—or the legacy of outdoor gear that has been manufactured in Seattle since 1897. And in a town where REI and Eddie Bauer are household names, even among the non-outdoorsy types, Filson’s lack of local name recognition is a question that begs an answer.

Best known today to a core demographic of serious outdoorsmen—hunters, fishers, sports 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, and were so effective in cutting the frigid northern chill and so reliable, that they very quickly became the brand of choice among gold miners. 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 Northwest’s loggers and timber workers in mind. Filson patented the Cruiser that year and eventually also began producing it in Tin Cloth, a 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 for 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 workers.

Filson Stays True to its Authentic Brand DNA (1)
Filson’s new First Avenue South world headquarters

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

The product mix has also curtailed Filson’s 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 hasn’t gone after the female customer. At one point, in 2008, then CEO William “B.K.” Kulczycki launched a women’s line, which sputtered and disappeared. At its core, Filson has been about outfitting men—missing out on a huge market and consumers who are more likely to spread the word about products they love.

But the pace of growth and brand recognition may be picking up. In 2012, Filson was purchased by Bedrock Manufacturing, a Texas-based development group that acquires—and brilliantly manages—iconic American brands, including the newly resuscitated Shinola, a brand that went from making shoeshine during WWI to manufacturing watches and bikes in Detroit under Bedrock’s management. Alan Kirk, a veteran of L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, came on board as Filson CEO in 2013 to guide the company’s expansion, focusing on steady growth.

Filson Stays True to its Authentic Brand DNA (2)
A range of Filson’s Seattle-made luggage on display at the First Avenue South location

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

Those 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 continues. Millennials, as a generation, like to discover something that has been there forever and smacks of authenticity.

One of the brand’s responses to this new audience is 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.

Filson’s 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 seven Filson stores, including those in London, New York City, Aspen, Portland and, most recently, Minneapolis (which also has an outlet), are designed with a distinctly nostalgic bent, but done 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, including real leather basketballs, bandannas and pennants, Filson sells a curated inventory of vintage outdoor gear, such as fishing poles, compasses, axes and knives.

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. What’s the new gun?” Kirk says. “And we realized that it’s the lens.” Out of that realization came a strategic partnership with renowned photo agency Magnum Photos, and photographers David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry, both of whom shoot for National Geographic, who helped Filson redevelop its messenger bags and totes with padded dividers and cushioned inserts. Filson debuted the photo bags in its New York store in May, which was stocked with items the brand thought a more urban shopper would buy—tote bags, weekend travel bags and apparel from the spring collection. Instead, 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 bent. Kirk facilitated a partnership between Filson and Nigel Cabourn, a U.K.-based designer whose love of vintage British uniforms is rivaled only by his love of vintage Filson, to create a limited-edition fall 2014 C.C. Filson Collection, which features 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’s, an even older American heritage brand that would be unrecognizable today to its founder Levi Strauss. Bedrock and Kirk are focused on continued slow, careful and thoughtful growth over the next five to 10 years, hinting at, but not confirming plans for new international stores. And while there’s no plan to go into a fashion line, the design team is researching a women’s line. “We’re staying true to our course and our DNA while building the business and brand awareness,” Kirk says, “but doing it in a way that is authentic to the Filson brand.”

Filson Stays True to its Authentic Brand DNA (2024)

FAQs

What is going on with Filson? ›

The company has steadily been downsizing since 2019, when it cut its workforce from 634 people to 286. In 2021, another 56 Seattle-area workers were laid off. This latest move could do away with another 26 jobs, primarily at Filson's Kent facility.

What is Filson brand known for? ›

Whether it's wool, waxed cotton, bags, or shirts, Filson is famous for the quality, durability, and functionality of our clothing and gear.

Who bought out Filson? ›

Bedrock, a privately held investment firm that also owns high-end watchmaker Shinola, acquired Filson in 2012.

Who is Filson's target audience? ›

Filson's Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers had grown its business many times over. In the decades following, Filson began offering a more elaborate selection of products for its traditional target customers—workers, adventurers, and lovers of the great outdoors.

Who buys Filson? ›

In 2012, Brentwood Associates sold Filson Holdings, Inc. to Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing Co. for an undisclosed amount. Alan Kirk was appointed CEO of Filson in 2013.

Does rip wear a Filson jacket? ›

Along with his cowboy hat and blue jeans, Rip Wheeler is rarely caught without his black trucker jacket. The ranch hand's wardrobe staple featured in Yellowstone is the Filson Tin Cloth Short Lined Cruiser Jacket.

Does Filson have a lifetime warranty? ›

The Filson warranty covers faulty workmanship under normal use for the lifetime of the product. The warranty does not cover leather, rubber or nylon strap, battery, or buckle; damage resulting from improper handling, lack of care, accidents or normal wear and tear; or water damage unless marked water–resistant.

Do they wear Filson in Yellowstone? ›

Rip Wheeler: Filson Tin Cloth Short Lined Cruiser Jacket

Plenty of people theorized about which jacket Rip Wheeler wears when Yellowstone debuted. It looks like your regular trucker, albeit with a few tweaks.

Are Filson and Shinola the same company? ›

One of the brands Madden is referring to, Shinola, became a sister company with Filson when it was acquired by Bedrock Manufacturing Co. in 2012.

What does CC Filson stand for? ›

Clinton C. Filson would equip his gold-seeking prospectors with purpose-built provisions to survive one of the harshest environments on earth. Operating his own mill, C.C. Filson manufactured Mackinaw woolens, coats, blankets, and knit goods.

How old is Filson brand? ›

Established in 1897, Filson is the leading outfitter and manufacturer of unfailing goods for outdoor enthusiasts.

What's going on with Filson? ›

New questions are emerging about changes at Filson, the 124-year-old Seattle-based apparel maker, as more layoffs and prospects for a public offering have come to light. On Monday, Filson's Texas-based corporate parent, Bedrock Manufacturing, confirmed it laid off 56 workers in July at Filson's Seattle-area operations.

Where is Filson headquarters? ›

Located in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood, our Flagship store is on the 2nd floor of our headquarters building where we develop our unfailing goods.

Who is the CEO of Filson? ›

SEATTLE, Jan. 5, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Filson, the outdoor outfitter and apparel manufacturer, announced today that Paolo Corinaldesi has been named as Chief Executive Officer. Corinaldesi's appointment is effective immediately. Corinaldesi is the sixth CEO in the brand's 124-year history.

Where is Filson moving? ›

Seattle-based Filson will soon move the bulk of its manufacturing in the Emerald City to California. Filson was founded in the Seattle area in 1897, initially selling outdoor supplies for prospectors.

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