These days a lot of new menswear brands talk about how their garments offer updated takes on heritage pieces. It’s an admirable goal, but it’s one that’s much harder to achieve when you don’t know exactly what went into those heritage pieces to begin with that helped them stand the test of time. That has never been a problem for Filson. Started in 1897 by C.C. Filson, the company got its start outfitting men for the Great Klondike Gold Rush. The clothes needed to be able to withstand brutal conditions. In a very real sense, the success of the garments was measured by whether or not their owners survived.
In the ensuing 118 years, not much has changed when it comes Filson’s core principles. Today a Filson tote bag may be used to carry a laptop on the subway, but it is still built to withstand the rigors of the great outdoors. And Filson’s long history allows it to take its own classic pieces and update them in a way that preserves their authenticity while still allowing them to feel modern.
The task of overseeing those products falls to Filson creative director Alex Carleton. A veteran of brands like Ralph Lauren and L.L. Bean as well as his own company Rogues Gallery—which he started in Portland, Maine and was carried by cool boutiques like Steven Alan and Fred Segal—Carleton is extremely respectful of Filson’s past and its approach to crafting purpose-built items.
Carleton tried to infuse that spirit of old and new into the company’s recently opened flagship store in Seattle. The space incorporates the factory where many Filson products are made and features unique design elements like a modernist totem pole. We caught up with Carleton, fresh off a trip to meet an Iditarod racer living in Wyoming, to find out about his sources for style inspiration, his feelings about trends, and why guys can’t get enough of patina.
What were you trying to accomplish with the new flagship store in Seattle?
As you know, Filson is a really old company. We’ve been around for 118 years. Stewarding a brand that is three times as old as you are is a pretty challenging responsibility. When we were looking at designing a flagship store here in Seattle, I started by looking at the region and the geography, and pretty simply what I did was identify three areas of design that I felt could come together and create an interesting formula. I started looking at the antique photography of Darius Kinsey and at the history of industry in Seattle. Then there was also looking at a lot of the craftsman architecture in and around Seattle. The idea of harnessing some of those traditional elements and bringing those into the space was important. Lastly, it was looking at the American rustic movement and looking at places like the Timberline Lodge and the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone. We wanted to create something that spoke to our involvement with the outdoors and give it a rustic characteristic. The door handles are hand forged and depict wolf heads that were inspired by Call Of The Wild, the world of Jack London.
We also built an installation that is a massive wood trellis that weighs 14,000 pounds. It was salvaged from one of the original Boeing factories using old growth lumber. Last night we installed an 18-foot totem pole that was carved by a local contemporary artist named Aleph Geddis.
Filson is renowned for classic items that have stood the test of time. Is that ever limiting for you?
I had this conversation the other day where I said I would never be happy working in a vacuum. I have my own unique style of creativity and it is really fueled by reference. I see myself as an anthropologist and a historian. The reference serves as a catalyst for the imagination. We look at our archives and the Filson history but also make sure that what we’re referencing is relevant today. It’s really important to me that ideas from our history don’t limit us but that we use them to produce newness. We might look at vintage plaids or vintage styling, then the excitement comes from how you modernize those ideas.
You are creating clothes that appeal to hunters and hipsters alike. What considerations come into play when you are designing something that can work for people out in the field and for people going to brunch?
We’re focused on our community and we really home in on their needs and activities. Our products are built for purpose. They’re built to be used. We’re happy that urban people or people with varying style can discover Filson and find a way to fit it into their wardrobe, but we’re really focused on our core customer, who is really somebody with a no-nonsense approach to dressing. We are based on tradition, and traditional apparel makes sense because it’s not going to go out of style. It’s not going to delete itself through trends. Looking at people who appreciate outdoors, even from a fit perspective, we want to make sure that our clothes are not restrictive, that they can accommodate activity whether it’s chopping wood or fishing.
You have a history of working with quintessential American brands like Ralph Lauren, L.L. Bean and now Filson. What is it about that Americana aesthetic that appeals to you?
I have a love for American sportswear because it’s independent of the fashion arena. The U.S. has a unique style and its own voice. I think American sportswear brands get to the marrow of that, the idea of pioneering, the idea of enabling people to live their lives. It’s not just about look. A lot of the keystones are derived from function, if you look at denim, flannel. That’s what’s beautiful about Filson. It built its legacy on products that enabled people to head up to the Yukon and the Klondike. For a century we’ve been outfitting people in the forestry industry. We enable people to enjoy recreation and hunting and fishing. To me, that’s American life.
Who do you look to for style inspiration?
I look at our followers on social media and look to people that are here in the Northwest, from various backgrounds. They really are the ultimate inspiration. I was in Wyoming the day before yesterday and spent the day with Billy Snodgrass, who is a champion Iditarod musher. He lives off the grid with 120 dogs in rural Wyoming. I look at one of the bush pilots that we worked with in Alaska. I look at the folks from Libby, Montana and their vigor, and their saltiness, and how they’re connected to the outdoors.
There are so many people that personify the spirit of Filson—endurance, independence, strength, a connection to the outdoors. Usually my inspiration is based on real people doing real things. We don’t subscribe to trend magazines or trend services. I don’t even walk trade shows. I look at it like a competitive sport. I think it’s best to stay focused on your own game and not worry about what the guy next to you is doing. That’s going to throw you off your game.
The Americana movement was huge in menswear but recently things have shifted to more of an athleisure look. What is your take on that trend?
We’re just gonna stay committed to what we do. I’m aware of the trend, but I don’t follow it. Sometimes it’s amusing to look at.
Filson products age so beautifully. Why do you think that patina appeals to people so much?
It’s no different than antiques and finding a beautiful bench or chair that has patina and nicks and wear and each one tells a story. It’s about the the experience. The patina comes from experience. We don’t work with wash houses to try to make our product look like it’s 100 years old because that is not authentic. What is true is the character that the product acquires through its life with the user. People take a lot of pride in that. It’s sort of like a badge or a scar. It says you’ve been there.
What is the oldest item you have in your closet?
I tend to hang onto knitwear. I have a couple wool sweaters that I’ve had for most of my adult life—old marine shawl neck sweaters, a couple Irish fisherman’s sweaters. I have a couple of favorite flannels that are hand-me-downs from my dad. I have a Filson bag that I’ve had all the way since high school that was also a hand-me-down from my dad. They’re like old friends. They become part of your personality like your eye color or the way you part your hair.
What’s on your holiday wish list?
A little more travel in the Pacific Northwest. I’m looking forward to a few more hikes in the Cascades and the Olympic mountains. Outdoor time is a premium for me and then a good bottle of beer. That sounds right to me.