Filson, An American Heritage
American-Manufactured Apparel for Hunters, Outdoorsmen, and City Dwellers
For over 120 Years, Filson has outfitted outdoorsmen with durable, reliable workwear that can be depended on while out in the field, as well as in everyday situations. The American-manufactured apparel brand has become synonymous with quality and comfort that stands the test of time, making it the choice outfitter for hunters, outdoor adventurers, and, now, even fashion-conscious city dwellers.
Steeped in history, the American heritage brand’s story began with its founder, C.C. Filson in the 1890s. Armed with a pioneering spirit and a love for the great outdoors, Filson had started as a settler in Nebraska before leaving to roam the country as a railroad conductor, eventually settling in the then small city of Seattle, Washington.
His timing could not have been better with the boom of the Great Klondike Gold Rush that began in 1896 and brought upwards of a 100,000 prospectors to northwestern Canada in hopes of fortune. Thousands of these prospectors would travel through Seattle, which became a hub for the miners to get outfitted for the extreme and demanding conditions that lay ahead. Filson opened C.C. Filson’s Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers in 1897, to provide the essential items for those looking to strike it rich.
“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
A reputation for honesty and extremely hard wearing, durable goods quickly grew as stories of harrowing experiences in the Yukon were told. The diary of Hume Nisbet from 1897 painted this picture, “Try to recall your sensations on the coldest night you have ever known: try to intensify the most bitter ice blast that has ever pierced your marrow by a thousandfold; even then you will not be able to realize spring in the Chilkoot Canyon, far less midwinter on the Klondike.”
Filson designed his goods for these torturous conditions. To meet the demand, Filson operated a mill and manufactured Mackinaw Wool clothing and blankets, knit goods, and also sold boots, moccasins, and sleeping bags to withstand the frigid temperatures in the North. The outerwear became a staple of survival and Filson’s customer base, and the business grew as wealth poured into the city due to the influx of travelers.
As the Gold Rush faded into history, Filson’s business continued to expand to all outdoorsmen who required rugged clothing for their hard-wearing activities. Eventually, the workwear became the staple for the timber industry and the Filson Cruiser Shirt was born. The design’s name was derived from the logging industry’s “timber cruiser,” who was responsible for scouting forests to identify the most promising timberlands.
The shirt developed a global reputation as a piece of clothing valued by hunters, prospectors, forestry workers, and others who lived and worked in harsh outdoor environments. On March 3, 1914, Filson received the confirmation of the patent (no. 1088891) for the signature “Cruiser Shirt” from the U.S. Patent Office. In that same year, Filson released their first Filson catalog.
In 1919, C.C. Filson died and shortly after, his widow Winnifred, allowed the Cruiser patent to expire, leading to many copycats capitalizing on the popular design. The Cruiser is still made to this day and has become the standard issue for the U.S. Forest Service worker.
“The authentic outdoor and workwear brand has slowly become a fashion staple in the menswear market with the rise and demand for Americana brands and the desire for authenticity.”
Through the years, Filson transitioned its business model. In the late ’40s through early ’50s, the company closed its retail storefront to focus on manufacturing, wholesale, and government contracts. This opened the door for other Pacific Northwest brands to emerge, including REI and Eddie Bauer, and become household names.
In 1970, the family owned company was in need of an overhaul and the Alaskan skiwear entrepreneur, Stan Kohls, purchased the company. He expanded the product offerings from 35 products to over 250, introducing the brand into new categories, while taking a new approach to their business model.
In 1980, Filson reopened to the public with a few small storefronts before reopening their flagship in 1993 in Seattle, which then closed again and moved down the street in 2015 to make way for the city’s new stadium. The current Filson flagship store is located only blocks from their previous store and many of the products are still developed, sampled, cut, and sewn in the same building. The 6,000-square-foot store features salvaged wood, ironwork, and a Filson Restoration Department that repairs and sells vintage Filson goods. The restoration team will take an old item and repurpose it to use as another product. And as part of the shopping experience, customers will see Filson workers stitching leather bags.
“Armed with a pioneering spirit and a love for the great outdoors, Filson had started as a settler in Nebraska before leaving to roam the country as a railroad conductor, eventually settling in the then-small city of Seattle, Washington.”
Filson continues to make the most durable products with the best materials while still honoring a lifetime guarantee, which many of their heritage brand counterparts have strayed away from. The guarantee is simple, “We guarantee every item made by Filson. No more, no less. We believe in our products and stand by the materials, quality, and workmanship for the lifetime of the product. The product lifetime specifically refers to the time at which, through normal use, the product can no longer function in its intended purpose.” Many of the products may, in fact, outlast their original owner.
As Kohls led Filson for the next few decades, it came time for another change, and in 2012, Filson was purchased by Bedrock Manufacturing, a Texas-based development group that acquires iconic American brands. Led by Alan Kirk, a veteran of L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, who came on board as CEO in 2013 to guide the expansion and focus on steady growth. Kirk has embraced Filson’s legacy with a revamping of key products for a new generation.
An expansion of the product line included luggage and accessories to enter new markets and reach new consumers, such as outdoor photographers, with their collection of rugged camera bags partnered by the renowned photo agency Magnum Photos and National Geographic photographers, Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry.
The authentic outdoor and workwear brand has slowly become a fashion staple in the menswear market with the rise and demand for Americana brands and the desire for authenticity.
“Filson continues to make the most durable products with the best materials, while still honoring a lifetime guarantee, which many of their heritage brand counterparts have strayed away from.”
Today, Filson boasts store locations across the globe, including flagships in Seattle and New York, and locations in Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It’s no wonder that, through the years, the brand has managed to create items that have withstood the test of time. Many items that worked a hundred years ago still hold up today, as comfort, protection and durability never go out of style.
“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.”
The Filson Cruiser
The mainstay product of the brand, the Filson Cruiser, has provided comfort, warmth, and durability to generations of outdoorsmen. The original patent was issued over a hundred years ago, and the overall design has remained intact to this day with a few adjustments through the years, such as adapting to a four-pocket layout and evolving in both fabric and functional design—to serve the needs of the various people who wear it. The flexible design is what has helped it become the choice for those who hunt, fish, and work in the outdoors.
MSRP: The Cruiser Jacket ranges from $350 to $695 depending on material.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July/August 2019 print issue of Tread Magazine.