August 1, 2013
Interview By Gabe McDonough, August 1, 2013
Founded in 1897 to outfit prospectors passing through Seattle on their way to the heart of the Northern gold rush, Filson has staked an enduring claim on the hearts of quality-obsessed, outdoor adventurers that continues to this day. Last month, Filson unveiled a new state-of-the-art 57,400 square-foot factory, showroom, and corporate headquarters in downtown Seattle. Talk about transparency: interior windows make it possible to view the factory floor from anywhere inside the first floor. Nothing Major’s Michael Muller was lucky enough to photograph the new facility with its wrought iron beams and natural light for this story. Filson maintains an apparel factory just a few blocks away. On the occasion of the arrival of the new HQ and the release of Filson’s fall collection, Nothing Major checked in with Filson CEO Alan Kirk to find out more about where the brand has been and where it’s heading. Kirk pointed out that function is the best way to sell fashion to outdoorsmen of the country, and the city. He also raised the bar on tough and durable from "can take a coffee splash and some kicking around" to "can stop an actual raging bull."
Filson products are known for their ridiculously high quality and endurance through the years. Do us all a favor—what, in layman's terms, is it about your products that we can cite to quiet the doubters who say, "Wait, it cost HOW much?"
There are plenty of companies whose missions are to make inexpensive clothes. We have a different mandate. We’re focused on developing products that are built to last and get better as they age. Our customers cross the economic spectrum. They appreciate that when they buy a belt or jacket from us, they’ll have it for the rest of their life and probably pass it down to their children or grandchildren. We have always promised to repair or replace products that don’t live up to our customers’ standards. It’s okay to have doubters. We’re focused on being Filson.
Filson is arguably the king of the American "heritage" brands. How surprised were you when fashion forward young people rediscovered the brand?
There’s certainly a renewed enthusiasm for values that have always been important to Filson, especially quality over quantity and local manufacturing. We have met a lot of new, young customers who are interested in products that are well made, built for function, and can be fixed rather than thrown away. The more functional our products are and the less we follow trends, the greater the following we have from a younger urban customer. Most of our products are made in our manufacturing facility in Seattle and we guarantee all our products to last a lifetime. So, no, I wouldn’t say that I’m surprised.
Do you have a sense of how many of your customers are using Filson products in the rugged great outdoors versus in cities?
It is difficult to really know exactly how many people use our products in the field versus the city, or both, which is often the case. Our briefcase, for example, is often used by outdoorsmen in the field and the city. Our core customers are outdoor enthusiasts looking for uncompromising goods to bring into the field. The better we serve them, the better we serve everyone else. We develop our products for the outdoors with specific functionality in some cases towards hunting, fishing, or workwear; we do not focus our product development on urban vs. field.
I see a lot of Filson carried by folks on the train every morning when I go to work. How has Filson's recent adoption by urban commuters influenced the brand?
We’ve definitely taken note of the fact that our products are being used for travel—whether on a safari or a commute to work. As we develop more products with travel in mind, we think functionality, lightweight, and fit for purpose: everything you need and nothing you don't. But, as I was saying before, our urban customers don’t want us to change who we’ve been for 116 years. They are coming to us because they appreciate our values. They like garments and bags that are made well enough to withstand earth’s roughest conditions – even if they’ll never encounter such a thing.
Function versus fashion—what has been the importance of each for Filson?
We’re not a fashion house. Our most popular garment, the Mackinaw Cruiser, wasn’t designed to be a fashion piece. It was developed for workers who needed to stay warm and dry in harsh conditions. We continue to build each of our products to serve a purpose. But I think our line can attest to the fact that building for function doesn’t have to compromise appearance.
Your products age beautifully. I haven't been out to the Seattle factory but it looks like you have some really well worn items on display there. Do you keep a museum of the greatest damaged but still functioning goods?
Thank you. We don’t have a museum, but customers often retire their Filson products with testimonials of how they performed over the years. They feel pride in the abuse they’ve put our product through and want to share their stories with us. We have many of them on display in a vignette at our new headquarters in Seattle. Admission is free, and you can see the luggage manufacturing facility from the lobby.
I'm sure customers have shared some stories with you over the years about some rugged encounters and long lasting products. Any favorites?
Oh, definitely. We often post customers’ stories on our blog, Filson Life. Here’s a good one: “Recently while loading cattle for market on my farm in West Virginia I had a bull that rammed into a farm gate I had attached to my loading chute and broke the chain holding it. I again chained the gate and the bull broke the chain again and got out. Finally, I took off my Filson belt and secured the gate with it! Once again the bull tried to break through the gate but the Filson belt held tight and we loaded the bull for market! This is one tough belt…I have used your products for many years and always have found them to be of the best quality.”
Are there specific Filson product attributes that are a direct result of having the product made in an America at a unionized shop?
I think you nailed it when you said that our products age beautifully. There are employees in our manufacturing facility who have been with the company for 30 years. Retaining experienced workers is a good way to ensure that products are well made to last for many years. We have an advantage in that we’re a retailer and a manufacturer. If our product developers have an idea, they can bring a sketch down to the factory floor and hold a sample the very same day. Having our corporate offices in the same building as our manufacturing facility means we can ensure the highest possible standards are met at each stage of the process.
How has Filson, beloved for its heritage and classic style, stayed current without losing what made it famous? How do the founders' guiding principles still steer the ship today and how do you decide the time is right to introduce a new fabric or design into the mix?
Our heritage is important to us, but we’re not a heritage brand. C.C. Filson was an innovator. The Cruiser was an innovative coat for its time, and is still extremely popular today. We continue to look for new ways to serve our customers, whether it’s through fresh silhouettes or updated fabrics. We’re not chasing trends. We’re doing what Filson did in the 1800s: addressing the needs of our customers by manufacturing products of the highest possible quality.