by Tom Stratton

Carhartt - From Railroads to Catwalks

Carhartt is synonymous with streetwear and skaters. But how did thi...
Carhartt - From Railroads to Catwalks
Carhartt is synonymous with streetwear and skaters, particularly here in the UK. For midwestern towns in America it has always been purely workwear; the midwest was built on mining, steel, and farming. But how did this over 100 year old family company end up being adopted and cherished by countercultures across the globe? 
Union Made
In 1889 Carhartt was founded as a workwear company: “pants, overalls, gloves” was their remit. Simple as that. At this time America was in the heyday of locomotives, steel, and labour so workwear was important almost everyone. Only the select few would need a shirt and tie to go to work but an awful lot would need overalls, so that’s exactly what Hamilton Carhartt, founder, went and made. Overalls. Loads of them. By consulting with railroad workers directly, Carhartt were able to develop genuinely durable and practical clothing for the labourers which were so popular that they were able to expand within 20 years to eight other cities. 
The Carhartt name eventually became so synonymous with durable clothes that, during wartime, they were enlisted to create uniforms for the soldiers and workwear for the women who would take their place at work back home. The durability of the fabric and stitching was such that the clothes would last twice as log as that of their competitors, this is how they first managed to dominate the workwear market. The streetwear market would arrive much later and on the back of a different kind of work. 

Unlikely Partnership

In the 1980s America saw the rise of the crack epidemic which saw cocaine flooding the streets. In a strange twist this would also directly impact Carhartt’s sales to a new and unexpected demographic: the crack dealers. As one Carhartt employee said: “They need to stay warm and they need to carry lots of stuff”. Carhartt workwear had a practical use for the many dealers that had sprung up as part of the epidemic, and that was soon to become an aesthetic too: “The kids saw these guys on the street and it became the hip thing to wear”.
Carhartt was quickly becoming the most popular streetwear brand, particularly within the hip hop community. Not only would those pockets hold lots of drugs, they could also hold graffiti cans for the artists out there. For everyone else it was a statement piece, something that said you were cool. Tommy Boy Records - home to a host of rappers including De La Soul and Afrika Bambaataa - bought 800 Carhartt jackets and embroidered the Tommy Boy logo on to them for industry people and people they thought would promote them. One of these original jackets recently sold at auction for nearly $4,000, such is the enduring appeal of Carhartt.
There was just one issue facing Carhartt: that appeal still had to apply to those workers that they   had serviced for 100 years whilst now also taking in the new demographic. These were two very different audiences with very different needs and, despite jobs moving largely out of the field and into the offices, there was still major demand for the practical durable side of Carhartt. Luckily in 1989 Carhartt would be able to separate the two sides of their business completely. 

Carhartt: Work in Progress

In the early-mid 80s a man called Edwin Feah was walking around a Parisian flea market when he found a couple of Carhartt jackets and was struck by the quality of the fabric and the durability it possessed.  He went around the market and bought all that he could find and took them home to research where they came from. Once he had figured out the company was Carhartt, he vowed to one day visit their offices. Which is exactly what he did.
Whilst with his wife travelling across America at the end of the 80s, Faeh gave Carhartt a call. Amazingly they asked him to pop in to the office and meet the executives. Faeh told them about his finding Carhartt and wanting to distribute Carhartt across Europe, they almost fully agreed: they gave him the rights to sell in Germany only. Not the rest of Europe. Thankfully for us Faeh didn’t really listen to them. 
Although at first he did sell in Germany, he soon grew tired and started selling the clothes, without the rights, across Europe. This illegal move was a risky one and, sure enough, Carhartt figured it out pretty quickly. There was just one thing though: the clothes had sold so well that Carhartt didn’t really have a leg to stand on. Suddenly Faeh held the cards and this meant he could negotiate a brand new deal, one that catapulted the streetwear element of the brand even higher. 
Edwin Feah set about creating Carhartt: Work in Progress which Carhartt agreed to let him run as a separate brand. Faeh now had the rights to sell across Europe as well as the freedom to manufacture his own pieces and put their own twist on the Carhartt brand. This allowed WIP to fashion the same designs that attracted the new demographic in the first place whilst eliminating some of the less comfortable elements associated with work gear. As Carhartt WIP flooded Europe it didn’t have the same history attached as in America so they were able to introduce it as streetwear, immediately becoming associated with youth culture, skaters, and other countercultures.

Global Success

Essentially Carhartt found a way to appeal to two very separate demographics at the same time: sold in workwear stores and fashion stores alike. Again, the changing face of the workforce meant that Carhartt had to adapt and, with the addition of WIP, they’re now gracing catwalks and creating numerous collabs with other designers such as BAPE in 2006. Now they’ve collaborated outside of fashion with Guinness and creating a line for Warner Brothers to celebrate the release of The Batman. They also released their own bluetooth speakers, glass sets, and other such novelty collectors items. 
Unfortunately it isn’t yet clear whether Carhartt are fully able to control the focus of either the original workwear or the streetwear to the high standards they have shown over the years. Despite the streetwear continuing to gain momentum, the workwear has suffered from bad reviews in recent years. Claims that the quality has dropped have plagued Carhartt in the last few years, at least in workwear. The streetwear side however, after aligning itself with the skater community - even setting up skate & BMX teams - shows no signs of slowing down.