February 7, 2023

Mariedelices

Taking The Lead For Fashion Quality

Why Is Carhartt so Popular? From Workwear Brand to Fashion Trend

Table of Contents

Carhartt was founded in 1889 near Detroit, Michigan.

Carhartt founder Hamilton Carhartt in black and white photo looking off to side

Hamilton Carhartt.

Carhartt


The company’s founder, Hamilton Carhartt, had been running a furnishing business but wanted to create and sell his own products.

After some early failures, Carhartt embarked on market research, and a conversation with a railroad engineer sparked an idea: he saw a gap in the market for high-quality workwear that would hold up over time, according to the Detroit Historical Society

Carhartt decided to create a heavy-duty pair of bib overalls for railroad workers.

Print Carhartt ad shows man wearing coveralls

A Carhartt ad circa 1900.

Carhartt


He started manufacturing overalls out of denim and duck cloth, or canvas, and came up with a slogan: “Honest value for an honest dollar.” 

In the early days, Carhartt apparel was made by just five employees and two sewing machines in a loft in Detroit, according to Carhartt.  

By the early 1900s, Carhartt had expanded, opening mills and sewing facilities across the country. But the Great Depression took its toll on the company.

A 1925 drawing of a Carhartt factory

A drawing of a Carhartt factory circa 1925.

Carhartt


Carhartt’s footprint included mills in South Carolina and Georgia and production centers in Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, the company’s native Detroit, and even outside the US, including Liverpool and Canada, according to Carhartt. 

But when the Depression hit in the late 1920s, Carhartt scaled back its operations. By 1930, only three plants were left, according to the Detroit Historical Society. 

Carhartt and his son, Wylie, came up with a plan to help the company get back on track: appealing to the rural US.

Black and white photo shows Carhartt factory exterior, pickup truck, and water tower

A Carhartt factory in Irvine, Kentucky, in 1954.

Carhartt


In the early 1930s, the Carhartts established a campaign they dubbed “Back to the Land.” The idea was to bring production to impoverished places throughout the US that would benefit from the opening of production facilities, according to The New York Times

The campaign had the dual benefit of endearing Carhartt to new customers, and soon, ranchers and farmers started buying Carhartt too. 

The company still operates facilities in Kentucky and Tennessee — the original Kentucky factory houses Carhartt’s supply chain operations — and Carhartt still uses the “Back to the Land” slogan, though it now seems to be aimed at urging customers to spend more time outdoors — in Carhartt apparel, of course. 

Carhartt’s rugged, durable apparel came in handy during World War I and World War II.

Carhartt factory with workers sitting in two rows sewing clothing

A Carhartt factory in Irvine, Kentucky, in 1946.

Carhartt


During World War I, the company offered up seven of its plants to the government to produce military uniforms. 

And during the second World War, the brand made coveralls for military members and jungle suits for Pacific-based Marines. Women heading to work in the factories during World War II got Carhartt coveralls, too, according to Carhartt.

By the mid-1900s, Hamilton Carhartt had died and the company passed down to Wylie, then Wylie’s son-in-law, Robert Valade, who helped significantly expand Carhartt’s operations.

Black and white photo of Carhartt headquarters with two cars outside

Carhartt’s headquarters circa 1963.

Carhartt


Along with two of his executives — Gust Feles, Carhartt’s head of sales, and Don Rasinen, chief of manufacturing — Valade created a new revenue stream for Carhartt: private label clothing.

The company purchased new production facilities and started manufacturing clothing for multiple department stores, including Sears and J.C. Penney, according to Carhartt. 

 

Meanwhile, Carhartt had expanded its product offerings to appeal to hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts, and had fostered a devoted fanbase in Alaska.

Carhartt catalog from 1987 shows five people wearing hunting clothing and a dog

A Carhartt catalog from 1987.

Carhartt


Carhartt launched its first outdoor-wear products in the 1930s: the Super Dux and Super Fab lines, which were aimed at hunters. 

Other new products followed. A rugged hooded jacket called the Active Jac came in 1975, and flame-resistant garments arrived in the 1990s, according to Carhartt. 

During these decades, the brand’s DNA stayed rooted in the blue-collar work that defined Carhartt’s inception. In the ’70s, workers building the Alaskan oil pipeline began wearing Carhartt, and the brand soon became the de facto Alaska uniform.

Residents of one Alaskan city, Talkeetna, host a Carhartt Ball each year, according to Esquire, and the Alaska State Fair hosts a Carhartt fashion show and a “Crusty Carhartt Tales” competition where locals show off how much of a beating their gear has taken, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Carhartt’s popularity in the US streetwear market had started attracting attention overseas.

drake in carhartt

Drake wearing Carhartt Work in Progress.

Getty/Kevork Djansezian


In 1989, Edwin Faeh, a German denim entrepreneur, approached Carhartt with a licensing deal that would bring the brand’s gear to Europe.

But the European version of Carhartt wasn’t an exact dupe — known as Carhartt Work in Progress, the brand skews hipper and more fashion-forward (and more expensive). Soon after its inception, Carhartt WIP was embraced by skateboarders and the hip-hop world, according to Esquire. 

The deal allowed Carhartt to reach new customers while maintaining its heritage and not having to “stretch themselves into fashion,” Alex Guerrero, Carhartt’s global product chief, told The New York Times in 2022.

Despite the hype, Carhartt wants to remain rooted in its core customer: blue-collar workers who need rugged gear.

Carhartt clothing on display at a Tractor Supply Company location



Business Wire


Carhartt hasn’t strayed from its working-class roots even as it gained pop culture cachet. In fact, the brand doesn’t market to hypebeasts, and it’s never courted the rappers, skaters, or fashionistas that love its clothes — in fact, its marketing often features real customers who actually work in Carhartt apparel.

“When you have such a loyal passionate base, you want to make sure that’s something you consider and you respect. And what we focus on are the commonalities,” Brian Bennett, vice president of creative at Carhartt, told Esquire in 2017. 

Carhartt designers visit spots like wind farms or logging sites for inspiration and test their products much like athletic apparel, “except it’s not a two-hour workout. It’s a 10-hour workday,” Janet Ries, Carhartt’s vice president of marketing, told The New York Times. 

Carhartt also sends its prototypes to a group of 3,000 workers — including ranchers, electricians, and plumbers — to test and give feedback, according to The Times. 

Carhartt still manufactures some of its clothes in the US and has a long history of union ties.

Carhartt Fire Retardant Clothing and other clothing suitable for oil field workers hangs on clothing racks

Carhartt FRC (Fire Retardant Clothing) and other sturdy clothing suitable for oil field workers on sale at a store in North Dakota.

Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images


While most Carhartt apparel is made in Mexico these days, the company does still produce some clothing in the US at its Kentucky and Tennessee plants. Overall, Carhartt employs 2,700 workers in the US and proudly states that 970 of those workers are members of the United Food and Commercial workers union — they’re some of America’s last unionized textile workers, according to The New York Times

Carhartt’s pro-union stance dates back to its inception. Hamilton Carhartt once wrote a poem in support of lowering the workday to eight hours instead of 10 or 12 and ran the company not unlike a co-op. In 1905, Carhartt implemented a “profit plan” that gave employees preferred stock, according to Vice